I managed a little tomato farm years ago. I planted thousands of seeds and saw those babies through to harvest. I spent days under the still sun picking bugs from leaves, smooshing neon orange eggs, filling jars with beautiful striped beetles that I would eventually step on. I spent days weeding, pruning, staking. I spent days hauling a wagon down bumpy rows, the tomatoes flashing red, orange and yellow as I walked by.
I started out at the farm a few years prior. I was in college, teaching ski lessons in the winter, looking for fall and spring work. My friend told me of a farm that needed help with tomato picking a few nights a week. I showed up, eager and starry-eyed.
I worked in the field, picking picking picking next to Ivan and Natalya. Ivan and Natalya immigrated from Russia years ago and speak mostly Russian. Tomatoes is their second language. The pair moved through the field like turtles — slow, sturdy, steady, armored in wool and head kerchiefs.
There was a crummy little radio that I always tuned to NPR and Natalya always urged Neeeeki! Chreestian stayshaun! Sometimes we did listen to the christian station and she’d ask me in stacattoed english why I was living with Andy without being married and why I didn’t have children. I’d laugh and she’d show her closed-mouth, dry-lipped grin. Her eyes always looked watery in the most loving way. She’d seen and experienced hard things and those things poured right out of her eyes when she talked.
Ivan mostly smiled, wiped sweat from his brow and nodded in agreement with whatever Natalya said. They taught me a bit of Russian and applauded when I rolled my Rs correctly.
I worked the farm again the following year, still unwed and unpregnant much to the disbelief of Ivan and Natalya. I graduated with a BFA in painting and printmaking and was offered the full time job of managing the tomatoes from sowing to dehydrated tomato chip production.
I loved the work although I was lonely so I only did it that one season. In the afternoons when I saw the Russian silhouettes wandering down the path, I felt so happy for their company. They’d get right to work, talking mostly to each other but I never felt left out. I did sometimes think they were talking about my clothing which was barely there. It was so damn hot in that field. I wore the ittiest tank top and shorts. Next to Natalya in her knee highs, blouse and wool skirt, I was naked.
The farm experience lit a fire in my belly. I wanted to grow my family’s food. Like, really grow food. I had experimented with seed sowing and container gardening since I was a child but the education I received on the farm pushed me from hobby to passion. It was in my bones.
Connie and Andy are the farmers and they remain dear friends. Years later I married Andy just next to the tomato plot. Well, what once was. Turns out organic tomato farming is just plain hard. Hard to recover from a few seasons of the Colorado Potato Beetle, hard to turn a profit, hard. Connie and Andy also grow grapes (quite successfully). Neat rows of vines tied upright like soldiers at attention had replaced my tomato jungle.
Connie understood my green enthusiasm. She had been there once. She is a writer, a cultured beauty from the east who moved west, took off her shoes and called it home. Every day she downloaded information to me. How to finesse carrot seed sowing, how to maximize greenhouse space, how to identify disease, how to infuse love into the food you grow.
I have had three different garden plots since I left the farm, each larger than the last. I still see Ivan and Natalya at the farmer’s market. They sit peacefully, quietly at a small card table covered in cucumbers. Natalya smiles when she sees me and laughs heartily while raising her hands overhead when my daughters lean into my legs. Ivan nods in approval. You have more kids soon? she always asks with a wink.
Sometimes, a lot of times, I imagine our family having our own farm. We looked at a few two years ago and I laid in bed at night wide-eyed at the possibility. But we landed just right. A farm wasn’t Andy’s dream. He indulged the exploration for me, but it was never for him. He let me understand that in my own time. He knows I can romanticize the shit out of being farmers. He let me figure out that in order for us to pursue other life goals — like travel and art-making — a smaller, able-to-be-left-for-a-week homestead was for us.
Growing food has always been my thing, not ours. Andy helps but it’s not his thing. I’ve had moments of envy over other couples who garden together, wishing for a garden buddy, remembering that lonliness I felt on the farm. But I quickly grew to love the solitude, the nurturing of tiny plants that would heave pounds of food straight into my palm.
I enjoyed several years of oneness with my plot and then I grew my very favorite thing. Daughters. Daughters who love soil, worms, sun-warmed tomatoes, perfectly harvested peas, dirty feet, the miracle of beets and digging around with me.
Nici, I’m right there with you on this one. I can fully romanticize the farm and I do. In fact, my sister-in-law is getting ready to buy a farm (outside of Missoula no less!!); but as for me…I could do a commune, but I want to be able to leave for two weeks. I LOVE growing food, hunting and gathering too. I am working almost non-stop in our yard, planting berries, fruit trees, dreaming of expanding our garden even though it’s the largest garden we’ve had yet. Going to build a greenhouse, maybe this fall, maybe next year. LOVE it. I’m right there with you. Lovely post.