Thursday, October 8, 2009

Our farmer

A member of our CSA, on our farm's Facebook page, laying out a week's small share on the counter, and sharing the photo with the world.

Today was the last day of the year to pick up produce from our farmer. Our farmer is an old punk rocker, now a single dad and farmer. His son (who is maybe 6?) was enthusiastically shilling the hen-of-the-woods mushrooms that our farmer was selling as an extra if we wanted to add it to our regular farm share: "It's fifteen dollars! You have to buy them!" No thank you, I said, bemused.

This last couple of pick-ups are extras beyond what we originally expected. We'd negotiated which of our two-out-of-three bonus sessions we'd attend, because we're going off on vacation soon, and getting married. He remembered this, and cut me off a hunk of hen-of-the-woods mushroom and said, "You're getting married, right?" Yep. "It's a gift." His son, still in salesman mode, shouted, "Fifteen dollars!" No, our farmer told him, it's a gift.

Our farmer has been frustrated and disappointed all season. Earlier this summer, the weather was so lousy that even our NPR station had started doing lengthy stories about the fact that it was raining; and we heard him on the radio talking about how the rainy weather had flooded out his corn. That was how we knew we were able to prepare ourselves for the disappointment of not getting any corn from our farmer later in the summer. We did get lots of good greens, though, and turnips, and radishes, and green beans, and cilantro, and kale, and some green tomatoes and some red ones. It was a tough year for our farmer. He was a little bitter, a little sad-seeming, and a lot apologetic at the end of the season.

But we were happy. It was our first season with a community supported agriculture program, and although it was apparently a bad year for our farmer, it made a tough summer a little sweeter to go get our produce from our farmer every week. Every Thursday we'd go to a corner about six blocks from our house, where he'd have a truck pulled into someone's driveway, handing out produce, often with some other guy who looked like he was probably an old punk rocker too. (Old punk rockers don't wear punk clothes any more. I'm not sure why old punk rockers look like they were once punk rockers, but there's a look. I think there are a lot of people in Narcotics Anonymous who look like that.)

"Large or small?" he'd ask when we approached--the two categories of shares. We had a small share for the two of us, so we'd hear instructions something like "One each of each of these, then a pound of the beans, and three peppers." We'd fill one of those reusable grocery bags with our loot for the week, and come home and have farm dinner--this year, very often roasted root vegetables and a salad, and then from the big store, maybe some turkey sausage or some chicken. Everything tasted great, and it was pleasing too: it was from our farmer.

There is no particular reason that all kinds of people couldn't have a farmer. Back in my hometown in California, there were Hmong families taking spots of empty land in poor neighborhoods, and farming the hell out of those little spots, suddenly bursting with green. They fed their own families, I'm sure; but with just a bit more land--knock down a couple foreclosed homes that aren't getting sold, till the land, and make a neighborhood farm--you could imagine these folks becoming neighborhood farmers, so that people would amble down the street and pick up the week's produce from their farmer.

I know from my dad--who's spent his life thinking about stuff like this, and in many ways dreaming of the day that ordinary people would be talking about going to their farmer like they talk about going to their doctor or their hair cutter--that there are all kinds of reasons this is harder than it sounds. Still, I'm kind of incredulous and pleased that by paying a sum up front that is almost certainly less than what we spent on produce last year over the same amount of time, we got great produce every week, from an old punk rocker who we can call our farmer.

Our farmer: there is something about these kinds of relationships that is different than the more fragmented retail marketplace, something that is important and good. It is how I want people to feel about having me as their doctor; I want them to see me in good times and bad. And even when they see that I'm frustrated with the insurance system, or apologetic that I'm running late, I want them to feel that I am their doctor, like I feel that my farmer is my farmer; and to feel like, at the end of the summer, they got a decent deal even in a bum year.

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