Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Hay! Photos! (Claire)

As Keith and I get into the day of work at Benson farm, this becomes abundantly clear. It was supposed to be clear by now- a repeat of yesterday when he cut his second cutting of hay for the year.
With the slight haze in the sky the morning dew won't burn off until later than he would like, and they might not get it in by the end of the day- and it wouldn't be so bad, but this is good hay.
As we finish feeding the cows, you can feel everyone's haying related tension building.
We come to realize that we are witnessing one of farming's biggest crapshoots: betting against the weather and the clock that you can mow, dry and bale up huge fields of hay and not get rained on. Ryan, the herdsman, doesn't seem too phased- It'll all work out in the end, but it would be a shame to not get the hay in today- it's really good hay.
Ryan's faith pays off, and we spend the day cleaning up the hay barn, getting balers and tractors greased and ready, and finally taking in some very, very good hay. (Ryan says, "this will be like crack for the cows.")
I could narrate this all for you, but I think I'll let some of the photos I took that day tell you about it instead. Enjoy!

Cleaning out the barn to make room for the new hay-

getting the hay elevator down from the barn

Keith and I rode out to the hay fields in the hay cart. It was sort of like
riding in a really rickety roller coaster. Now we know what suspension does.

Balers are maybe the coolest piece of farm equipment I've ever seen. Not only
do they collect and tie up the hay for you, they also have a little catapult built
in that flings the hay bale into the hay cart!

A few for the glossary:
Hay Mow: A small section of the hay barn. ie: "We'll put the old hay in the second and third mows and clean out the first."
Winrow: Name for a long line of dried hay in the field. Balers drive next to them, pick them up and tie them into bales.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The ART of Picking Peas (Jennie)

“And now,” exclaims Penny, “I’m going to show you the fine art of picking peas!” I brace myself. I have been harvesting strawberries for the last three farm days, and I’m not convinced that I’m any good at it. Sure, I’ve had my moments. I’ve had fleeting feelings of efficiency and productivity. But on the whole I’ve felt . . . slow.

It’s not that I dilly-dally or that I don’t like the work. And though it doesn’t help that I’m picking with “the guys”, who as Penny says are the fastest pickers in the world, I am sure that I could be faster; I could be better at this. What’s holding me back? The decisions!

There are myriad choices to be made when harvesting strawberries. Ripe enough? Too ripe? Half-rotten? Do I put it in my box? Do I chuck it to the winds? Do I leave it to fatten on the plant? What do I do with this berry? And then – what do I do with this berry? All the way down the row, a hundred berries per plant, hundreds of plants per row. For a relatively indecisive person, it’s a nightmare.

So Penny shows me how to pick a pea. She hands me a ripe pea pod. She hands me a “flat pea”. She searches out a “bumpy pea”. She teaches me to know the difference by feel. She shows me how to flip the plant over, to access the ripe pods underneath. She tells me: “It’s visual and tactile. Visual and then tactile.” You look for the ripe pods, and if it looks ripe you feel it. If it feels right you take it. “Your brain is kind of thinking two ways, all the time”.

I begin to make my way down the row of pea plants, pondering each pod, feeling slow. I realize that I am over-thinking things. But how to stop? As I pick and ponder, ponder and pick, it occurs to me that I am not always a slow and inefficient decision-maker. When I am engaged in a creative process, choice comes naturally. It is a matter of confidence. It is a matter of active listening.

So I say to myself: this is the ART of picking peas. Turn off the brain; listen to the plant. Trust yourself.

And lo and behold, I do begin to pick up speed. I begin to have fun and to feel good about my work. Until I get stumped by a particularly in-between pea pod, or until I suddenly notice that I’m tired and it’s hot and there aren’t nearly as many peas in my bucket as there are in Miguel’s. And so for me, there is this truth: to be an effective harvester requires energy and focus. As is the case with every endeavor worth doing, there are no shortcuts. I remember the Tadashi Suzuki adage: you always have more energy, and I hunker down: listen, focus, pick peas.

