On our farm, “the harvest” is a daily, never-ending activity that involves the majority of our team’s time and energy. Picking the crops, washing them, sorting them and packing them is a year-round activity. Anyone who calls this “unskilled labor”, as it is so often referred to by the media, has never done it.
There are lots of tasks to be done at Terra Firma other than harvest, but they are done by a tiny crew of people: we have just 2 full-time tractor operators plus a mechanic who also does tractor work. Between the three of them, they prepare the soil, fertilize, plant, and control weeds and pests on each and every of our 200 acres crazy patchwork quilt of fields and orchards. Most of the time, this small crew gets everything done right and on schedule.
To get this work done, our “production” crew uses 9 tractors and an array of equipment. If you put all those machines in a single place it could easily be mistaken for a good sized used car lot — or junkyard, since most of them are fairly old and well-worn. And yet even that equipment is astonishingly efficient at what it does. Our flail mower, for example, can reduce a dense field of 4 foot high weeds to a finely ground mulch at the rate of 10 acres per day. But used incorrectly, it can just as easily turn a beautiful field of broccoli into pesto. And an untrained operator can destroy a tractor or an implement by improper use, not to mention hurting themselves or objects in their vicinity — cars, buildings, trees, you name it — in just minutes.
Tractor work can’t be done when it’s raining or when the ground is too wet. So when the wet season ends, as it did ten days or so ago, our “production” crew goes into high gear. There is an endless list of jobs that have piled up, and this year many of them were overdue.
I call this “breaking stuff” season. Despite our efforts to service and repair as much equipment as possible during the off-season, within hours of sending the tractors out into the fields, machinery starts to fail. There is almost always other work to do, so it’s not a problem keeping the operators busy. But some weeks, we are lucky to just “break even” on repairs: one tractor or machine repaired just as another konks out.
Then there are the bad weeks, when broken equipment piles up far faster than we can fix it. Parts for machines are not in stock at the local dealer and have to be ordered. And most importantly: critical, time-sensitive tasks are not getting done.
Yesterday we started the morning with one broken down tractor but by 10 a.m. had two more. One of those got fixed just before lunch, only to have a fourth break down. By the end of the day, two of the four had been repaired. And yet, tractor work never stopped. Fields were prepped and planted to zucchini and spinach. In another field, we installed stakes to trellis our first planting of tomatoes. It was a very busy and productive day despite the setbacks.
In an ideal situation, a farm would have two of every important piece of machinery so that work was never interrupted. But even the largest farms can rarely afford to do this. On our farm we try to have overlap in important areas: for example, we have two orchard tractors, specially designed to fit in between and under trees. But it’s not uncommon for us to use both simultaneously. And there have certainly been times when both were broken down when we needed them.
Nothing about keeping your CSA boxes full and varied every week is easy. But the production crew plays an especially important role in making it happen, and this is a stressful time of year for them. So keep them in mind while you’re enjoying the fruits of their highly skilled labor this week.