AgriCulture: The Omens

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Since last week, I’ve been seeing bad omens. First, my Turkish pole beans, which seemed to thrive for the last three weeks, all wilted and died. Then, over the space of two days, all the leaves on one of my tulip poplars turned brown. Finally, on Wednesday, I had to put down my nearly 16 year old boar, Vernon.

Most of you already know Vernon’s story: how he was bred by the Mt. Vernon Lady’s Association to perpetuate the Ossabaw breed that George Washington kept on his estate; how I drove him up from Virginia when he was but puppy-sized; how he grew into a boar with dozens of progeny, one of whom attacked him in a vicious battle; and how I had to spend a weekend in his pen picking the maggots out of his festering wounds, a truly bonding experience. Yet he rebounded to live a full and long life by pig standards.

I have been anticipating Vernon’s death for over a year. Rather than grieving, I am grateful he has been relieved of his pain. But Possum, the sow I kept to be his companion, does not seem so accepting. She ministered to him loyally as he ailed. Tuesday morning, when I found Vernon lying on his side behind his hut, Possum was lying nose to nose with him. After I buried him, she retired to her hut and did not come out for an entire day, even to eat. I assume she, a social creature, is lonely and depressed. If you have room in your pig drove for a large, personable sow who is probably still able to farrow, please let me know. She goes free to a good home.

Why do I describe Vernon and the beans and the tree as omens, you ask? Aren’t these just natural processes at work? Didn’t I expect Vernon to die? Don’t beans succumb to fungus associated with the cool wet weather, and don’t tulip trees drop their leaves in mid-summer if stressed? Yes, but oddly, they all have something else in common. Each had been a subject about which Peter, my late partner, thought I acted unreasonably.

The tulip tree, now between 30 and 40 feet tall, was one of a pair Peter and I planted at least 15 years ago. I dropped this tree as I was moving it to the planting hole, and the root ball somewhat disintegrated. Peter more adeptly kept the root ball on the other tree intact. From that moment on, he was convinced I had through carelessness doomed this tree. Sitting looking out from the screened porch, Peter would comment on how much better “his” tree was growing than “mine.” And now mine is brown, while his looks fine.

The beans are with us thanks to seed smuggling on Peter’s part. I remember standing in the pet and garden market outside the Egyptian Spice Bazaar in Istanbul some ten years ago, arguing vehemently that he should not buy that seed packet. I even threatened not to visit him if he were jailed for smuggling. He ignored my objections, hid the seeds in his packed shirts, and planted them the next spring. From that first crop he carefully saved seeds to plant the next year, an annual practice which I’ve continued since his death.

And finally the pigs. When our pig population reached 35, I declared the process too overwhelming and insisted we leave pig husbandry behind us. “Either the pigs go or I do,” said I. Peter said “let me think about that,” leading to a nearly year long tug of war. When I finally prevailed and we set to selling off or slaughtering all our pigs, it was I who decided at the last minute that we had to keep Vernon, to whom I had become so attached, and Possum to keep him company. Peter never let me forget my turnabout.

I don’t believe in an after life or in ghosts, but nevertheless I’ve had the nagging feeling through these coinciding events that Peter’s spirit is signaling something about my bad decisions leading to the whole farm falling apart. Even before these events happened, at my friend George’s suggestion I spent most of a session with my therapist figuring out why I choose to do so much on the farm by hand, the hard way, without assistance. Why won’t I use the riding mower in the summer and snow blower in winter? Is my opting instead use the gas push mower and to shovel snow by hand really about the satisfactions and health benefits of hard physical labor? Wouldn’t I be happier with the shape of the farm if I engaged in some labor saving?

We concluded that while I do truly love the labor, I also feel guilt about having the farm. Working hard justifies the farm as a responsibility, not a luxury. My shrink labeled it a sort of “moral masochism”, in which I can enjoy doing something I truly love doing, and yet punish myself for enjoying it at the same time A two-fer! Though as Eric incisively pointed out, one can carry things too far. It’s great to pedal hard on your bicycle, he said. But if you choose a bicycle with no chain, you’re hard pedaling will not achieve your goals.

I need, I think, to take Eric and George’s advice into account, but also to look at the bright side and find some positive omens too. I still had Turkish pole bean seeds I was able to replant, to keep eating these wonderful beans in future years. The tulip poplar may be stressed, but while mowing yesterday I saw that three fig trees I had planted last year and given up for dead, having forgotten to protect them for winter, had leafed out. Once Possum leaves, I can proceed to establish a rhubarb and asparagus plantation in what is currently the pig’s marsh.

And I am having great fun. My friend Steve, another of my coterie of adjunct psychologists (i.e. friends) wrote me this week: “I don’t know if you know it or not, but you are a happy man with a really cool life.” As I think about it, he’s right. I get to spend time doing something I like, sometimes to good effect. I have people in my life I love, and who want to spend time with me here. Even if things fall apart, could anything matter more than that?


Blackberries, $6/pint

Fennel $1/bulb

Swiss chard $3/ bag

Rhubarb $4 a lb.

Mint $1 a bunch

White oasis turnips, $3/lb

Shiso leaves, $1 for 10

Sorrel, $3 a bag

Purslane, $3/bag

Garlic chives, $1/bunch (flat leafed)

EGGS: $5/doz

CHICKENS: They were quite uniform in size, all just around 6 lbs, a few under. These freedom rangers have been what you want them to be, deeply flavorful. $6/lb, frozen.


Email us your order at, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Because I’m now here full time, we’re abandoning regular pick-up times. Let us know when you want your order any day between 10 and 5, and unless there are unusual circumstances we’ll be able to ready it to your convenience. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call or text at 917-544-6464 or email.


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