And what is more worth doing, more worth my personal energy, than participation in the growth and harvest of food? What is more necessary? In our story circle with the interns at Broadturn Farm on Thursday, Briis talked about her realization: “There’s no choice really,” she said. “You have to grow your own food.” Aaron echoed her sentiment, describing his first work on a small CSA farm in 2002. “I don’t honestly think I really liked it“ he said. But he kept at it anyway because it felt essential. “Somehow I got it into my head that I had to farm, even though I didn’t like it.” Now, he says, “I like it.”

A Snippet:

“We’ve coined a new term,” says Bill Bamford, “and you can put this in your play. It’s agricultural bi-polar. You can stand here and look at this field of strawberries and the world looks full of hope and promise. Then you turn around, you're standing in the same place, you look at that field of corn . . . and you want to bury yourself.”

Oh, and . . .

Did I mention that I got to drive the truck?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

It Ain't Easy Being Green (Cory)

Today I was reading an interview with the director of a play that Schauspielhaus Hannover, in Germany, is embarking on this year. The play, based on/inspired by Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, is a play that has -- wait for it -- no human actors. Instead, the drama is peopled by a bunch of plants. Not only that, the project's a five-year-long venture and audience members are expected to come back periodically to see different installments...because, after all, it takes plants a while to grow. (For you German speakers, here's that interview.)

As the playwright, I should probably alleviate any fears right here and now. The Of Farms and Fables play will NOT be performed by plants. Please do not worry. There will still be people and puppets and fun. However, I love the idea of recognizing the drama of a plant's life. It's not all fun and games for our photosynthetic friends, guys. There is danger and suspense and tragedy, too.

This was my first week working on Broadturn Farm. As we planted tomatillos next to some thriving potato plants, Sam and Courtney noticed some rogue potato beetle larvae munching the leaves to Swiss cheese. A group of homeschooled kids a few weeks ago had the task of scraping off beetle eggs, but they'd definitely missed a bunch. Pests are a big problem on organic farms, naturally, and with no pesticides, what do we do to get rid of those larvae? By hand.

The eggs are little yellow clusters you can just scrape off the bottoms of the leaves, but it gets messier with the juicy red larvae and the occasional full-grown, white-and-black striped beetle. We crushed those dudes between our fingers. The tiniest larvae weren't so bad, but the bigger the bug, the squelchier the squirt. After a half hour of squishing we decided to move on. Courtney: "How did your bug squishing go, Sam?" Samantha: "I got a particularly juicy one in the eye."

Man, did I regret forgetting my gloves in the car.

But with as much squishing as we did, I know we left a bunch of beetles behind and I'm worried for the potatoes. The ones that had been hosting larvae were looking downright holey. Who will win -- the beetles? The potatoes? Suspense. Conflict. Squishy death. The stuff drama is made of.

Fingers and homeschoolers aren't the only way to fight the enemy. Yesterday we planted a row of dummy squash (I don't think they actually called it that, but it's the term I use in my head) on the border of a full squash field to try and distract the bugs from the real crop.

Plants face plenty of other dangers. Like late blight. Sam shared a story she'd heard at a workshop Tuesday night, about last year's epidemic that decimated the tomato crop in the area. Apparently the speaker described it as a "perfect storm" situation: the weather was just right for late blight (cool and damp, thanks to last summer's endless rain), and stores like Wal-Mart, trying to capitalize on your Average Joe's increased interest in Growing Food Himself, sold a bunch of infected plants for cheap. When the infection was discovered there was campaigning to stop the stores from selling, but some of them just put the plants on a discount to flush them out faster. Lying! Dastardly deeds! Evil! Dramas do need villains...

Oh, and kittens. Kittens can also be villains. One of the Broadturn kitties, Butter, decided to use an ill-fated seedling as a back scratcher yesterday and rolled on it until it broke. I'm telling you, plants are never safe.

