By Sister Kathy Curtis
First off, let me clarify that in no way do I consider the week I spent at Four Petal Farm a typical week for a small farmer. Cathy and John Rehmeyer, owners of Four Petal Farm, were able to take a week’s vacation in May because their primary focus is cool weather crops, like brassicas, that they grow all winter. So, when they asked if I could stay at the farm to watch over things, I knew there would be little heavy work to be done. Cathy pointed out that it was a way to get some time away and enjoy the solitude. The fact I live at a monastery and this was a selling point for getting away from home for a week, did not slip by me.
I visited the farm a week before the Rehmeyers were to leave for vacation to get the lowdown on the routine chores that needed to be done and for my own peace of mind. Since I started working around farmers, I have come to recognize and appreciate the hard work that goes into growing the food that I used to take for granted.
I wanted to be sure I was up to the task. So, John Rehmeyer and I walked around the farm. He instructed me on what needed to be done and when and I practiced things like cranking up the high tunnel sides. My main responsibility was making sure the animals were fed and that the high tunnel was watered and the sides opened and closed every day. I felt like I was up to all the tasks, except one. I did not feel comfortable walking up and down the steep hillside twice a day to feed and water the goats. Fortunately, John had a neighbor who was willing to take on that chore.
John left me a simple schedule for the chores that looked something like this: High tunnel: open tunnel sides and door, water as needed, harvest zucchini and summer squash as needed, close at night. Animals: morning feed and water dogs and cats, water rabbits; afternoon feed dogs, rabbits and parakeets and spray iguana. Make sure everyone stays watered. Sounds simple enough, right?
Here’s my journal entries about what happened that week:
Friday, day one: I got to the farm by 9:00am. High tunnel sides were open and Rick (the neighbor) had already fed and watered the goats so I did the rest of the morning feedings and turned on the drip irrigation for the high tunnel. It had to run for about two hours. Then I remembered that the seedlings needed to be watered from overhead which required that I change from drip to hose. I remembered a little too late that you had to turn the water off before changing from drip to hose. I won’t forget that again. I struggled with putting the sides down on the tunnel. Gravity won.
Saturday, day two: I slept well and turned off the 6:30 alarm (after all it was Saturday), so at 7:45 I realized I had work to do. I went to the tunnel first because I didn’t know how hot it would get when the sun hit it with the sides down. Cranking the sides up was not too hard. I noticed I had a bruise from where the handle had hit my arm the night before. I decided that I would probably gain some arm strength this week. The tunnel only needed the drip ran so there were only two trips up to the spigot.
Sunday, day three: I did not want to get up.Then I remembered that dogs, cats and rabbits were depending on me and all those plants in the high tunnel! According to the gizmo in the window, the humidity was 99% and it wasn’t even 10:00. Climbing the hill was getting easier but cranking up the tunnel sides was still hard and bending over to harvest the squash had my back reminding me that my day job was at a desk. One of the hardest things is remembering to change boots when going between the animals and the tunnel to avoid contaminating the produce. And the rabbit house needs to be cleaned out but I think I will wait until the humidity drops and hopefully the odor will too.
Monday, day four: It was cooler today so I cleaned out the rabbit house and that’s how I found out both Rick and I had been feeding the rabbits. No wonder they haven’t been excited to see me. In the high tunnel, I found evidence of squash vine borer this morning while harvesting. According to my research, by the time you see the damage it is too late to stop it. I’m feeling a little anxious today.
Tuesday, day five: I have been watching the upper field to see if it needs water. It has been hot but they are calling for rain tonight so I think it will be OK. There are so many decisions to make. It’s not like at home where we are growing some peppers and tomatoes and if something happens we can just go buy them. These plants are a family’s livelihood. It takes a lot of faith to be a farmer.
Wednesday, day six: There is a rhythm to the day that starts and ends with the dogs. They are the most persistent. I went to Pikeville today to do an interview and raced back to the farm to close up the tunnel and feed everyone before a really bad storm hit. The power went out for a while so I sat on the front step and just watched the mist and the birds.
Thursday, day seven: I am harvesting about three bags a day of squash and zucchini. It is really neat to see the bees wallowing in the pollen in the squash flowers. It’s almost like they are drunk with it. I had to be in Whitesburg this evening so I left the farm about 4:00 after feeding and watering everyone. I had a real problem trying to get the tunnel door shut. I wasn’t expecting on being back until late and knew the deer would see an open door as a gilt edged invitation to supper. After searching with no luck for bungee cords, I ended tying the door shut with my bandana. When I got back to the farm and checked, I was relieved that the door shut with no problem and nothing had suffered from the heat.
Friday, last day: Because both Rick and I both fed the rabbits earlier in the week, the feed was gone. So I decided to go to the local Walmart and buy some rabbit food. After three stops with no luck I finally found some at the Tractor Supply in Paintsville, a round trip of fifty miles.
Walking up the hill to the rabbit house for the last time before returning home, I looked over and there sitting on the steps of an out building were four little kittens. It appears that one reason the cats were so crazy to be fed all week was that one of them was nursing her brood.
Later that afternoon, as I drove out the holler, I stopped to say goodbye to Rick and thank him for all his help. He invited me back anytime to “sit on the new deck a spell”. He reminded me of what is good about country living. The work is hard, the outcome isn’t guaranteed and the pay is minimal at times but the rewards are plentiful. I not only had a bag full of zucchini, I went home with my heart adjusted. Like the dogs resting in the shade, the bees drunk on pollen and the kittens frolicking under the shed, I had stepped back into the rhythm of nature. And found peace and fullness there.
Several weeks have passed since my experience at the Four Petal Farm. I have fallen back into my routine of work, prayer and leisure. As I was writing this piece, the thing I remembered most about my time on the farm was how vital I felt. I had an important role. From making sure the plants and animals were fed and watered to harvesting the squash, my hands were needed. As I sat on the porch, sharing the evening cool with the dogs, I understood the difference between making a living and making a life. Whether growing beets or beef, farming at any level is hard work. In this culture of fast food and faster internet, farming is a lifestyle that has to wait, for the rain, for the harvest, and for the calf to be born. What I hope they don’t have to wait for is our gratitude. When you sit down to your next meal, why not say a prayer of thanks for farmers. Or better yet, the next time you are at the farmers’ market, thank them face to face.