Guest Post by Stephen Siperstein, Adjuct Professor at Stonehill College, Writing Program
Was yesterday the first day of autumn? The calendar said no, but the Farm at Stonehill shone brightly in the crisp, cool air. A cloudless sky, a strong breeze, the smell of pine duff wafting over rows of ripening vegetables: I was glad that I had picked this day to volunteer. However, once I got into the tomato rows, which were significantly warmer than the rest of the farm, I could tell that it would not be as enjoyable working here during the dog days of summer. The rows heat up like an oven, and, as a former student of mine and former farm intern pointed out, the tomato plants are covered in a fine, nettle-like fuzz: not fun for hours of picking.
Even with the realization that this was not a cool paradise but an environment requiring hard, hot work, I was nevertheless a little disappointed in myself that it had taken until August for me to make it across Washington Street. Should have been here all summer long, I thought to myself.
As I walked through the rows, Jake Gillis, a rising senior and one of this summer’s interns, cheerfully called out to me and offered up a handful of Sun Gold cherry tomatoes.
“You should try these,” he said. “We snack on them while we’re out in the fields harvesting.”
So I tried. And I thanked him, because the name is apt; I suddenly had a mouth filled with golden sunshine. Glorious. I have always loved tomatoes, but these were some of the best and sweetest I had ever tasted. Amazing that there can be so much pleasure in a tiny orange fruit. Orange, you wonder. I have come to learn that most tomatoes are not actually just red; they are infinite shades of red, yellow, green, purple, pink, and orange. And usually, the ones that aren’t the expected shade of red are the ones filled with the most pleasure.
Big chain grocery stores and fast food burger commercials might have us believe otherwise, but they are misleading. Tomatoes grown in a place like The Farm aren’t the perfectly red, spherical, plastic-looking items you can pick up in the produce aisle. They are multi-hued, oddly shaped, and sometimes, like in the case of the heirloom variety called Indigo Rose, they look and taste a little strange. Strange, but pleasurable.
The great poet and agriculturalist Wendell Berry has written about the pleasure that comes from knowing, and eating, one’s own food. He explains that “A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes,” and that “[those] people who know the garden in which their vegetables have grown…and remember the beauty of the growing plants” will more easily attain such consciousness. The Farm at Stonehill is a haven where such consciousness, and such pleasure, is possible. Just try a Sun Gold cherry or an Indigo Rose (which some say tastes like licorice when slightly under ripe) while standing in the hot but beautiful fields, and you will taste it. Or ask the interns and volunteers who have been working here through the summer.
You might protest that I’m making a big deal out of a little fruit, freighting it with a kind of pastoral, agricultural fantasy, or imagining that it is only by being at The Farm (which is a great privilege for those of us at Stonehill and our guests who visit from surrounding communities) and standing in its fields, that one can enjoy a tomato. Such a fantasy would belie the hard work that goes into the fruit. Furthermore, it would belie the fact that people depend on it. It’s just food, you might say. And I would agree. First and foremost, a tomato is food, not a bucolic charm.
Later that afternoon, after the interns, Bridget, and I had harvested over 150 pounds (a good haul for an early season harvest) of tomatoes of various varieties, we hopped into the farm’s pickup truck to bring the multi-colored bounty to the nearby Easton Food Pantry and My Brother’s Keeper. As we were unloading boxes outside the Food Pantry, an older couple walked out with a few bags of food. We offered them some of the fresh tomatoes to add to what they had, and though they were at first hesitant, they eventually accepted. We made sure that they tried a few different varieties. At My Brother’s Keeper, we chatted with Beth Collins, who organizes the food distribution there. Anyone in the Easton and Brockton area who is having trouble getting food for the week can call up My Brother’s Keeper and get a box of food, no questions asked. Beth makes sure also to include info in those boxes about the different kinds of produce, with recipes and suggestions about how to prepare them, just in case someone doesn’t know what to do with a purple tomato or potato (as few of us would).
Berry writes, “The pleasure of eating should be an extensive pleasure, not that of the mere gourmet.” Berry thinks that the pleasure of eating should be extensive, meaning that it should extend out from plants to people, from fruits to taste buds (and not just the taste buds of the foodies or the gourmands, but everyone’s taste buds), from farm to community. In such a vision, a farm and the food that is grown there becomes, like the tomato plant’s roots that bind the soil, the connective tissue that bonds the community. Extensive becomes another word for democratic, and the farm embodies democracy in the most radical way: having to do with roots.
With Bridget, the interns, and volunteers working through both the glorious and sometimes more humid or rainy days, The Farm at Stonehill flourishes with its partners, weaving the roots of community. And by so doing its pleasures are not confined to the rows of plants themselves, but are tasted in many homes. The Farm connects so many of us through its food and its pleasures, because really, why should the two be separate?