My first exposure to the concept of Farm-to-Table came before the term was officially coined or the concept was in vogue amongst the health-conscious crowd.
In my teens, I spent time living with my Aunt Bette and Uncle John on their farm in Lumber City, Georgia. I clearly recall that, after a full day of chores, my Aunt Bette would go out to the garden and bring in fresh peas, corn and watermelon. Those meals meant something. They were tasty, sure, but they were also an accomplishment; there was a “look at what we did” factor to them.
Now, as Uncle John would say—as would most of the people I have met who earn a living working the land or the river—Farm-to-Table has been around since the Garden of Eden; after all there is nothing new under the sun. While this is certainly true, our food and how we obtain it began to change after World War II. Most of us have lost connection to the land and how our food is grown, gathered or harvested. In our modern lives, driven by convenience and how much we can pack in, an appreciation for how we are fed has gotten lost in the translation of 21st-century culture. Many of us never have had that “look at what we did” moment.
Several years after I was married and many years after time spent down on the farm had drifted from memory, this concept resurfaced.
As a young couple, we spent many a Saturday morning roaming the booths at the local farmer’s market. As our culinary tastes matured, we began to seek out more variety than was easily found in the chain grocery stores at the time. Heirloom tomatoes, honeycrisp apples, figs, plums, and hot peppers were all new flavors to us. We marveled at the size of the chickens we‘d buy compared to the jumbos precooked in the chain stores.
Truth told, we were jealous of what we perceived to be the idyllic lifestyles of the vendors selling their goods each week. We romanticized the whole process. I believe we imagined farm life where it always rained just what was needed, animals like rabbits and squirrels had witty personalities (instead of insatiable appetites) and, once planted, dear ole Mother Earth and Father Time would do the rest of the work. Sound familiar?
The veil of romance was torn before the first spade met the under-fertilized, nutrient-starved soil of our back lawn.
We’d traveled up to the farm of my wife’s uncle—for those who are counting that would be the second uncle we have in the family who farms—and got a few pointers before we started our project. The first lesson was an unintentional one regarding poultry production. “Uncle Jim,” I said as I reached out to shake his hand, “what is that awful smell?”
Jim is a man who takes great pleasure in educating city folk, so his response was Socratic in nature: “What do you think it is, city slicker?”
Obviously, I had no idea, so after a few moments of awkward silence he relented. “That’s your dinner you smell,” he said. “It comes from the chicken farm up the road. What you smell are the dead ones that get trampled and rot and the poop from the ones that are still alive.”
Needless to say, the next several hours’ worth of farm life education from Uncle Jim put to rest a great deal of romanticism. I recalled my time with Bette and John in my teens and realized I had partaken of the bounty, but had never really put in the time and effort to grow it. I’d never had my own “look at what we did” moment. I was determined to have one.
The funny thing about rushing out to “farm” a garden is that we assumed the wonderful liberal arts education we had received was sufficient to overcome any obstacle. We could reason, think and adapt our way through whatever challenge we encountered. We rationalized that the introduction to organic gardening class we took from legendary Auburn University professor Dr. James Brown, the “Godfather of Soil” as he was known, would be sufficient. It was flawed logic.
As we would quickly learn, converting a flower bed into a produce-producing garden isn’t wholly achievable by a trip to Home Depot and two credit hours of a gardening class in college.
We also learned it’s an investment in more than just money, but time. All that said, there was a moment in the twilight of that Saturday afternoon, when the new mulch was watered and the tomatoes stakes were lined up straight, that I truly believed I’d done something great. I mean, it looked great. It had all the visual signs of success. What I didn’t know was that lurking in the twilight, in the still of the branches above me and bushes beside, in the atmosphere and beyond, the perfect storm was brewing, ready and eager to crush my pride. That night, however, I was king.
Not to discourage participation, but similar to grief, there are eight steps in the casual gardening cycle.
First, there is excitement, which is quickly followed by impatience, then forgetfulness and neglect, then comes shame, followed by sudden surprise, which leads to reinvigoration, a sudden defeat and finally a paltry meal. At least this has been my experience.
You see, the first few weeks of a garden are an exercise in patience. Very little happens; which is somewhat unfortunate because, to the causal gardener, these first few weeks are the peak of one’s interest.
You water, you weed and you truly look after the little green buds and vines extending outward. Then life intervenes. The growth seems to stall, then a client comes in from out of town and another crisis at work T-bones you in the intersection of life and your week is shot.
You begin to think, “Did I water today? Did it rain so I don’t have to?”
All of a sudden you forget about weeding and shepherding your little flock. You rationalize that perhaps it is just better to pick up vegetables from the grocery store. In my experience, this kills about half your garden. I have heard it argued this is just natural selection, but then again that advice came from a man who had crashed his motorcycle three times.
There is, however, genuine excitement when you happen to wander over and find that the squash, cucumbers, zucchini and tomatoes have somehow survived your neglect. Alas, then come the vermin. Rabbits are cute in Disney films, but they are brutal to gardens. Raccoons and squirrels are of equal merit. All are nefarious and full of malice.
When I walked out that first morning after being reinvigorated about the project, only to find the tomato stakes pushed over and the ground turned up, a rage overcame me.
“Honey,” my wife said calmly. “We can try again in the fall. We’ve learned some good lessons.”
I angrily sprayed the bushes and trees with the hose. I could only imagine the furry thieves, all animated like in a Pixar film, little bandanas over their faces, scurrying about the garden taking the plump tomatoes and cucumbers and then cruelly gathering to discuss what to leave behind.
“Let them eat dirt,” the rabbit would say. “No, no,” the raccoon would interrupt, “Something worse. I say just leave them the undersized squash.” The eldest squirrel would stroke his chin and say, “Brilliant, that way they will have hope they can do this again. It will feed us all each time they try.”
And, so, I looked down upon a meager helping of undersized squash. “Well,” my wife added optimistically. “We have a side dish for tonight!”
On a Saturday night many years ago now, we sat down to a very small portion of steamed squash. It wasn’t quite the “look at what we did” moment I was hoping for when we started, but it did give us time to reflect on the process. We had learned a great deal from the garden, lessons beyond vermin and nutrient balance in the soil.
In the years since that failed gardening experience, we have become much more educated and aware of the things we eat, and for that I am glad we engaged in the exercise. We shop the edges of the grocery store and avoid processed foods; we try to buy local fruits and vegetables that are in season. We are teaching our children that a world of taste and flavor exists beyond fast food. I believe it is sinking in, too.
My daughters would like to plant a garden this fall and would like to understand how to grow things they like to eat, because they enjoy cooking with herbs and vegetables. My son, on a recent fishing trip, said out of the blue, “We only take out what we can eat in a meal, and we throw the rest back—right, Dad?”
I am greatly encouraged by their sense of wonder and curiosity of the natural world, but also their sense of understanding. My hope is that their foray into gardening—when we get around to it—actually produces more vegetables than mine did. But even more than that, I hope they learn to appreciate that what we eat and where it comes from is something to respect, appreciate and never take for granted.
Article by Gene Cashman III