The first thing an idealistic and determined journalist does before she shows up for a morning of farm work is to pick out a suitable wardrobe, right down to the most cunning accessories. I decked myself out in an orange jumper that had received enough paint splotches to put one in mind of a de Kooning canvas. In place of muck boots I had my black rubber rain boots with pastel dots — $15 at a New York thrift store. I also popped on my favorite straw bonnet, an eccentric choice for a job involving mud, dust, and manure but, well, what can you do? A favorite hat to a new farmhand is like a binky to a baby.
At 8:30 on a recent Monday morning I appeared at the year-old Slip Away Farm on Chappaquiddick to begin my apprenticeship. A little under two miles in from the ferry landing, the nine acres have been cleared across hill and dale, and early crops of spinach, onions, radishes, greens and baby peas shake their booties out of the soil under pristine white tarps. As soon as these first plantings are plate-ready, a farm stand goes up alongside the road and 55 happy Chappy families will show up for their CSA shares, along with everyone else eager for random goodies
Behind the antique farmhouse, I found Lily Walter, 28, tall, thin, with green eyes and clad in faded grey-green jeans. Her two live-in co-farmers are her brother, Christian Walter, 23, and Collins Heavener, 27, a carpenter throughout the work week, making him a Saturday Slip Away wingman. Farmer newbie Kendyll Gage-Pipa, 24, has also been adopted into the fold.
Christian sat atop a spanky new green Deere tractor, hauling a chicken house that looked charming enough for the witch in Hansel and Gretel to set up her infamous oven inside. Lily guided her brother in his trajectory up one hill and down another; the plan was to reposition the coop so that the 25 hens could set down fertilizer in a new spot — one of their manifold talents — and to gobble ticks and other assorted pests.
Christian invited me to help him lug three sets of scaffold-braced nets down to the hen house.
“Do I look like Arnold Schwarzenegger?” I almost asked him, but when I lifted my side of the first cage — big as a VW bug — it was surprisingly light. We humped all three units down to the hen house, and within moments the red-ruffed Red Stars and the black-and-white Baard Rocks spilled out through their front door for a peck-and-poop party on their new front lawn.
Lily pointed to a set of cabinets built into the coop and suggested I grab a basket and collect whatever eggs the little darlings had deposited in recent hours. But who needs baskets when you can fold up your jumper like an old-fashioned pinafore, and place the eggs in that?
I noticed one of the Red Stars frozen in an odd contortion on a top berth of the egg-laying shelves. Oh, my heavenly stars, she was laying an egg! I felt an urge to rush it to a tiny omelet pan.
Next we filed to the greenhouse, entering a space of diffused white light, redolent of herbs, hummus, sawdust, and the subtle fragrances of impatiens, coleus, and rosemary. We carried out flats of seedlings ready for prime time in the soil: today it was cabbage, onions, and garlic.
I was also allowed to sit on the tractor, although I lacked the nerve to turn it on. I could see myself bouncing haphazardly down the slopes, then hurtling over the road — Evel Knievel on the high ramp — to the astonishment of everyone motoring up from the ferry.
As much as I yearned to dig trenches, lay in sewer lines, and shovel doo-doo, I mostly longed to hang out with the pigs.
There were three of them, 10 weeks old, pink and wriggly and weighing about as much as my Boston terrier. They tumbled, they jumped and cork-screwed around each other, they dashed to and fro as if forgetting what they’d dashed to, then reconsidered, only to dash fro again. But their main activity was rooting their absurdly long snouts into the soil to dig for edibles of suspicious origin, thus aerating the soil and shoveling around all the effluvial nutrients deep where the veggie roots go. Each time these frenzied critters resurfaced, they had dirt up to their eyeballs — a laugh out loud sight — but then, moments later, you’d glance at the begrimed baby pig again and, holy self-cleaning!, its face was restored to its original pinky luster.
I climbed into the pen and knelt on the ground. They dashed over to see if I were, quite possibly, a walking talking Fudgesicle. They sniffed my arm, and even licked it a couple of times, but after seven seconds of ADD-addled curiosity, they charged off again to roister in their turf.
We should all have farms. Why don’t we? Our famous founding fathers were gardeners and environmentalists, every one of them, and they never could have conceived of a world where anyone traveled to a market to buy anything for dinner: dinner was right outside the kitchen door. Methinks we’d worry less about dips in the Dow if we knew we had food from our own green acres — or the acres of Slip Away Farm — to put on the table.
Lily studied anthropology, Christian attended Emerson to find out that he’d rather farm than write the Great American Novel. Collins graduated from UMass Amherst. This is the new demographic of agriculturalists: young creative people who’ve turned their back on the Tantalus of Wall Street and law degrees to get soil under their fingernails and figure out a way to make the world whole again, farm by farm.
Lord knows I’ve now done my bit.