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Why We Farm: When Disaster Strikes

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Neysa working 2

A year and a half ago, my husband Travis and I decided we wanted to be organic farmers. Neither of us had a background in agriculture. In fact, I was probably about as disconnected from physical labor as you can get — I was pursuing my PhD. This weekly series will take you through Travis’ and my journey to own and operate our own organic farm. From a farm internship in a tiny New York town, to management positions at the largest CSA farm in the southern United States, and now our current project of running a one-acre farm in Austin, Texas, our experience has been filled with wild successes, sharp disappointments, and self-discovery. I hope our story can provide others with ideas and resources for their own farming projects–urban or rural, big or small, hobby or professional. I also hope it can shine some light on the new organic movement surging in urban spaces and among America’s young people. To me, our collective attempt to reconnect with food is a testament to the ability of youth to create, even in difficult times.

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It is the end of August, the height of harvest season, when everything is in full production.  The days are long, the air is warm, and we can’t keep up with all the work.  There is only one problem.  In Betsey’s corner field sits her tomato plants, looking withered and burnt. The fruit on the vine is still green, except where bulbous, leathery, black lesions deform it.  Our tomatoes are infected with Phytophthora infestans—the same blight that destroyed Ireland’s potato crop in the 1840s.  Phytophthora infestans, or Late Blight, breaks out in the northeast every summer, but the excessive rain the last two months has caused the spores of the disease to spread rapidly and exponentially.  We heard about the outbreak a few weeks ago.  Betsey immediately went out to inspect her field, and came back looking sick.  The next day, Travis and I went out too, and sure enough, we saw black splotches on the fruit and stems.  Who knows how we got it–a passing car, a bird, a neighbor–but there’s nothing we can do.  The culprit, they say, is contaminated seed that can be traced back to sales from Home Depot and Target.

Betsey is doing her best to hold herself together.   Normally, her tomato plants produce thousands of pounds of tomatoes.  Now we are lucky to get 100 pounds a week from over 700 plants.  Every day we try to harvest whatever good fruit there is.  Betsey is being up front with her CSA members, who were expecting tons of tomatoes in their shares this season.  Right now, she can’t promise much.

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For me as an intern, it was a little sad, although the heaviness of the situation really didn’t weigh on me like it did Betsey.  I was more interested to see how Betsey handled this situation.  I learned that losses like this are part of the game in farming.  Stuff happens—a bad storm, a disease, a pest infestation, not enough rain, too much rain—and you lose crops.  But what do you do when it happens?  Take the hit?  Try to recoup costs by planting something new?  Focus your attention on another aspect of your farm?

In the end, Betsey tried a few OMNI-approved sprays, but swiftly lost the battle for her tomatoes.  She was upset, but took it in stride.  Every season presents new challenges, and new chances to excel.  As I walked with her one evening past her drooping tomato field, I saw her look at them sadly then mutter to herself, “Such is the way.”  She left it at that.

Neysa is currently farming an acre of organic vegetables in Austin, Texas. For updates on her farm, visit www.dissertationtodirt.com or follow her on twitter @farmerneysa