A Sense of Place Fall 2010

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Harvest Basket
Story and photos by Jennifer Greene

“I really don’t think we should be doing this.” Rafael was standing with his hands on his hips and looking at me. I was on the ground, trying to roll under a barbed wire fence without snagging. “Doing what?” I meant it. Which part of this miserable hot afternoon shouldn’t we be doing?

I had cleared the fence and was picking up a hacksaw, which had made it there ahead of me. I was filthy and irritable. “Well,” said my suddenly real-estate-law-expert child, “for starters we are trespassing, there could be a bull in here, we don’t have permission to take more parts from her harvester, and. . . .”

I stopped him mid-sentence. “I need your help, Mr. Follow-All-the-Rules. Come on.”

Harvesting the grain in August and September is a miserable job and on this Jennifer-does-everything farm, the task of keeping the combine going day after day falls to yours truly, and, well, I hate it. But I love the grain, and we do strange things for those we love. Wheat, which is a grass, begins to seed in June. Gradually the seed dries down, converting its sugars to starch and protein. By mid-August, it becomes hard but not too brittle, and as we rub the heads of grain, the seed falls into our hand. It’s time.

We harvest our grain with an old All Crop Harvester, a combine, but we stretch the meaning of all. I’m sure the noble inventers of this machine did not have in mind the numerous grains I grow. For days it will hum and purr cutting easy crops like millet, and then we will move onto a temperamental one like rye or buckwheat. The fur flies. Old tractor chains snap, belts hop, bearings wear, clutches grow soft. It’s 105 degrees, and the process of harvesting grinds to halt. I have learned to function on automatic at times like these, absolutely no wishy-washy thoughts like retiring from farming and becoming a stock broker. Onward weary soldiers.

I hop into the car and drive ten miles across the valley to my parts store: an old abandoned combine that has seconded as target practice for generations of boys, thirded as a nut depository for generations of squirrels, and sunk at least two feet into the ground, making crawling under it to hacksaw a bearing off the bottom of a feed auger close to impossible.

I hop into the car and drive ten miles across the valley to my parts store: an old abandoned combine that has seconded as target practice for generations of boys, thirded as a nut depository for generations of squirrels, and sunk at least two feet into the ground, making crawling under it to hacksaw a bearing off the bottom of a feed auger close to impossible.

But I am on automatic; the bearing must come off, so it will. Rafael is there to hand me tools. He homeschools. I’m supposed to be teaching him, which nags at my conscience enough that immediately after asking Rafael for yet another tool, I quiz him on the date Columbus first set sail.

1492. That’s how many squirrel nuts and mouse droppings have fallen on my head after I have finally sawn off the part I need. On the way home, I am practically cuddling the bearing. We stop at the gas station for a promised soda. Rafael looks at me imploringly; he knows me, he knows that I will bring the old greasy part in the store with me. He knows I actually think someone will steal my precious combine part. His eleven-year-old self will be embarrassed if his mom is carrying an old greasy machine part into a Chevron (especially if she’s cuddling it). He’s tired, I’m tired, and neither of us has spoken a word. We know all this about each other. I sigh and gesture to toss it onto the car seat. Rafael sighs. “Here,” he reaches his hand out, “I’ll carry it, you get the soda.” Ah. . . it turns out Rafael has learned something today. He’s learned sympathy. He’s learned that his mom works hard, and he knows in a way more intimate than probably most any child where grain comes from and how one processes it into food.

The first year I ran the harvester, I didn’t do it alone. Grandpa David helped. David showed up in our driveway the summer I first moved here. We had the combine parked out front.

If you are a single lady moving to a remote rural area and you want to meet guys, forget the make-up. Instead, park a hopelessly old combine in your driveway. Guys just can’t resist; curiosity and the universal male desire to help will have your driveway simply cluttered with men. Grandpa David was one of them. Except that he had grown up on a farm, had farmed and fixed things his whole life. During harvests, he showed up every afternoon at 4:00 pm, hopped on the combine, and away we went. He drove and I sat in back changing grain bags as they filled—changing grainbags and yelling at David.

I argued with David a lot as we harvested. The combine cuts only when it runs in a straight line, so during turns, it doesn’t cut. It was hot and noisy out there, and to reduce my discomfort, I wanted David to round the corners instead of backing the combine at each turn so he could come at each row straight-on. At the end of each row, over the roar of the combine, I screamed and yelled for him to quit backing up to harvest every last piece of grain. David completely ignored me. He would smile and wave, pretend he couldn’t hear me, and harvest the field as he thought it ought to be harvested, without any waste. It was impossible for David to waste anything, and he had to honor this value.

This past July, David died. He had known his prognosis but told no one. He wanted to keep working and living in his own home. As Rafael, my eleven-year-old, said, “He died with his boots on, didn’t he, mom?” He did, and I miss him, especially during harvest.

Combining or harvesting grain is a three in one process. The combine is pulled through the field with a cutting mechanism out front; in the case of our combine, it’s a sickle mower. Back in the olden days the grain was cut with a scythe, bundled, and taken to a central area to be threshed. There are still many places in the world where people cut and thresh by hand, banging the seed heads against a hard surface or allowing animals to walk over it to dislodge the grain from the plant and the husk. Then the chaff must be separated from the seed, winnowed, a process that is usually done by airflow since the lighter chaff blows away. We see pictures of women from all over the world throwing grain or beans into the air from baskets and the wind taking the chaff away.