When you spend as much time as these folks do trying to help your plants survive from seed to harvest, how could you help getting invested in whether they live or die? How can you help being frustrated that two trays of bell flower seedlings have been sitting in the green house for months and are still unbelievably tiny and frail-looking? How can you avoid that sinking feeling in your stomach when a field of peas doesn't yield nearly as much as you hoped it would? And it really doesn't matter how awesome you are, farming-wise; plants are gonna do what they're gonna do. In fact, after three weeks of working on produce farms, there's a quote I really related to from that interview about the crazy plant play: "Pflanzen sind ganz schöne Diven, das weiß jeder Gärtner." (Every gardener knows that plants are quite the divas.) The director goes on to point out that you can't say to a plant, like you can to an actor, "Here's your money -- now you have to do it this way."

No matter the care you take, there are countless factors outside your control when you are raising plants and animals. And a lot of the farmers and farm workers we've talked to have said something along the lines of: that's part of the joy of it. It's like a big puzzle, trying to figure out how to make it all work, meeting the unexpected challenges as they show up -- and taking it one day at a time.

I am excited to see how things come together throughout the growing season on Jordan's and Broadturn. Which crops are big successes? Which ones succumb to pests, weather, kittens, or their own tragic flaws? I don't think it's any coincidence that one of the most famous lines in western drama includes plants. A rose by any other name... Or that Ophelia's mad speech has her doling out flowers and herbs.

Courtney, one of the interns, at Broadturn.

There are no Spanish speakers on this farm, but there is Flora, John and Stacy's four-year-old, who has a language all her own. I didn't learn any new Spanish but I did pick up these gems:

  • "I'm yes-and-no tired." (Presumably "kind of tired," or as Stacy suggested, "ambivalent.")
  • Me: "What's that knife for, Flora?" Flora: "I think it's for slaughtering."
Favorite new farm term
Blatting. I actually heard this when we were at Kay-Ben last week for our workshop, but it's a real winner. I've come across it before in books but always thought of it as an obsolete word for the sound a cow makes. But it's apparently very much in use, and I guess it does sound a lot less silly than "mooing."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Dirty thoughts, stealth bombers and zombies (Keith)

Everything about farming is for the future.  When you plant a seed, you look forward to it sprouting.  Then you plant it.  You look forward to it growing.  Then you harvest it.  You look forward to eating it.  Everything I did on Broadturn over the last two weeks was something to do now, but look forward to later.  

I had the opportunity to plant seeds, plant seedlings, harvest and eat food.  The timeline on a farm can be very short term, or very long term.  The seeds I planted last week were sprouting this week.  That's a nice, short term gratification.  It was a wonderful sense of success to see all my little lettuces and squashes growing.  And the pigs?  They did make the big move into their new pen on their own terms and are happily eating the undergrowth.  When I asked Sam how long it'd be until they got moved again, she replied "They'll probably be there the rest of their lives."  In their case, that will be until they are needed for a wedding pig roast, or are ready to fill the Broadturn freezer with more pork chops and tenderloin in late Summer/early Fall. There's something to look forward to a little ways down the road.

I also had the opportunity to get really dirty on the farm.  Working in the soil and with composted mulch, my hands got really dirty.  Really, I was dirty all the way up to the elbows.  It reminded me of the high school summers I spent scooping ice cream.  You need to just embrace the dirtiness of the situation and go for it.  It's the only way to get the job done.   

Tuesday morning, I worked alongside other CSA volunteers from all walks of life, putting new winter squash seedlings into the ground.  I learned from my landscaping days that plants do better when they are packed solidly into the ground.  It puts more surface area of the new roots in contact with the life giving soil if they are pushed in firmly.  This kind of planting really grinds the dirt into your skin.  

When we broke for morning tea, there was quite a line at the water faucet to wash up.  I opted to use the rain water collection barrel.  It was an AMAZING feeling submerging my filthy arms into the cool water, seeing the dirt cloud the barrel as I rubbed it off my palms, my fingers and my arms.  It's hard to describe the wonderful feeling of clean I had.  It was short lived, just long enough for tea, toast, fresh Blackberry yogurt with fruit.  But it was fantastic.

