One of the farmers besides Jerome Lange who supplies stuff to Good Foods Coop in Lexington is Daniel Burkholder, a Mennonite who has lived near Jerome for eighteen years. Daniel’s specialty is organic greenhouse tomatoes, and they are good—we’ve bought a couple of boxes of them through Nolt’s in the past few weeks, and they were ripe and flavorful, a real treat so early in the season. Though he got a late start this year, he usually has them available by the end of March.
I’ve been making produce deliveries to Lexington for Jerome for the past few weeks, and the buyers are always glad to see Daniel’s tomatoes. But they were particularly excited when I brought the first delivery of blueberries a couple of weeks ago. These are sweet and plump and organically grown, and draw a good price. There is even a cancer researcher who is using them in his studies. Daniel is known for the quality of his blueberries, and is proud of the fact that he grows them differently than the agricultural researchers suggest, yet gets better results.
Saturday Jerome called and told me that Daniel had asked him if he could help pick blueberries today; he said he was too busy, but wanted to know if we were interested in helping out. Interested? You bet! So he told me to go over to see Daniel and arrange it. In fact, I had never met Daniel before Saturday, even though Jerome had taken me by his place three times, because Daniel is usually out working in the fields. But I stopped by and he was there, and we chatted for nearly an hour on his back step about tomatoes and blueberries and organic farming and country life, and somewhere in there I arranged for our family to come over Monday morning and help out.
We showed up at 8am, bright and early for us, particularly since it is a 30 minute drive to the Burkholder farm. Normally they would have put us to shame by having gotten up before dawn and being out and picking by 7am, but it turns out that last night the church youth came over to their place at 4pm for volleyball and dinner and a couple of hours of singing, didn’t start leaving until 10pm, and the family hadn’t gotten to bed before midnight, so they slept in a bit and were just getting started as we arrived.
Debbie and the kids went straight with Mrs. Burkholder and some of her nine children to pick blueberries, but Daniel thought I might like to help with one of the morning chores. The Burkholders have started growing field tomatoes in addition to the greenhouse tomatoes, and he needed to add some “fencing” to a couple of rows. The rows of plants are about 250 feet long, with tall stakes driven into the ground every five feet. Rather than using trellises or cages, Daniel will go down the rows and run a string, wrapping it once around each stake, with the string being about four inches higher than the one before. The string is run down one side of the row, and then up the other, with the plants being held between the strings on either side.
To run the string, Daniel uses a stake with holes drilled on both ends. He puts on a belt to which is attached a box of string, threads the string through the holes, then uses the stake to feed out string as he walks down the rows, wrapping it around each stake in the ground, making sure the top of the plant is inside and held up by the string. After doing twenty or so stakes himself, he handed me the apparatus (but kept the belt on himself—we both laughed when I tried to put it on and found it wouldn’t reach around my waist) and for about an hour I fed out line and wrapped stakes as he kept the plants in position and generally corrected my sloppy work.
And of course we talked. It made me think of the passage from Eric Brende’s book “Better Off”, where he discovered for himself that manual labor can become a semi-automatic activity, leaving your brain free to hold a conversation. We talked about modern living and farm life and the Bible, and soon enough an hour had gone by and the work was done. It hadn’t gone by for me as easily as it probably would for Daniel—it was cool but humid so the sweat was pouring down my face, and I never did figure out how to hold the stick properly so that tension was maintained while the line fed out, and my hands were tired and hurting a bit by the end, and I didn’t feel like I did a very good job. But the job was done, and the talk was pleasant.
Next we went to the tomato greenhouse and he showed me what seems like a very clever setup. Strings are suspended from spools attached to rods that run the length of the greenhouse; these are what the vines climb as they grow. The vines will grow taller than the roof of the greenhouse, so the procedure is to periodically come along, shift each spool to the side so that the vine now has more room, then take the lowest clip on the vine (no longer needed, since it is touching the floor) and attach it to the top of the vine. Daniel moved along one of the eight rows of vines, adjusting them sideways, removing suckers, checking on how his treatment for his aphid problem was progressing. And of course we continued to talk.
Later Daniel had to go off and do a few things, so I went to help with the blueberry picking. Which for me turned out to be keeping an eye on the little ones as Debbie and Maggie picked; the area where they were picking was tight quarters, and they were being especially careful to get a certain quality of berry for the cancer researcher, so I thought it would be better to leave them to it. Eventually the berries were picked, and we picked a half-gallon or so for ourselves and took our leave.
Some of you who are reading will be very jealous of us for this, and rightfully so. This is the sort of relationship we’ve been hoping to develop with the local Amish and Mennonites, and so we’re pleased as can be that it has already started to happen.