We have mechanized the harvest here on Windborne Farm. The combine cuts the grain, carries it up a conveyor belt, and feeds it into a metal cylinder that bangs the heck out of it. Then the straw and chaff and seed travel over a series of straw walkers (another kind of conveyor), where the seed falls down into a compartment and is fanned to have chaff removed. Next the seed is augured across the combine, up a long tube, and out a spout. I have to grudgingly admit these lots and lots of moving parts (when they are working) do an amazing job of processing tons and tons of wheat, barley, rye, oats and millet.

Our harvest of seeds in the fall is not limited to grains or beans but also encompasses saving seeds for next year’s planting of crops. I have come to think of on-farm seed saving as the cornerstone of sustainable agriculture. On a personal level, I love it. Like humans, plants perform amazing transformations when they complete their entire life cycle. I let the plants I grow, those few I haven’t harvested, go the whole way, do their thing in its entirety.

A normal, docile head of lettuce, if you let it go to seed, will bust itself open, sprout a stalk up through its center, elongate, and then burst forth with hundreds of tiny flowers. It doesn’t stop there, though; if you don’t plow it under in haste to end the season, it will shower you with lettuce seed, enough to plant thousands more of its kind. It’s mind blowing. How could anything go through such a total transformation and then end it all with such a brilliant gesture of generosity? Witnessing this, I’ve become a better mother. My teenagers each in their turn will become amazing. I’ve seen it in my garden; how could my kids be anything less?

The seeds, though. Saving of seeds is, as I mentioned previously, the cornerstone of sustainable agriculture. The seeds we save, the choices we make when we save our own seeds, keeping those choices in our backyards, are critical to appropriate farming. The farmers and consumers who willingly gave up the practice of saving seeds ditched a standard agricultural practice, a tradition of expressing our values through our actions. I think it was a mistake.

Simple selection is a tremendous agricultural tool. At Windborne, we plant several of any type of crop, lots of variety. Come the season’s end, we can begin to choose, to form the picture that will become our farm, based on our particular values. Value is the operative word here, the criterion for our choice.

yarn_72dpiIn our spring lettuce patch, we let at least forty heads of lettuce, the tastiest and most beautiful, go to seed. These seeds will bethe seed mix for our salad blend next year. I harvest the dried stalks by clipping them two feet down and then banging the dried seed heads against the inside of a five-gallon bucket. That’s it. It’s done. At least $200 worth of seed harvested for next year’s planting, lots left over to give or trade with friends, and most importantly, control of my seed stock.

Just as with the tastiest and most beautiful spring lettuce, I can decide what seeds of all my crops to save, based on my own integrity. Shall I save seed from the tastiest tomato, even if it required more care or had to be harvested by hand, even if it produced fewer fruit than the other, less tasty plant? Should I keep this drought tolerant variety going for long-term food security? So we go through the field, scientists, culinary appreciators, farmers, all combined into one family making choices with an eye towards the future and a desire to act with integrity on this day. We harvested cilantro seed Monday, radish seed late last week. I watch our dry corn that we’ve saved for ten years tasseling up. I’ve selected this multicolored corn for its breathtakingly beautiful reds—and for three other reasons: it is short season, it does not require high fertility, and it does well in our climate. I have leaned more heavily towards some tall varieties of grain; they block out the weeds. I save and grow some seeds for plants that produce good crafting materials with their by-products, an important traditional supplement to a farmer’s income and creativity.

The saving of seeds: seeds are the archive of what we value on our farm and the template for what will be next year. We set the wheels in motion as we choose these seeds.

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We pay still because we’ve let others choose and create hybrids. The first year I planted grain, I harvested it by hand with a scythe. I imagined beautiful, sky-high shocks of wheat, like I had seen in old prints. But when I bundled up several stems of wheat, I looked down at a one-foot high pathetic looking thing. Where was my sky-high shock of wheat? The reason wheat is shorter these days is that science has emphasized cash crop production over any holistic multi-use features of a particular crop or animal. The stalk of the grain is considered a waste and, if overly tall, prone to lodging (falling over) in the rains. The stalk, seen as waste, has become waste. The “Green Revolution” eliminated home-based craft production for millions of women worldwide. It has made the quality of the small farm less rich and more vulnerable with single source incomes. For our family, “the harvest” includes corn husk dolls, tamale wrappers, and woven baskets from our dry corn and, from our dual purpose angora and meat goats, scarves, socks, belts, felted hats, and ponchos. We want to make rye-straw bee skeps to use instead of wooden hives. Hand salve we make from last year’s bees’ wax. We use long strands of rye-straw to reinforce Thor’s draft horse collar, in the manner the Amish use to strengthen the leather. Rafael has fifty dried gourds curing in the field for a drum-making project. The drum heads? Skins left over from the processing of our “meat” goats.

The husk, the stalk, the fleece, the wax, the seeds, the processes, the wisdom, all have a place in our “edible” communities. They are food for our souls and belong in the basket with our vegetables. And then you out there, our consumers. . . well, it’s up to you how much of the harvest you value and save. 

Jennifer Greene and her three sons live at Windborne Farm in the Scott Valley near Fort Jones, Siskiyou County.

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