Farm girl

She thought she knew a lot about food, until she spent a week in the fields

After a week on Full Belly Farm, the author was picking green beans with two hands, just like her fieldworker cohorts, only not quite as fast.

After a week on Full Belly Farm, the author was picking green beans with two hands, just like her fieldworker cohorts, only not quite as fast.

Photo courtesy of natasha vonkaenel

Less than 24 hours at the organic Full Belly Farm in Capay Valley and I had already made a fool of myself. I looked down the long row of cherry tomatoes, then at the twisted ball of wire I was holding. Petra, the farmworker who’d instructed me, walked toward me with a startled look on her face.

“Ai yai yai!” she gasped.

How did I get myself in this predicament?

Raised in Sacramento, with no backyard garden or school vegetable plot, I thought my week on the farm would be a lot of fun, somewhat physically challenging, but more or less a vacation. Although I respected the farmworkers who help grow and harvest our vegetables and fruit, I thought of them mostly as an unskilled labor force. I never imagined there would be so much to learn and that my brain would have so much difficulty keeping up.

Earlier that morning, I’d skipped in my black Birkenstock sandals to the old white truck waiting for me. Celso, a man in blue jeans, worn leather boots and a long-sleeve gray shirt, stood by the truck. He smiled from under his old baseball cap and began to speak, and it was then that I realized my three years of Spanish were going to be of no help to me.

Celso and his crew had been working since 6 in the morning. Five giggling Oaxacan women crowded into the back seat of the old truck and patted the middle front seat where I was to wedge myself between Celso and Miguel, his younger counterpart. On the bumpy ride, Celso tried to make conversation. I struggled to answer questions as simple as “Where are you from?” and “What is your name?” Soon it was obvious to them that I couldn’t speak Spanish past basic greetings and strange sentences like, “What did you eat yesterday?” Celso turned up the radio, and Mexican music filled the silence.

We arrived at the field of Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes, and Celso’s crew got out of the truck and began unloading buckets and setting up a water station. I stood silent, unable to communicate my desire to help. The women looked over in my direction and fished out a white floppy hat from the back seat, identical to the ones they all wore. Then Petra handed me a large black spool of tying wire.

“Walk,” she directed.

Nervously, I began walking down the row of cherry tomatoes, spooling out wire as I went along. I had no idea what I was doing, but I glanced back at Celso and he nodded encouragingly. I reached the end of the row, and that’s when Petra, who had already finished her row, came over to me with a pained expression on her face.

She grabbed the unraveled wire and pulled it toward herself, wrapping it into one huge, messy ball. Mortified, I took the spool and the knotted wire and tried to untangle it while walking back down the row. Eventually, Petra took pity on me and cut off the tangled wire ball. I had a fresh start and now understood that I had to lead the wire out carefully or it would fall on the ground. Nevertheless, after that day, they didn’t ask me to walk the wire again.

I was quickly learning that farmworkers have an array of specialized skills and knowledge that people in the city just don’t appreciate. I could jump in and pick green beans, but I was going to be slow and make mistakes, and not know that the best green beans are the young ones that have not fully developed but are still big enough that people will buy them.

I had to scramble to keep up with Celso’s crew as they picked green beans like lightning. Celso would yell “vamanos,” and the crew hustled back to the truck with overflowing white plastic buckets of green beans and different colored cherry tomatoes. I shrugged and laughed as their eyes took in my barely half-full bucket.

After the water break we climbed into the truck. On the way to the next field of cherry tomatoes, I sat between Celso and Miguel. I examined my hands. My right hand was covered with green sludge from the tomatoes, but my left hand was clean. I looked at Miguel’s hands. Both left and right were covered with green sludge. Feeling dumb, I realized why they could pick so much faster than me—they use both hands!

On my last day, I decided to pick an ear of corn and a melon. I pulled off an ear from a high corn stalk. It was the biggest ear I saw, a sure sign that it was ready. Similarly, I looked for the biggest watermelon I could find. We got back to the house, and I ripped off the green leaves from the corn and discovered that the kernels were underdeveloped, and I had wasted the ear. I took a knife to the melon and found that it was white inside, instead of bright red. We fed it to the pigs.

I could pick corn, but I didn’t know that the silk on the top of the ear of corn should have turned a dark brown. I could choose a watermelon, but I didn’t know that for it to be ripe you have to wait for the pigtail opposite of where the melon attaches to die. After a week on the farm, I was just as clueless as I had been on my first day with that tangled mess of wire. Before my visit, I thought I knew a lot about food. I left knowing just how much I don’t know.

Slowly, I am creating my own version of the farm in the backyard. I started small and am the proud parent of a Lycopersicon esculentum, a pineapple heirloom tomato. Sadly, it hasn’t amounted to much so far—one small green tomato. Outside my window, it serves as a constant reminder of just how disconnected I was before my visit to Full Belly Farm, and how much more I have to learn. Could it really be more complicated than dig, plant, water, wait?

In short, yes.