Each orange mesh bag of onions weighs about 50 pounds. I sort the onions by color and shape, which determines how long they’ll store in the root cellar. We sell the “bullneck,” or thick-stemmed ones first. The others will hold until early spring. When we harvested the onions a week ago, we cut the greens off, and already the skins are papery and dry. I handle every single onion, from the petite reds to the gigantic, grapefruit-sized whites. Cupping my hands around the round onion body, I sort for storage or “sell-now” by sight and feel. Onions as a crop are new to me, but my hands and eyes quickly become proficient. “Don’t fuss,” I coach myself, just as I tell the group of new farmers at the Old Fort Market Gardens each summer. The onions are stored dirty, and today, like every moment during this peak harvest season, I am racing against time: colder nights and a long to-do list. The interns have gone back to college, and it’s just a couple of us now, and just me today. No time to fuss.
That the onions are in 50-pound bags means I will know just how much weight this body moved on this September day.
I work systematically through the harvest shed’s shelves, now cleared of their usual useful debris for the onions to cure for a week in the light. Today, I take stock of the sensual pleasures of farming: bright autumn light, the smell of onions, a sense of purpose, and a jar of coffee. By a certain logic, I wouldn’t trade this farm life for anything. But also, my body hurts. The late-season ache has set in. Maybe it was the week I did three markets, or the last time I rolled up my yoga mat. A friend expressed concern about my liver and the Ibuprofen I take daily. She suggested arnica. But that does nothing for the taut and painful muscles of my back and legs.
In the right doses, anxiety drives the pace of harvest. It overrides the overwhelm, the ache, and the alternatives. Anxiety hones things down to a dizzying certainty about what has to be done and how soon. The urgency of this time of year eclipses relationships: I haven’t called either of my parents for weeks. My brother and I are arguing for the first time in a decade. My husband is out of town, his absence a relief. Without his lifestyle as counterweight, the logic of farming completely takes over. Ten to twelve hour days feel like the only reasonable response to fields full of food and frost on the calendar. I walk through the house in farm boots. I eat vast amounts of random food at odd times. I put on the same dirty farm clothes day after day. I feel exhausted in a way that one good night’s sleep can’t fix. I picture myself with dark circles under my eyes but never look in the mirror. Every morning, I balance each delicate contact lens on my dirt-creased finger and pop it in by feel. Resting these days is sitting on the couch with a piece of toast, pouring over clipboards and pick lists. In a few more weeks, the weather will mandate rest, leaving us with much less to do. For now, all the day’s mundane tasks and decisions surrender to the call of the field.
A peculiar unity of farmer and farm takes hold. When someone asks me how he can return a personal favor, I suggest he pick green beans. He looks at me strangely and says, I mean something for you, not for the farm. But there’s really no such thing.
I surrender to the onions. I wade in the red and white and golden skins that have wafted to the harvest shed floor. There are now more onions bagged than not, and midday sunlight streams through the white lattice on the south side of the shed. I load the full bags into the back of the pickup. For my size and build and strength, 50 pounds feels the limit of what I can lift with speed. I heave the bag into the bed of the truck, feeling my arms, back, and shoulders meet the weight. A wave of satisfaction hits, followed by dismay: I’ll have to move each bag again, into the root cellar. Still, it’s progress.
For me, farming has always been about inner and outer change. A farmer’s body has real, visible, significant effects on a piece of ground or pile of onions. In turn, farming transforms the farmer. Muscles and soil grow in tandem.
People get hooked by farming when they notice themselves changing the field as they work. Sometimes, I spot the moment when a new farmer starts farming for herself. A few months in to the farm season, Stella seemed content spending hours forking deep-rooted mallow out of the garden’s pathways. Mallow, dear reader, is a tenacious plant. Calling hand, arm, and back muscles into play, and resisting speed or rhythm, I don’t blame anyone for avoiding a mallow assignment. Attuned to tedious tasks, short attention spans, and desire for variety, I always switch up people’s tasks when I’m managing. But Stella was determined to leave behind her a smooth dirt pathway without a single weed. Satisfaction is an unsung emotion. And it’s one of the subtle pleasures we can expect a farming life to deliver, if we work for it. Stella is still farming.
And so am I. At the end of the last seven farm seasons, I’ve decided to return to farming, and I probably will this season, too. Finishing the last of the onions, I remind myself that satisfaction counts for something. I count the bags as I unload. Two thousand pounds.