I finished up my rotation on Broadturn Saturday morning planting willow trees with Sam and Courtney.  We lined both sides of the driveway with small shoots.  John stood there with a vision of the future.  He envisioned the driveway, 10 years from now, lined with beautiful wispy willow branches creating a cool, shady path gently blowing in the breeze, welcoming people to the farm.  It was a nice vision.  I could see it with him.  I can't wait to come back in ten years to see the fruits of our labor.  

While we stood looking into the future, a strange thing appeared on the horizon.  As bizarre as it sounds, while we stood there amongst the new willows, a stealth bomber slowly circled the farm.  It was unbelievable.  We all stood and watched it, I think to convince ourselves it was real.  Was it an agriculture apocalypse?  Should we duck and cover?  Were we under attack form the MOFGA Military?  We had no idea.  All we knew was, it sure did look out of place on the farm.  

I ended my time at Broadturn with a leftover CSA share.  Stacey invited me to take a bag of goodies with me.  We made small talk about the weekend, next week and the future.  I was going to be filming in Brunswick on Saturday and Sunday.  I get to play a character who saves the souls of zombies by smashing their heads with a large circus mallet.  Maybe they are zombies form the agriculture apocalypse?  The script doesn't really say.  As I was getting into my truck to leave for the day, intern Courtney said, "Have fun killing zombies."  I had to laugh. But, as I sat with the zombies on our dinner break Sunday night, sharing a big salad with fresh Broadturn mezuna, salad turnips and chives, I was having a great time.  

If this is what the future looks like, I'll gladly take it.  Fresh organic veggies, stealth bombers, zombies, dirty hands and all. . . . I'm pretty lucky and life ain't so bad.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

City Girl, Farm Girl (Claire)

Its 7:30 in the morning and I am a step behind at Broadturn farm. Everyone else has been working since 5, but I’ve only just arrived from Portland. I wander around the farm looking for workers amidst the tall stands of rhubarb, in the cow barn, in the greenhouse - and I finally spot John, one of the owners, by the pig pen measuring the temperature of some compost piles.

Relieved, I tramp over to say good morning but before the words can get out of my mouth a squawk louder, brasher, and more gruesome than anything a person is equipped to deal with at 7:30 in the morning blares out from the woods behind us. Its like the sounds of a car alarm and a person being strangled mixed in a blender- even the pigs next to me are a little flummoxed.

I jump out of my skin a little and while I’m settling back into it John says, “Oh, we think someone abandoned a rooster here.” (I can’t help thinking, “Just one?! Does it have a megaphone? a PA system?”)

He goes on to tell me that recent Portland ordinances allow people to own hens within city limits, but not roosters (Given the noise that just one rooster can make, I completely understand why). In the few years that the ordinance has been in place, he has noticed a lot of abandoned roosters appearing in the woods behind his farm. Sometimes they will try and sneak into the henhouse on the farm and challenge the resident rooster, but John assures me that If this city rooster gets to be too much of a nuisance the interns will track him down and make him into dinner. He adds, “This one sounds like a real healthy big one to me,” and I couldn’t agree more.

Roosters are not the only thing that the city of Portland gives back to Broadturn Farm. Later that day we load up the trailer and set to work mulching the large flower beds that will supply the farm’s flower share program. The mulch we are using is basically yard waste- sticks, leaves, grass clippings, and whatever else ends up in the raking pile. It is collected from the city and surrounding towns and gets composted for a shorter time than normal, leaving it pretty rough, perfect for spreading over beds.

We can still make out oak and maple leaves in the warm dark mix as we spread it between seedlings. Amidst the organic matter we find other recognizable things- tennis balls, golf balls, and plastic bags. In one wheelbarrow load, intern Sam and I find a winter mitten, three freezie pop wrappers, a tiny plastic toy tiger, and a magic marker. We try and cull as much of the plastic stuff as we can, but as we finish up a row I’m still bending down to pick out a little plastic chewing gum tray on my way back to the truck.

