This Week in Jewish Farming: Springtime for farmers

(Cara Paiuk)

(Cara Paiuk)

I get a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

Until recently, that line from 10,000 Maniacs’ 1987 single was just a song lyric. But when I woke up Monday morning and saw a heavy wet snow falling, I swear I could hear my bones rattle.

Not long ago, the sight of an unexpected spring snow would have filled me with joy. In New York, nothing is more tranquilizing for the manic city than a heavy dusting. Today, my livelihood depends on what happens in the skies. And lately, the news hasn’t been good.

I’m not talking about reduced crop yields and other projected effects of climate change, though that’s certainly bad enough.  In many northeast cities, last month was the coldest March in 30 years. Weather records were set in dozens of places across the country. On the morning of my first day of greenhouse work in early March, the farm was so windswept and forbidden I thought I had wandered onto the set of “Fargo.” All of which has slowed down germination rates and made me worry — not that it takes a lot to do that, but whatever — that the seedlings won’t be ready for transplant later this month.

germ1Fortunately, spring seemed to finally get its act together. Tuesday dawned warm and sunny — the first true spring day — and by noon there was scarcely a trace of white left. Something deeper seemed to shift as well. In the greenhouse, the heightened mojo was palpable. After weeks in which I measured progress in the flats by counting individual green shoots, a symphony of growth was underway. Kale, collards, beets, kohlrabi, celeriac — everything seemed to be jumping, even the much-delayed onions. In the tomato tray, one tiny cotyledon was barely peeking out of the soil when I arrived. Two hours later, the stem was standing proudly upright.

The fields are a different story, a soggy mess that will take days to dry out enough to start tilling — assuming it doesn’t rain again of course, a possibility the weatherman pegs at about 30 percent. The first crops are due to get planted outside April 28, eight weeks before the first scheduled CSA delivery. Whether that actually happens is, to a significant extent, beyond my control.

And therein lies the rub. It’s one thing to long for a life more attuned to the rhythms of the seasons. It’s another to actually surrender to them. That’s a hard thing to do when nearly 30 people have collectively given you thousands of dollars in exchange for nothing more than a promise that, come June 19 and every Thursday thereafter for 22 weeks, a box of vegetables will have their name on it.

It’s an interesting moment to pursue a career dependent on the whims of nature. Organic vegetable demand continues to grow rapidly, and there’s little doubt in my mind that if I can achieve escape velocity, I have a viable business on my hands. At the same time, the earth is doing funny things which, for some of us, mean more than just another day with a heavy coat.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.


From the annals of Jewish farming: A 1941 report from a group working to settle Jewish refugees in the Dominican Republic describes the progress made in dairy farming, thanks in part to a mild climate and rich pastures.

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Ben Harris is JTA’s former associate editor. In his seven years with JTA, he reported from more than 15 countries. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, New York magazine, among other publications.