One Wednesday I noticed that there was a new farmer at the market, and when business was slow, I wandered down to introduce myself. “Meredith’s Organic Produce,” said the sign. “Are you Meredith?” I asked. She was. She was a sturdy woman, 30-something I would guess, wearing hiking boots and shorts and a long-sleeved jersey. Her hair was in a braid down her back. She wasn’t beautiful in a Cosmopolitan cover girl sort of way, but she was handsome as robustly healthy people sometimes are.
Meredith had set out a small display of carrots and beets and radishes, bok choy, lettuce, escarole, green onions, and a few other such things. The root crops were scrubbed clean, and the produce was presented with care and obvious affection. There wasn’t much of it, though; it had all fit in a little Honda hatchback. Meredith told me that she had rented an acre of ground, and that this was her first attempt at farming, and her first market, and she was nervous. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Your produce is beautiful. You’ll have no trouble selling it.” She told me where her farm was and gave me permission to visit sometime.
It was a few weeks later that I was driving down a country road and noticed someone in a field pulling a grain drill with an old two-cylinder John Deere Lindeman crawler. This is a rare tractor, and I hadn’t realized that there was one in the area. I pulled off onto a side road so I could watch the tractor and listen to the distinctive sound of its engine, the way a birder might pull off to watch an unusual heron in a field. As I was preparing to leave, I realized that where I had turned off was the road leading to Meredith’s farm. I drove on down to have a look.
I spotted her little Honda and pulled in beside it. Meredith laid off pulling weeds and came to see who was visiting. She remembered who I was and gave me a tour of her farm — more of a garden, really, than a farm. “I double-dug all these beds by hand,” she said proudly.
“You hand-dug these? You don’t have a tractor, or even a rototiller?”
“Well, this land is organic, and I didn’t want to use any synthetic chemicals on it, including fossil fuel, even though the organic code allows it. It just didn’t seem to be in the right spirit.”
I was impressed. I’ve always been skeptical of those organic farmers who are so insufferably self-righteous about not using synthetic chemicals but who drive up and down the place in a tractor spewing carcinogenic diesel smoke all over their crops. I felt like I’d finally met an honest organic farmer. A little bit cuckoo, perhaps, but honest.
“Of course,” she went on, “my car uses fossil fuel, and the UPS truck, and so on, but I wanted to spare at least this piece of land.”
“That’s admirable,” I said, but at the same time I was thinking to myself, “I bet she’s not making even two dollars an hour.” She had told me that her husband was a mechanic at the state motor pool; probably he made a good wage and had good benefits. Perhaps her farming was meant as some kind of spiritual practice rather than a business, but I didn’t ask.
The following Wednesday, just as the market was beginning, I glanced down the aisle, and there was Meredith with a stricken look on her face. I came out from behind my tables and walked down to her stand. “Is everything okay? You look troubled.”
“Oh,” she said, “the very first customer bought my most beautiful bunch of carrots and three heads of radicchio, and it’s ruined my display. It was so beautiful, before.”
“Yeah,” I said, “they have a way of doing that, the buggers, buying up the best stuff first.” Most of the farmers bring a whole truckload, and only a small part of it is set out for display. As produce is sold, they replace it from their reserves. But Meredith didn’t have much produce, and it was all set out, with no backup.
Perhaps she had a mental image of herself standing behind her tableau of vegetables, a golden nimbus around her like the gilded rays streaming from a medieval Madonna; and all her labor, whether she was conscious of it or not, was directed toward fulfilling this image. Now, just as she had achieved her dream, the very first customer had come along and handed her a couple of shabby dollars and wrecked it.
I dropped out of the market for the winter in late November; Meredith had quit a few weeks earlier. The following spring I expected to see her back, but she didn’t show, and one day when I was in the neighborhood, I drove down the little road to her acre. The place was abandoned. Some unharvested bok choy had bolted; its flower stalks waved in the breeze. The ground was coming up in bindweed and thistles.
In May, Meredith came through the market and stopped to say hello. “I see you’ve given up the farming business,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. Patting her belly, which was getting big, she smiled and said, “I’m growing a different crop now.”
“Congratulations!” I said. “That’s wonderful.” As she walked off, I reflected that maybe her year of babying her little crops of tender vegetables had been not a business at all, but a trial run at motherhood, a great welling up of maternal instinct that now had found its rightful object.
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