Its not like these urban intrusions into farm life are unwelcome or unused. The abandoned rooster will be dinner. The mulch will keep weeds out of the flower beds, leach nutrients into the soil as it continues to break down and even diffuse the impact of the rain squalls that roll through as we wrap up our day in the early evening. Even the tennis ball we unearth from the mulch pile is donated to the farm’s dog, Stella.

What strikes me about this farm is how it completely embraces the circumstances that surround it. Sure, every farm has to do this, or it just won’t work- and Broadturn is a CSA, dependent on community members to support and participate in it’s programs. But these guys seem to really have it figured out.

As it happened, my first day at Broadturn was the first CSA pick-up day for the year. We set up tables in the long barn with crates of chives and rhubarb we picked that morning and watched as cars and minivans arrived from all over the greater Portland area.

As the project’s documentarian, I had the great privilege of hanging out in the barn with my camera, taking some snapshots of the CSA in action. There were lots of people brand new to the idea, some who had been with John and Stacy for years, some families, some people fresh from their office jobs. Watching them leave the barn all loaded up with their week’s veggies, I couldn’t help but think about their presence on the farm. Whether they were work share CSA members who physically worked with us, people who simply buy into the CSA and finically support the work here, or those who donate their yard waste- they all fit into the farm’s systems and make everything work. Without the city and its surrounding outposts, Broadturn would be a totally different place.

As Keith and I drove back to town that evening we talked about how resourceful everyone at Broadturn seems to be, but the more I think about it, it seems to me that they may be a little beyond that- they’ve evolved to match their surroundings just like the plants and animals that they raise. Taking in and giving back- what a cycle! As this innovation broke, we rolled over the bridge to Portland and I went back to my urban life. I scrubbed the last of the mulching residue off my hands a few days ago, and have been waiting tables and carrying on my city bound life for days now, but I can’t shake the feeling of thankfulness that all my city living is somehow appreciated and useful on the farm (As long as I remember to pick all the plastic freezie pop wrappers out of my yard waste).

till next time-


Friday, June 11, 2010

From Here to Here (Jennie)

On Tuesday, a calf was born at Kay-Ben Farm. She is the daughter of Dolly, one of the most highly prized animals that the Bensons own. She was somewhat unexpected. And she is beautiful.

By unexpected, I mean that no one anticipated the hour of her birth. I had asked Ryan and Eddie that morning if anyone was expected to calve. They both told me: “no, not today”. So when we were making our way through the milk barn delivering biannual vaccinations to a general succession of cow rumps (when I say “we” I mean “I held the supplies”), the last thing that I expected was to hear Ryan yell: “oh – hey!” In the box stall to our right, I saw a thin trickle of blood running the length of Dolly’s udder. For some reason, I thought this meant that the calving was in progress. How I expected that she was going to give birth standing up I really don’t know. But as we approached the stall, I slowly realized that Dolly was diligently lapping at a small, wet, shining and shivering black calf. Tristan and I stood outside the stall in silence. Ryan walked to the calf and lifted one of her skinny hind legs.

“Heffalump?” asked Tristan.

“Heffalump.” replied Ryan.

On Wednesday morning, a dairy farming newbie received important instructions: wean this new baby girl to a bucket. Cool! I combined milk-replacer and warm water in a bucket. I carried my bucket to the calf’s cozy hutch. I coaxed and I prodded, and with milk-wet fingers, I tempted the calf to wobble her way toward my bucket. I nudged her nose toward the milk and slowly taught her to drink down. It took some trial and error on my part, but this calf caught on quickly and I was very proud.

Two hours later, I watched Ryan and Erica pump water and electrolytes into the stomach of a very sick and severely dehydrated cow named Sharon. This involved running a metal hose through the cow’s mouth and down the length of her throat. Sharon has had a hard time of it. She’s been sick for weeks, has undergone various treatments, has responded to nothing. Ryan is not entirely sure what’s wrong, but his best guess is cancer. She also recently developed mastitis in all four “quarters”. She’s lost immense amounts of weight and she eats nothing. I am reasonably certain that when I return to work at Kay-Ben farm, Sharon will not be there.

So I said to Ryan, “I think I’m beginning to understand the emotional highs and lows of working here.”

