on tomatoes and improvising

Maria Robledo

Maria Robledo

“I guess you win some and you lose some”, my friend Keith Stewart wrote in an email. “Last year was a winner. This year, I think, will not be.”

Like many farmers in the Northeast, Keith’s tomatoes have been hit hard by late blight, the same spore-born disease that caused the Irish Potato famine in the mid-19th century. The epidemic started with blighted seedlings sold to home gardeners by Walmart, Lowe’s, Kmart and Home Depot. Once the spores were released into the environment, relentlessly wet, windy weather encouraged them to spread and flourish: a perfect storm. A picture in the New York Times food section recently showed Keith hurling blighted tomato plants, that he’d grown from seed, into a deep pit (a grave, really). Keith estimates his losses will be around $40,000, which is not as bad as some.

Keith’s words remind me that to farm is to face uncontrollable forces – both natural and man-made – on a daily basis. Farmers solve problems, think on their feet, improvise constantly. Vulnerability and risk are part of the deal.

Chris Ramirez for the New York Times

Chris Ramirez for the New York Times

Over the years, I’ve listened to Keith describe summers of rain or drought, tractor mishaps, the politicization of organics, and other trials, along with the many daily pleasures of his life as a farmer that he embarked on at age forty having fled the corporate world. Not the least of these pleasures is the community of city folk-cum-friends who stop by his stand to buy his legendary garlic, tomatoes, potatoes and greens, and to chat. Some ask advice about their experiments in urban farming, or how to cook sorrel or lovage or another of the many treasures Keith offers; some want to discuss the politics of farming in the 21st century America, or share a piece of writing they are working on. All come to fortify their connection to Keith’s farm and Keith’s way, which they glean from knowing him, and from reading his articles and book.

keith-tomatoesgray3

Jennifer May for The New York Times

Keith faces the ups-and-downs of his farming life squarely and seems to find strength and meaning in doing so, in the earth itself, in nature’s cycles of gain and loss, birth and death. His equanimity in the face of late blight reminds me also that in any endeavor where we are really going at things head-on, we stand the chance of reward and of loss. We choose a path full of uncertainty for the richness it also yields.

Flavia Bacarella

Flavia Bacarella

Some resources:

You can read Keith’s writings on the farming life in his book It’s a Long Way to a Tomato: Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life (with wonderful wood-cut illustrations by his wife Flavia Bacaralla) and in the essays he writes for The Valley Table, a magazine about farming, food and cuisine in the Hudson Valley.

What to do?  I’ve been mulling this question for days and found some answers – along with nuanced thought on the crisis – in Dan Barber‘s op-ed piece in Sunday’s New York times.

In addition: Support your local farmers. Dealing with late blight which, in addition to tomatoes, attacks potatoes, eggplant, onions, shallots, peppers, and a number of other vegetables, means that many farmers have to take costly measures to try to contain it; and spending money will drive prices up. Understand the reasons prices may be high, and continue to buy from your local farmers in whatever way you can. If they don’t have tomatoes or potatoes, buy what they do have.

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