The farmer’s strife

Author: Paulette Whitney

It's not all "the good life" being a producer - sometimes it's more like the good, the bad and the ugly, writes Paulette Whitney from the other side of the market trestle table.

Yesterday, after the farmers' market, I was sharing a cider with a friend and having a chat about our day. "A lot of people about?" he asked, thinking that a good market is about dollars, which it is, but dollars are not the primary driver for me, or I'd be an accountant, not a farmer.

"There were a few about; it was busy," I replied. "But today was different; everyone was kind. There's usually someone who'll give us a hard time, but this week everyone was really nice."

Sometimes you're standing there and you can't feel your hands, your kids are moaning about being bored, you're trying to make labels for your produce, drink some coffee to warm up while you wait for a customer, and someone will come by and lob a nasty comment at you.

Last week it was: "Everyone at this market is selling old kale. I like it small, like baby spinach. Here it's all too big and too old."

Matt, my co-gardener, who is also a chef, chimes in. He tells our accuser how he likes to cook kale, that it's a vegetable that responds beautifully to being braised or dropped into a soup. His descriptions are making me hungry. He suggests that if she wants something more tender, something that she can cook more quickly, she could try the cime di rapa.

She interrupts his flow, saying, "You should harvest it younger," with a particularly caustic tone. So I join in; I try explaining the horticultural angle. Kale is a cold-season plant that we start in January and harvest from the same planting all winter. That it's a far more sustainable option than cultivating every few weeks to replant a baby-leaf crop, that we get kilos of food from a single cultivation, with no need for pesticides or fertilisers.

She asks again how to cook it and I give her my ideas. I like it in a lamb curry, shredded in a salad, braised with green lentils, bay and garlic. She picks up every bunch from our pile, examining and up-ending them as I talk to her. She lifts the final one close to her face, squints at it, and dumps it on top of the turnips. She turns away, glances over her shoulder and says dismissively, "I'll think about it."

Our kale is $3.50 for a good-sized bunch. We hand-cultivate the beds, hand-weed, harvest the day before market, carefully arrange the fruits of our labour, with a not insignificant amount of pride, on our table. We've spent 15 minutes talking to her, and another five minutes putting the display back together. We've been honest, passionate, informative and friendly. Although it might seem like a small thing and we should be able to shake it off, every week there's at least one person who behaves this way and it's a real kick in the guts.

"Your gear is too expensive. I got herbs at home, I grow 'em cheaper 'an you an' I'll come down 'ere an' sell 'em. Youse a bloody rip-orf."

Well, thank you, sir, for your shouted observations, that's made my morning. Maybe if you'd come closer than shouting distance I could have explained to you the economics of bringing things to market. The stall fees, the public liability insurance, the labour involved in growing and maintaining plants, as well as harvesting and marketing them. The gamble that nobody will buy them and I'll be eating mint all week, the time that I spend standing there to sell my produce, the cost of the marquee that keeps the rain and sun off it, and the fact that everyone, including farmers, has the right to work hard and earn a reasonable living.

"There is blood in your soil?" asks another woman after reading our methodology, which is clearly presented on our stall. Yes, there is. I explain that we buy local blood and bone meal, a source of phosphorous, nitrogen and countless other nutrients. That all soil is made up of decaying animal, as well as plant matter, that the alternative source of phosphorous is rock phosphate, a vital but diminishing resource used in conventional agriculture, and that peak phosphorous is a potential food security crisis not many people know about. That the abattoir waste that makes up our blood and bone would otherwise become a pollution issue for meatworks to dispose of.

"Humph," she says. "But your soil has blood in it, right?" And walks off to eat whatever food she can find that is completely unsullied by death.

But this week, there was none of that - not a jot of it. One lady came and told us, "Your salad is amazing. I loved it so much I need two this week." Another came and asked for some cime di rapa and, "This stuff is great. Can I please have a bunch with plenty of rapini in it?" Why, yes you can! I go through the pile and pick the choicest bunch, full of deliciously bitter little flower heads for her.

My girls swapped some seedlings for hot cups of miso flavoured with striped trumpeter and local kelp, and oca for cannoli. I bought soap, made with Tasmanian olive oil and herbs, for a friend's birthday present. We completely sold out of kale, cime di rapa, tomatoes and turnips, and came home for that cider tired but happy.

You get an incredible sense of achievement from feeding people produce that you know is well grown. We've worked hard, we've fed people and we've got our milk, cheese, apples and meat for the week from the hands of our friends who grew it. We've been given plant pots and strawberry punnets to re-use by our customers; one has a handful of passionfruit from somebody's garden in it.

Every week a woman comes and buys her greens along with a little edible bouquet. We chat about cooking and gardening. She tells us she misses her family in WA, that coming to the market and chatting with all of us makes her week full, makes her feel like she's part of a vibrant and warm community.

"It's only a little thing," she says, "but it makes all the difference."

Illustration: Tom Bingham

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