The winter smells at GreenMan Farm remind me, like a punch in the stomach, that I am nowhere close to home.
Winter in Upstate New York lets things die and freeze and, if we’re lucky, all gets covered over with a blanket of quiet snow. The slate is cleared and there’s a solace in knowing that Spring, newness, celebration, all of it, is still a few months away. New York is a cold place, some would even say occupied by cold people (until you peel a few layers back, of course). The Pacific Northwest winter is throwing me for a loop. It turns things different colors, changes the shape of what’s here while letting it linger, soaking and submerged in days and days of water. Brassica rot is particularly grotesque: enough to make your eyes swell, stomach churn, and whole body need to avert from the melting, orange-pink moldy stalks that fall on top of themselves. It comes close to being too much to bear at times. The constant off-gassing is akin to one remembered from my youth: memories from evening antics of chasing, running, hiding, jumping on beds, with siblings and cousins, bellies full and struggling to digest golumpkis, or something else made from sausage, and failing at that struggle.
It has been nearly impossible to avoid the Cabbage Scene. The farm is small and we tend, this time of year, to all walk the same stretch of passageway between Hazel’s yard, the chicken coop, and the greenhouse. Winter on the farm can be as much about routine as an academic schedule, a data entry, 40 hour a week job, or anything else. I was, naively, surprised by this: thankful that cold weather had us all slowing down but sad that the opportunity for discovery, mischief, even creativity, felt stunted. Yesterday or so, Will the farmer proposed that that day, Tuesday the 19th of January, was indeed the day to clear out the rotting brassicas and let the beds rest, anticipating a fresh start in the official springtime. Just like the idea of a New Year: clean up, move on, plan and prepare. It was gray outside but not raining, so that is what we did. I was ready.
To clear out a garden bed this time of year is to scavenge, hungry for what may remain under the decaying aftermath because that’s all, really all, that is possibly left until the next growing season. What is there may still be good despite what’s on the outside. Somewhat reminiscent of dumpster diving days when, as teenagers, we would pull day-old donuts from plastic garbage bags tossed into the big metal holding containers, behind the Dunkin Donuts in Troy, NY, in the middle of the night. There was camaraderie and joy in the act of salvaging, of sharing our finds, eating together (however poor the quality of donuts are for one’s health, it was a treat that we otherwise wouldn’t likely indulge in). Food Not Bombs has developed a beautiful model of what can be done from otherwise (mostly) discarded food in the US. And here, at this small organic farm in the middle of winter, the goal is to glean every last calorie of truly good nutrition from the land, in the middle of the day, together and shamelessly, of course, and because it needs to be done. Gleaning helps to put off the grocer’s bill for as long as I can but mostly I value the fact that, however bad seeming and smelly this cabbage may appear to be at first, there’s not a good reason to let it go to waste. Of course, if there was more of it, making kraut would be ideal.. but just cleaning it off, cooking it, eating it, sharing it, is an act of joyful resistance and independence. Whatever we can grow, either for market, to share with neighbors, the Food Bank, for our friends, families, ourselves, we should! To make a living farming feels like a scramble and, sometimes, like a losing battle. But to lose control of one’s collective, independent and safe food supply has impacts devastating for all aspects of every economy and culture: Haiti’s rice supply crash in 1980, mainly thanks to the World Bank and 3rd World debt policies, seems particularly timely to (re)discover.