At the beginning of September, I set off on a new adventure: I’m traveling around the country over the coming months, living and volunteering on a variety of small-scale organic farms through WWOOF. This essay is about my first stop: Shannon Farm in Afton, Virginia.
You don’t want to plant tomatoes on the same plot two years in a row. They’re heavy feeders, which means they deplete the dirt of nutrients particularly voraciously. (The dirt has to recover.) You also don’t want to plant tomatoes where you last grew potatoes — the beetles and worms left behind by the tubers will quickly reemerge in the spring and sink their teeth into the fragile leaves.
There’s a complex science to crop rotation, and different farmers disagree about particular practices. Some prefer to till their soil, turning it over before each season’s planting to break up the clumps, while others argue for a hands-off approach. Either way, some stuff always goes wrong. An unanticipated rainy month ruins the eggplants; the tatsoi seeds never sprout for reasons inexplicable; a mole burrows its way underneath the electric fence and pulls the carrots right from their safe beds, leaving behind only holes.
My host here at Shannon Farm, who I’ll call V, explains the principles bit by bit, aiming her green thumb around the garden with her freckled arm extended to point out which harvests have been most successful this year and which have not. To me, every thing looks like a triumph — each dangling bean, every edamame pod with fuzz shined silver in the sun, all the remaining raspberries and melons plump and proud. The tiny tomatoes are profuse and the peppers magnificent.
As an outsider, witnessing results without their process, I don’t see the lost battles or frustrations. I don’t see the labor — only its fruits. They’re ripe, and they’re juicy, and they’re golden.