It is almost November, and the leaves in eastern Pennsylvania have turned brilliant as day shortens and the air starts to hold a chill. Farmers bring in the last of their crops while watching for first frost. Farmer’s markets and CSAs remind people that the season is coming to a close with Thanksgiving just a few weeks away. This is the time of the year when most farmers are preparing the fields for rest, and look for a little of their own. Most farmers, but not all. For the last few years, Tim Stark has been doing winter greenhouse growing.
For Tim, this is a time of transition from open fields of tomatoes and chilis, greens and herbs to seedlings of hardy greens and beets that will grow throughout the winter months inside heated greenhouses.
Eckerton Hill Farm is located in an area of rolling hills and narrow valleys in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania. Tim Stark is the force behind this 58 acre farm in the Oley Valley, and it all stated in the mid 1990's on a rooftop in Brooklyn. You can read his story, in his own words, in Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Farmer. Today, over 200 varieties of fruits and vegetables are grown annually. Tim's focus on plant diversity and optimization of the nutrient composition of the soil has created a model for sustainable agriculture on a large scale.
I have known Tim for a few years, but have known of Eckerton Hill Farm longer. Tim does not just grow fruits and vegetables on his farm, he grows farmers and makers, several of whom are friends.
Last Monday I met with Tim to discuss my coming to work and learn on the farm, once a week during his winter garden season. I described my project and we spoke of my goals as he drove me around the property of his farm. Even though I knew he had a large farm, I had not before seen the rows of tomatoes, greens, herbs, chilis, and all the rows resting in rotation. It is remarkable.
Morning is grey, and everything is damp from the full day of rain we had yesterday. The rain finally stopped sometime last night. Today is my first Monday. The fields are soon going to be done, and the greenhouses will start up, but now is the inbetween.
There is a skeleton crew on the farm. I counted 9 in total, 10 including myself. Today felt like a test day. I wondered if Tim was waiting to see if I would actually show up in the cold wet of 9am, and I know I was wondering if I would actually be able to do the work. I have a wild garden and some feral hens, but Eckerton Hill is serious business.
We started in the pack barn, filling clear boxes with nasturtium flowers and leaves. The brilliant yellows, golds, magentas and greens seemed to make the space a little warmer with memories of summer. The last box packed and closed with a snap, and just like that, it was fall again. Flats of quart baskets are loaded on to the back of a trailer, and it is time to go back out into the grey of the end of October.
I went out in the field and helped pick clean the last of the remaining tomatoes with 5 of the crew. The sun had not yet come out, while the wind varied intensity and never seemed to stop. We walked up and down the rows pulling the last of summer off their vines. Green, orange, yellow, purple, some variegated, some with color rising from the bottom to reach the green and pale yellow around the stem, some with purple pooled by the stem and dripping down into the green on the bottom. My face brushed curling leaves and insanely optimistic flowers as I reached to grab those spied in between the supports, and I breath in the scent released. Sharp and sweet and earthy, and woman's laughter caught in the wind, and music from the small blue speaker on the one man's belt.
The tomatoes roll between my fingers as I look for blemishes and cracks that may have been on the other side of what I thought looked healthy before a drop into a wood basket, or on the ground if bad. When the baskets are full enough to be heavy for me to carry and pick, it is back to the trailer for sorting. The repetition of movement, the constant push of the wind, and the human sounds of voice and song made it difficult to keep track of time.
I weeded an herb patch for the best part of the day. Chives, rosemary, and thyme eventually saw full light. While the weeds were not small, the ground was soft from yesterday's rain and I was able to wrest most of the roots out while leaving the herbs intact. I was struck by the quiet around me, knowing that is only because it is the end of the main growing season.
The last thing I do is help the farm manager, Mervin, and a crew man cap the end of a long hoop building with plastic to extend the regular season a few weeks past frost. It is 25 feet high. Yeah. Big. I almost got blown off my feet as I was holding the sheeting up as high as I could while the farm manager secured it to the frame with clips. It was pretty funny. I guiltily left them with the last two ends, and said goodbye until next week.
I had forgotten my lunch and my water bottle, so by 3pm I was getting a little uncertain of my actions, and Bug had a group lesson at 5, so I called it a day. I had wanted to push it to 4, but I really needed to get a shower before seeing other parents in an enclosed area, and I needed to eat.
There is always work to do on a farm. While most farms in our area are getting ready for a much needed rest, Eckerton Hill is simply changing gears. I'll make it to 4pm next week.