How I Got My Farmer Groove Back

The return to my agrarian roots has not been swift but it smacks of inevitability. I grew up on a farm in North Otto, New York. North Otto is north of Otto and Otto is a bend in the “crick.” My mother’s generation was the last to work our property as a dairy farm. She married a “townie’ who loved the country. I wasn’t allowed to learn how to milk a cow because they wanted me to go to college. But I was allowed to work my ass off moving hay or whatever else needed moving. We raised chickens and beef and way too many green beans. My mom swore off maple syruping so we made the switch to Aunt Jemima (bleck!) but we still hunted for leeks (ramps), blackberries, wild asparagus and elderberries.

After a move to Long Island with a family of my own, I was a locavore before that term entered the lexicon. I can’t bear to eat the things that other people consider to be eggs and asparagus. When a friend got into baking her own breads I started selling my pies with her at the Hayground Farmers Market. The next summer I made jam for Serene Green Farm Stand in Noyac from all of their leftover fruits. I started filling in for the managers of the Sag Harbor Farmers Market whenever they had to be away. I got to talking to farmers…a lot. Late last season I started volunteering at Dale & Bette’s stand at that market along with Jeff Negron. Jeff has since gone on to become a rock star gardener. His company The Growing Seed manages gardens for Tom Colicchio as well as for Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton and for the Southfork Kitchen in Bridgehampton.

This past weekend I crossed the final frontier and started working in Dale & Bette’s fields. I’ve never deeply missed the toil of the soil that punctuated my upstate youth—but it sure does build character. And God knows I could use some exercise between doing restaurant reviews.

Over the summer my son Teenage Boy worked for Dale and Bette, both at their farm next to Bay Burger on the Sag-Bridge Turnpike and on their plot at the East End Community Organic Farm (EECO). I believe his title was Chief Assistant in Charge of Compost Relocation and Fence Post Driving. He’s huge and strong and Dale & Bette’s is the closest farm to our Sag Harbor home. It was an even better fit than we could have imagined. He’s a serious athlete who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his brainiac side. Right now he’s applying to engineering schools and plans to design new farming structures built on old factories and Walmarts.

I myself am not the best fit for farming. I sunburn like a vampire and seem to be allergic to everything airborne. But I’ve always been stubborn like my Grampa John, my maternal grandfather. Stubbornness can take you far.

It would be an understatement to say that I now have muscles aching that I didn’t know I had, from squatting in that field and hauling boxes and buckets of produce. I have extreme pain in muscles I ain’t even got.

But I’ll go back (with knee pads).

Many of the small farms and wineries on the East End welcome volunteers at certain times of the year.

What might you expect? Well, Dale put me to work gathering ground cherries, then picking purple string beans, then cutting greens, then picking peppers. I picked about three pecks of peppers for pickling. Then we all dug for carrots. That’s “saving the best for last” in my book. Sure it’s dirty work, but it’s also like the best Bugs Bunny cartoon ever. Bright orange magic.

I discovered that I still got it as a field hand. I just groan and grit my teeth a lot more than I did when I was six years old. I think my Grampa John would be proud of this urban farm girl—though he wouldn’t admit it—that would be very unfarmer-like.

We got in a vanful of produce before the hard frost. Go team!

It’s hard work but, hey, no farmers, no food.

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