It’s July 2nd and we’re approaching our 60th hour of continuous rain, which pools and swirls in eddies along the horizontal expanses of the farm’s long, muddy driveway before plunging over its steeper slopes and hurtling toward the lower catchment pond. To avoid overflow, the lower pond has been pumped a couple of times over the past day and a half, its contents transferred to one of the two upper holding ponds, themselves full to near-overflowing. The first few words of the famous line from King Lear ring in my head: “Water, water everywhere… “
After a the second full day of deluge yesterday, I sincerely hoped to awaken to the sound of silence, the rain’s uproar on the corrugated plastic roof of my cabin having stopped and the prospect of a day of dryness and – imagine – SUN stretched out before me. Alas, ‘twas not so. Instead, donning my rubber rain pants, Bogs, and puling on my oversized blue raincoat, I put my mind to the suffering of my Californian peers. My home state’s farmers long for the weather we’ve endured thus far this summer. I consider their plight - plodding through month after month of drought that has fostered arid conditions almost inhospitable to growing food – or anything! Too many have thrown in the towel over the past few years; others have been forced to scale back dramatically the acreage they plant.
Notwithstanding the immense challenges posed by drought, too much water also stymies farmers’ progress in bringing produce to market. For the first time in its 13-year growing history, Calypso’s Farm Managers, Christie and Susan, elected to skip a week of early July harvesting for the farm’s weekly CSA Shareholders. The water-laden plants and oversaturated fields stared back at us from puddles. Were we to have picked from the rows of lettuce, kale, collards, and herbs, we’d have jeopardized the plants’ growth for the rest of the season. Pelted upon almost incessantly for three days, the crops hunker down into a sort of stasis – a hold steady mode due to the lack of the energy provided by the sun, which drives the photosynthesis that powers their growth.
We farmers, too, must hunker down and call upon our creativity to respond to the New Normal: the unpredictability that renders even historically reliable, almost ritualized and eagerly anticipated occurrences obsolete. No longer does Susan explain, with reference to early July, “This is when the broccoli heads up and the sweet peas flower, when some of our favorite flowering plants burst into bloom and we start re-sowing fields where crops have already delivered their bounty.” Now, collectively we watch and wait, wondering when the sun will come and - once blissfully radiating Vitamin D and ultraviolet rays – how long it will stay.
Fortunately, we celebrated the Fourth of July by marking Independence From Rain for six days, save for a few passing sprinkles. The fields soaked in the inches of moisture that had accumulated and again shone a dozen shades of green indicative of vibrant health. And, as if in solidarity with the sun, a handful of GIGANTIC orange-red poppies – the giant star’s veritable twins – turned their faces skyward in salutation. The sweet peas became a hairy mass of greenery racing toward the apex of their carefully-strung trellises, gaining several inches seemingly in the blink of an eye and donning delicate white flowers. By day three of sunshine, even the broccoli showed off new finery: tightly composed tiny-nobbed heads that advertised delicious eating yet to come. With each passing day, a new variety of flower graced the fields: here a Zulu Daisy, there a Cynoglossum, over there a Heliotrope, and tucked beneath the white Yarrow, a handful of lovely scented, bright fuschia Rainbow Loveliness blossoms. Christie, who manages Calypso’s flower subscriptions (weekly bouquet deliveries for a few dozen flower “shareholder”), reported that we’d begin harvesting bouquets on July 10th, inviting the party of color to rage energetically and uninterrupted.
Just as the veggies and flowering plants shouted, “Huzzah!” and poured their zeal into growth, so, too, the garden’s favorite weed species crashed the Growth Party. Almost overnight, an ankle-high pile carpet of Chickweed spread itself over the newly-sprung carrot tops and insinuated itself into every open patch of dirt: between young beet tops and two inch-high lettuce leaves; criss-cross through the symmetrical green rows marking young bunching onions; woven across the floor of cabbage beds and becoming far, far too intimate with the fragrant, still-small oregano and thyme plants.
EEEK! Chickweed, chickweed everywhere! Daunted by the Growth Party’s unwanted guest, we called in Reinforcements. A email blast to Calypso’s Shareholder and Volunteer mailing list brought a welcome stream of Weeding Whizzes to our rescue. In the space of four days, a number of capable, patient, women and children managed to bring some semblance of order to the chaos (or at least declared a state of detente with the Chickweed …). We pitched in alongside them, pausing only to resume our usual twice-weekly harvest schedule (YAY!). With equal gratitude for Weeding Whizzes and the sun, we plucked from the fields the first of the season’s broccoli, kohlrabi, baby chard, tender tiny beets, and also sage and marjoram, oregano and thyme. On July 10th, as announced, we also composed our first bouquets from this summer’s fields, lyrical symphonies of color featuring Yarrow, Dianthus, Parsnip flowers, Zulu Daisies, Cynoglossum, Heliotrope, Maltese Cross, and Salvia, sun-kissed and singing with colors only Mother Nature can furnish.
We’re just a few weeks beyond that spate of ultra-wet weather, which dumped four inches on Fairbanks in just under three days. On July 23rd, Mother Nature whipped herself into a windy frenzy that I was sure would blow the well-fastened plastic roof clear off my cabin, hurtling it toward the Arctic Circle. Surrounded by the sound of birches and alders furiously gyrating, I dreamed I was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, spinning atop a spiraling tower of wind … Upon awakening, my cabin was still firmly anchored in my wooded neighborhood and blue skies prevailed, though dotted with high gray-white masses that portended a possible change in condition. The wind raged on, sending empty harvest bins and the tarp on my fellow farmer-trainee, Chris’, tent in a million different directions. Had I not clutched snugly yet gently to the small bundles of Flat Leaf Parsley I gleaned from an over-full bed row, I wager that they, too, would have trundled down the path and wed themselves with Chickweed. Buffeting wind notwithstanding, harvest we did and – bonus prize! – remained dry throughout. Trudging down the driveway with belly full of lunch – saffron rice with freshly-harvested and stir-fried greens, toasted nuts and seeds, peanut sauce, and tabouleh salad – I felt the first few drops of rain on my face. The wind kicked up a notch, as if to say, “I mean business!” By the time lunch dishes adorned the drying rack, a downpour had commenced to accompany the wind’s raucous concert.
Now, as we bid farewell to July with (gasp!) five consecutive days of glorious sunshine, NOAA forecasts another deluge to usher in August. We’re to see ever-familiar rain showers for most Friday, Saturday, and perhaps into Sunday. There’s an oft-cited truism, “Nature will have her way.” Indeed, farmers always work according to Her whims and fancies, and I suspect the next few days will be no different; we’ll rustle up boutineers, bouquets, and other floral adornments for two Saturday weddings and pray the fields dry out for Monday morning’s significant harvest. However, now we’re acutely aware that fickleness is Nature’s defining characteristic, including a penchant for throwing an overabundance of water on some while leaving others utterly parched.
Welcome to farming in the New Normal ; ) .