A slice of farm life in the city

Last spring, I joined a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA, located in Wisconsin. A co-worker had recommended it, and having flirted with the idea of joining one since first hearing about the concept but fearing I would drown in a sea of greens, I enlisted a few friends to help consume the share. My reasons for joining were mostly altruistic, planet-saving stuff. I like beets and carrots, but my intent was to buy local, learn to cook in season and support independent farming.

My friends and I joined North Creek Community Farm located in Prairie Farm, Wis. “Our farm,” as members are encouraged to think of it, is run by Farmer Kate, a talented and apparently tireless farmer with 15 years of experience as a CSA provider.

For $500, we received a weekly canvas bag overflowing with everything from arugula to popcorn, complete with recipes for some of the more obscure items — kohlrabi and garlic scapes — from the first week of June through the last of September. I’ll confess, it took awhile to adjust to the authenticity of farm-grown produce; spotted leaves with torn edges, dirt clumped to onions, the occasional worm hole in the corn. This is not Kowalski’s produce, selected for its alluring uniformity and sheen; this is varied and sometimes unsightly, but every bit as delicious and nutritious.

Throughout the summer, there are numerous opportunities to visit the farm for both socializing and working, so on a recent Saturday, two of us headed out early and drove through the rolling hills and changing leaves of western Wisconsin for “Fall Work Day.” When we arrived, two families from the metro area were already helping Farmer Kate unload squash from a large wagon and, without introductions, we jumped right in.

When the wagon was unloaded, the group of us piled on as if for a hayride and made the slow, lurching trip by tractor to the potato field. A neighbor, more skilled in the mechanics of the farm than we volunteers, helped to hitch an antique “potato digger” to the back of the tractor. As its name suggests, the implement works a little like a garden tiller, drudging just beneath the buried potatoes to lift them onto an open elevator — think treadmill for soil — that sifts the dirt out and drops the potatoes back to the top of the earth. That’s how it’s supposed to work anyway, this day the soil was still wet from a recent rain and clumped desperately to the small red bulbs. Instead of simply picking them off the ground, we found ourselves on hands and knees searching blindly through the moist earth for each one. By lunchtime, our hands were caked with dirt, the lifelines in our palms elongated by deepened, darkened cracks.

I grew up in farm country. There wasn’t any farming involved for me, but it existed all around and I can’t remember a day of my childhood that didn’t involve scrubbing something clean before coming back into the house. But life in the city has a way of making one forget about dirt and especially about growing things. We work for food, but with detached immediacy. We find a recipe, make a list, and go shopping — that is to say, when or if we cook. We forget that the food we eat relies on a delicate balance of sun and rain, is subject to heat and cold, and above all takes patience and diligence. I can’t say I came back from my day in the field ready to don a pair of overalls, but I do have a new appreciation for the bounty that arrives in a simple canvas bag. To learn more about North Creek Community Farm, check out www.northcreekcommunityfarm.com.

Bryan Anderson lives in the Stevens Square neighborhood.