Though my vegetable field is only an acre, the land can feel vast and uncomfortably large. The mountain range in the west (whose name nobody seems to know) sits far in the distance from my small plot and on summer days the dust and pesticides and smog smudge my clear view of the hills. The hills themselves are small, a bump in the skyline with a small V that runs through the center. The only road through heads for Lake Berryessa (murky and treeless) and then on to Napa Valley.
When the cover crops were tall, the farm nested against them. I could safely tuck beneath the height of rye grass and flowering vetch and feel contained within the farm beds. Our rows are long, some nearly 250 feet. When the cover crop circled the farm, I could sense the ends of the rows and knew how much longer my shoulder would hurt from digging until I could rest. But that end is less clear now. I am a poor judge of the bed lengths. On hot days, the heat blurs the distance and I am overwhelmed by how long it takes to walk, one foot directly in front of the next, across each skinny furrow.
As the season progresses, these plants are supposed to give some dimension to this flat-land, to help make a barrier from these flatlands. But sometimes I hesitate to even call this soil anything more than dirt—an infertile word to any farmer. New leaves come so slowly. They turn to yellow and then brown before they can take root. I am a nurturer, a nourisher. But that is not good enough. It seems I need a bit of science.
In early May we realized our plants were hesitant to grow. Our corn didn’t germinate. Our zucchini peaked through the cracks in the clay soil then dried up. We have theories why. Pests started feasting early. The heavy winds whip through the farm and torture plants trying to calmly take root. Our nutrient levels are too low to promote growth. Our compost somehow poisoned our soil.
I struggle with being methodical. My instincts are not those of order and calculation. But the form of the farm helps hone the order of these problems. The rows are straight and walkable. Problems repeat from plant to plant and I can bend down to look at each of them, through each stage of development. Observation is a simple principle and one every farmer knows. But it is still a skill that requires practice. Catalog the symptoms seen on the farm; compound them into diagnoses. Observe, catalog, compound, medicate, repeat. To keep a close eye on the farm means I walk through nearly every row each time I’m at work. Walking back and forth in each furrow brings the farm to a manageable size. Finding order in it makes me feel a bit less exposed in these vast flatlands. Its likely that the cars rushing past on I-80 don’t even see me here, stooped over and examining the weak roots of a watermelon plant.