He nodded and replied: “You can go from here (hand at shoulder level), to here (hand at his knees) in the snap of a finger.”

He elaborated on this in our Thursday Story Circle, relating the story of his assistant Chad’s first week. Chad was new to dairy farming and it was his second or third day. Ryan was working that day in two side-by-side box stalls. In one, he had started an IV running into a sick cow that had recently calved. Chad held the IV. In the other stall, a cow was dying. Ryan held the cow’s head in his arms. “They were right next to each other, this dying cow and a calf in the first hour of life. Chad was just standing there holding onto this IV, and he was completely overwhelmed, you could just see it in his face.”

“So what do you do after that?” asked Claire.

You move on, they say. “That’s the thing about farming,” says Tristan. “It never stops moving; it’s just constant movement.”

In the last two weeks on Kay-Ben Farm, I’ve had the opportunity to see a newborn calf, scrub water buckets, relocate hay bails, wean two new calves to buckets, feed the babies grain, rake out a heifer stall, watch vaccinations, observe an ultrasound, brush cows clean. I’ve climbed up through the musky shadows of the hay barn, stumbling and sinking into bail after bail of sweet third growth alfalfa, chirped at by swallows, reminded viscerally of some story I read long ago or maybe multiple stories . . . I’ve trekked across the fields in search of electric fencing and I’ve said goodbye to at least one cow, maybe two. And I’ve been grateful for every moment.

Tristan tells me, of dairy farming: “It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle . . . You just have to love it.” On my way out of the barnyard Wednesday noon, I holler a goodbye thank you to Eddie, and add that I’ll be back. “You’ll wanna be careful,” he hollers back. “Some people, it gets in their blood . . . and it’s ruined many a decent person!”

Friday, June 4, 2010

Romance, Livestock and Carpal Tunnel (Keith)

Broadturn farm was the second stop of our Tuesday morning, three farm tour. I was particularly interested in this stop since I was going to be there working in the afternoon and will be there next week as well. It was a busy morning on the farm. Tuesday is the day CSA workers volunteer on the farm, there was a group of home school students due with their parents AND someone was supposed to be showing up to artificially inseminate Blackberry (their cow). If all went well, there would be time to move the pigs in the afternoon.

I was pretty darn excited.

Our farm visits made me think of "The Tree" by John Fowles. It's basically an autobiographical book in which Fowles discuses the essence of nature and it's relation to the creative arts. Fowles uses an analogy for much of the book. He compares his father's orchard to his own. His father, he writes, goes through painstaking efforts to control, maintain, shape and nurture his orchard into a clean, neat and functional aesthetic. His own orchard, on the other hand is left to grow mostly wild with only the bare minimum of maintenance. It is full of wildflowers, insects, grasses, sticks, stones and wildlife. His orchard is a part of the landscape as opposed to his father's which is something removed from it's natural surroundings, preserved in a little neat patch of order. The author does not claim one choice is better than the other. He simply relates that in each case, a choice was made.

Broadturn farm reminded me of Fowles own orchard. There was life everywhere. John and Stacey use the environment to create a farm that works with the lines and patterns that nature has laid out for them. Are their fields laid out in rows? Of course. It's a farm. But there are areas around the farmhouse, barns, greenhouses and outbuildings which are beautiful, effortless chaos where bright dots of color stand out against a dozen shades of green. Even within the confines of the greenhouse, volunteer nasturtiums, sunflowers and herbs from dropped seed inhabit wherever corners and cracks provided fertile real estate. That's my kind of orchard.

During our first workshop session on Thursday, John said that he has animal anxiety dreams. He has dreams about his livestock escaping and running rampant on the farm. He dreams that they multiply beyond his means. (I secretly wondered if John had read too much George Orwell as a kid). John stated that so much of farming is control, and yet, there is so much that you can not control. Which brings me to my first afternoon of work. . .

