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A long winter.

Call it the “winter of our discontent”.

A fledgling organic farming operation commences, a first harvest of pecans comes in, and energy is flowing through all who are connected with the enterprise. Every challenge is met with the determined force of pioneers; a solution will be found to overcome any obstacle. The pecan crop is small, by conventional standards, but the market is strong and anxious buyers are willing to deal with the new, unsophisticated supplier.

With tireless work and boundless enthusiasm, the winter vegetable crops are seeded into newly worked land that has lain fallow for many years. Daily, the tractor rumbles past a house that been vacant for many years; a shelter only to the cold and wet immigrants who have come illegally across the adjacent Rio Grande River. In time, the various crops emerge from the wonderful sandy loam soil, and with regular irrigation of the precious river water, the plants begin to thrive.

Soon, the plants begin to mature and the rows of red lettuce, golden beets, and green arugula form a tapestry that more closely resembles a Dutch tulip field than a South Texas vegetable field. Older neighbors, who have spent their entire lives in the area, remark with amazement that they had no idea that lettuce would grow so well in the region. Across many fields, rows are endlessly weeded by hand, insects are controlled with organic sprays such as garlic juice and rosemary oil, and by sheer force of will, the crop is brought to a harvest ready climax.

And then, the nightmare begins. Upbeat solicitations to potential buyers are met with the disdain normally reserved for telemarketers selling long distance phone service. Unfamiliarity with the industry standards for packaging results in a long series of unpleasant phone calls and a stream of returned product. Visits to the farm from ‘field buyers’ take on an almost comedic quality; if there is one damaged plant in the field, you can almost guarantee that the buyer will stop his car near the plant and walk right up to the offending vegetation.

The nightmare now morphs and seems to acquire a life of its own. It is actively working against us, waiting for the moment we are most vulnerable and striking us with catastrophic blows. A refrigeration unit on our delivery truck malfunctions and a five thousand dollar load is reduced to a mass of rotting boxes. A single day temperature spike over ninety degrees causes some mild yellowing in the outer leaves of the spinach crop; the slight damage is ruinous to the crops salability. It is the one crop we have that actually has some market demand; now, it only awaits the disk plow that will return it to the soil.

The vibrant energy of the fall pecan harvest and the holiday season has dissipated; the mood around the farm is matched only by the bare, leafless trees set against the gray winter sky. The unspoken emotions of farming now threaten to color every verbal communication, from the helplessness that nature can induce to the anger provoked by the uncaring market. The knowledge that we are feeding our fellow people, and the confidence that comes from that, doesn’t seem to be able to sustain our spirits.

And then, when it is most needed, a small sign appears, gently reminding us that great force of nature can lift us from our winter abyss. The pecan trees begin, in a slow, cautious process, to shed their brown bud sheaths, and expose their small, tender green leaves to the sun. The tentative coming out of the leaves reminds us all that the current season, with all of its problems and missed opportunities, will pass and that a new day is here. Our energy can once again be rekindled, and focused on giving the trees the care they need during the long summer months to produce a bountiful harvest.

It has been a long, confounding winter, and the best that can be said for it is that “we learned a lot…”, a gentle euphemism that fails to convey the range of emotions that the events of the period produced. But in that phrase is the kernel of truth that will propel us forward, for we did learn a lot, about growing organic vegetables, harvesting them, and getting them to market. We will plant our spring crops, we will nurture our trees, and we will do what we have to do to be successful. This is not an easy business, but, as we like to remind ourselves, it is a necessary business.

Written on Friday, 15 April 2005 00:00 by Bob Ackerley