Megan French, written April 2018
Before you feel hunger, a farmer gazes over her fragile forest of vegetable starts, each the size of the thread flaring from her tattered jeans. Each delicate tendril, a testament of patience and care. Each having been hand sewn into hand sifted soil, and placed in the perfect dark, warm, and humid conditions, waiting until peering eyes detect the first cotyledons. These first leaves prompt a great migration from darkness to the light; to propagation space with lots of room and plenty of sunrays. This wisp of a plant then takes these great rays to manufacture strength from chlorophyll, improve vigor, and become the tasty nutritious calories so essential to our bodies.
This meek and tender greenery is our food security for the next long cold winter. We have yet to emerge fully from this cold spring, yet a farmer must think of the next cold.
Before you feel hunger, there is a farmer planning. The first seeds in the ground will be the last to be consumed; storage onions, celeriac, cabbages, and leeks. These crops are slow growing, packing nutrients, storability, and hardiness into every cell, to nourish us all winter long.
The first seeds are started in February (January if one is crazy or tenacious), transplanted into the soil in April, and tended until harvest in September or October. When the plants are either consumed or safely stored until the next April, if luck holds and the rodents do not.
The first couple months are filled with anxiety and eagerness. The sanguine thoughts to grow, and to grow more than the previous year, are stifled by frozen dew and fifteen degree mornings, 40 mph wind gusts that rip holes in new greenhouse plastic, and waiting for water to flow in the canals. Plant starts will inevitably freeze, flea beetles will eat holes in the arugula, and hailstones will impale freshly planted greens. But, to be a farmer is to be an eternal optimist.
The farmer must purchase seeds, amendments, infrastructure and fuel, and make a guess at how hungry you will be. If the farmer is smart, she will look at records from the years past, ask markets and grocers for information, and make an educated guess of how much she can grow. If the farmer is lucky, you will tell her how hungry you will be and how much you will consume. If the farmer is fortunate, you will support her all year long.
Before you make your shopping list, a farmer is making her seed purchasing list. Before you plan your weekly menu, your farmer is planning her yearly harvest. The time it takes from germination to consumption can be months to years.
When the simplicity of a stop at the grocery store is broken down, the complexity of the food system is bewildering, lengthy, and elaborate: seeds, soil, labor, water, shelter, transportation, marketing, and storage. All of this adding up to the mere cents paid per pound at the grocery store.
The next time you visit a grocery store, a co-op, a farmers market stand, I invite you to think of each piece of food’s story, history, and journey. Before you feel hunger, support your farmer.