John and Stacey have been trying to inseminate their cow for a few months now. They have a bull, but he is too young to be man enough for the task. So they call in a professional. I was surprised to see a professional cow inseminator drive up in a little station wagon. I was not surprised to see the tell-tale brown streaks of occupational hazard smeared on his overalls. His gear was all of a clinically polished stainless steel. So, Stacey, a CSA family and I stood and watched as Blackberry was walked into her milking stall, a REALLY long rubber glove was donned and the insemination process was performed. Barry White tunes played through my head. Someone crossed their fingers. Blackberry was nonplussed. Stacey asked if she should cut him the check or mail it in. At $30 a pop, she was really hoping this time the scientific magic was there. I couldn't help but think that maybe some romance would increase the chances. Candles? A bottle of Cabernet? A decadent chocolate mouse torte to follow?? Maybe next time.

Next up was seed planting. Intern Samantha showed me the recipe for soil blocks of the perfect consistency. I pressed out blocks and dropped lettuce seeds into them. A LOT of lettuce seeds. If my math is right, I planted somewhere around 800 lettuce seeds. Lettuce seeds are very small. I held one hand out flat and upturned with a small pile of seeds. The other hand carefully picked out two seeds at a time. After 20 minutes of this, my wrists were on fire. I was incredibly grateful to move on to summer squash and zucchini. Much bigger seeds. The trays of soil blocks then got lightly covered with vermiculite to retain moisture and a fine coating of potting soil. I felt like a pastry chef putting the final touche of confectioners sugar and cocoa powder on racks of rich fudge petit-fours.

Last was moving the pigs. Broadturn has 4 pigs. They use them to create new garden space. Pigs love to dig up tender roots and shoots, which makes them productive little porky roto-tillers. Stacey also told us how much she loves pork tenderloin. The pigs are multi-taskers. Their work in their present pig pen was done. Time to move on. So, Samantha, Courtney, John and I set up a new electric pig fence. Moment of truth. To get the pigs to go into the new pen. That proved to be much more challenging. I saw first hand where the phrase 'pig headed' came from. We tried everything. We spoke soothingly to them. We moved their food and water to the new pen. We tried to strategically out flank them into the new pen. Nothing worked. They stood in a row, their backsides touching to create an intimidating phalanx of proud porcine power. These pigs made it clear. They were not moving. We couldn't make them do it. So we didn't. We set up a separate fence to create an alleyway from the old pen to the new pen. When they got hungry enough, they would make the journey to the promised land. On their terms.

This is what I took form my first week on the farm. It's what John Fowles was saying in his book. The natural world has it's own way. It's own terms. The more you try to go against that order, the harder the work will be. Sometimes order doesn't look like order. Sometimes it looks like the opposite of order. Entropy and order go hand in hand. It's a delicate dance that happens every day on the farm. Now for those candles and cabernet. . .

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Planting peppers and soaking up stories (Cory)

Wednesday afternoon: Penny comes bursting out of Jordan's produce stand into the back area where Claire and I are washing, draining, and bagging spinach. "You have to put this in your play: Running a farm is like a startup business every season." Overflowing with the morning's tense energy of having to juggle customers, meetings, instructions to The Guys, and the millions of ideas bouncing around in her head, she tells us about the difficulty of working with a mostly new cohort of employees every season. "In a restaurant" (she uses this analogy because she knows both Claire and I have food industry experience) "or a business like that, that's all year round, there's this flow. You don't have that on a farm. For instance, Joy, who is great, is in this transition period, because she has to learn I can't always be there at the register. For the last month I've been there, because I've been training her, but now I can't always, and she's thinking, 'Why can't you be there?' So she has to get used to that."

Today at our workshop lunch: John's dad answers Jennie's startup question for our first story circle at Broadturn, "What would you want the world to know about this farm, or about farming in general?" with the introduction, "This would be a great topic for your play." He talks about Scarborough as a car-heavy community and the detriment he sees in that reliance on automobiles. He feels what the country needs is to move towards less sprawl, more geographically contained communities, and "Scarborough is a perfect example of something that is -- not that."

