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The bittersweet end of tomatoes: BOOTSTRAP AT OLD HOMEPLACE FARM

red tomato_crop

By Maggie Bowling, Old Homeplace Farm

This September I’m feeling the anguish that comes with the end of tomato season. Tomatoes are synonymous with summer for so many people, and they seem to be a crop that draws customers to my buying club and to my market stand, where they will then buy other items as well. This September I mourn the end of the crop that has helped fuel my sales since Memorial Day, but that isn’t the only reason I’m upset this year.

maggie and cosmos_cropFor the first time in my life, I know the joy that eating a fresh, homegrown tomato brings! Those who know me well knew my secret: despite growing up in a family that grew around 1,500 tomato plants each year, I never liked tomatoes. I’ve actively been working to overcome my dislike for years, finding ways that I liked eating them (dehydrated and roasted primarily). This summer, however, I turned a corner and fell in love with tomatoes. I found myself wishing that I had to eat more meals every day for the express purpose of making more recipes that used tomatoes. I even found myself picking and eating tomatoes in the field. While slicing our last tomatoes of the season, I lifted the cut tomatoes to my face and breathed in the sweet, sweet smell of summer one last time.

Bittersweet this fall season is. Autumn brings cooler days, less humidity, and the knowledge that some rest is ahead this winter. Autumn also brings the realization that the main portion of my growing season is ending, and it is time to take stock of what happened this year. A week in my life on the farm is full of emotional highs and lows.

There are so many small (and large) moments of joy and wonder. There are beautiful flowers to be picked and arranged, and the first harvest of any crop brings a surge of happiness through my chest. Working outside during foggy mountain mornings is a treat; I’m pretty happy with my summer arm muscles; I always have my choice of homegrown vegetables, eggs, and meat to eat; and I’m my own boss. On the days that I can see a concrete task accomplished—a fence finished or a new section of field planted, I’m having a good day. Having wonderful conversations with satisfied customers gives me the best feeling. Recently, one of the local restaurants we provide food for hosted a special supper club meal featuring our veggies and meat. It was lovely to see our food prepared for a fancy dinner, and to enjoy it with community members we had just met. I love being paid for something I produced, while working with Will and building our farm for the future.

Maggie's "Fourth of July" tomatoes, a variety that ripens early in the season.
Maggie’s “Fourth of July” tomatoes, a variety that ripens early in the season.

There are also disheartening days. I find myself feeling guilty when I take a break or sleep in. This year we gained many new customers, with the potential to grow further, but we struggled to grow enough produce to meet the demand. While it was a tough growing season (NOAA reported that we received our normal annual rainfall of 49 inches by the end of July), I continually felt that I should have worked harder, longer, and more efficiently. The days when I didn’t have as much to harvest as I wished, the weeks that I had gaps in my succession plantings, the areas where I let the weeds get ahead of me, the experiments we tried that failed—it all came together to make me feel like a failure as a farmer this season. As we walk farther into fall and I finish my yearly records and begin making concrete plans for 2016, my optimism for next season is dampened with doubts about my ability to make a living on the farm as quickly as I’d hoped.

For me, the last tomatoes of summer are a poignant reminder of the balance between pleasure and frustration where farming exists. I know that farming is about continual learning, and that all of the mistakes I made this season won’t be repeated during my third year farming. I have a better understanding of what systems will work for my farm, and I know that one of the things I like about my lifestyle is that it forces me to learn and problem solve on a daily basis.

A day in my life is ever-changing. Some of my worst days on the farm also included delightful moments, and some of my best days on the farm were dampened by the realism that the work is never finished. I know that going to bed at the end of the day with a sunburned nose, tired muscles, and a full belly is a gift, and I try my best to remember how grateful I am to call myself a farmer.
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