Everyone's read a quote from one of those writer-types about how all you have to do is let go and then one of your characters will just appear, like a vision, and start talking ("There I was, 37 sleepless nights into slaving over my first draft and making about as much painful progress as an ant on hot asphalt, when I looked up from my typewriter with bleeding eyes and there she was: Madame Bovary, in the flesh! And she dictated the entire thing for me start to finish. I can't take any credit"). But here's the thing: Our characters actually are talking to me. They're all talking to me. And the trick is not how to hear them, but how to actually listen. How to be true to all of the voices and ideas that are coming out, all of the images and impressions they give us -- as well as the ones that Jennie and Claire and Keith and I absorb; and how to sort all of that into something coherent. This job is part medium, part sculptor, part orienteer, part sponge. It's all a very exciting and scary place to start from; but just like an actor has to learn to use stage fright, a playwright has to learn to use the research free-fall. So here's to the coming three months of being a sponge.

These sponge months started off in earnest for me on May 18th, when we had our first OFAF team meeting. I was still in Chicago, and I got to meet the rest of the artists for the first time on Skype (pictured left). We shared some of our excitement, nerves, expectations, and hopes for the summer and the project as a whole, and just generally opened communication lines.

I've been in Maine since May 30th and the transition's going as smoothly as could possibly be expected. Our Tuesday tour of the three farms was whirlwind and eye-opening. They are really diverse choices that are going to bring us into contact with a pretty broad range of perspectives and experiences -- we're going to have a veritable cacophony of voices to sponge up.

This week and next are Jordan's for me. Primarily I have been planting and harvesting with The Guys, Penny's rockstar team of dudes: Pee-Wee (the boss), Neftali (or Tali, the outgoing ham of the group), Orlando, and Miguel. We planted rows and rows of peppers with evocative names like Lipstick, Red Knight, Mild Banana, and Vivaldi; we harvested spinach and other greens, which you do by pulling the leafy part up in a bunch and slicing across the stems with a sharp knife, a motion that reminded me a bit uncomfortably of slitting somebody's throat. The Guys talk and joke in Spanish, and sometimes switch to English for me, though Miguel and Orlando are either very shy about their English or don't speak much. Over our snack break yesterday around 10am, I asked them to teach me some Spanish (I know absolutely none):

Spanish words I learned yesterday
  • la piedra (stone)
  • el guineo (banana)
  • el café (coffee)
  • espinacas (spinach)
Piedra became an important one when we started clearing big rocks from a field that was soon to be seeded. The Guys were not pleased with this job. Otherwise they don't complain much, other than to tease Penny.

"All right, Pee-Wee, you guys ready to plant some cabbage?"


"Too bad."

Their dynamic seems to work; Penny is high on stress because she has so much on her plate, but she has a ton of trust in The Guys and they maintain a laid-back attitude (while still working hard as hell) that seems to help keep Penny calm.

Yesterday we'd planted rows of cabbage up to the top of a field; I'd emptied my tray of seedlings and headed back to the truck to get another. The Guys started waving to me from across the field to put the tray back into the truck bed -- so I did; but then they were gesturing for me to do something else. It took me a while to figure out they wanted me to drive the truck up to them along the side of the field, which I proceeded to do. Completing that task probably made me inordinately proud of myself, but I felt pretty cool anyway, and a little bit like one of the guys...Then I found out that Miguel thought I was 17, Tali thought I was 19, and Pee-Wee had guessed 21. "I'm 24, guys." Tengo venti quattro años. Some things never change.

Favorite new farm term
Bolting. Keith and Claire already knew this one, but it was new to me. It happens to spinach and lettuce and presumably other plants, and it has to do with the plant transitioning from the growing stage to the reproductive phase of its life. It begins to put up a stalk and produce flowers, and it happens when things start to heat up outside. The spinach at Jordan's was starting to bolt this week, which made for some smaller, curlier leaves and thicker stems. I like this term because it makes me think of the plant as a startled person or animal. Shocked by the heat, it reacts by going a little nuts. Penny often talks about her plants as if they're people. "I don't want to plant the peppers down there just yet, because it's pretty soggy down there and they're not going to like that."