Autumn on the Farm
By Sarah Cassidy
I like that we have two names for this season. “Autumn,” the official name of this season, the word which the Brits prefer, and our American bastardization, “fall.”
It’s a bit of an onomatopoetic term for this season, the evocative word for the figurative and literal downturn that nature takes right about now. Fall is simply fulfilling the law of physics: what goes up must come down. After the surging and peaking of spring and summer, gravity sets in again. It cannot all be up and out, Dame Natura reminds us. Down and in are their natural reactions, and keep the earth, and us, in balance.
Maybe autumn is “fall” because everything does fall in the autumn: leaves, fruit, seeds, fattened pigs, lambs and cattle. Farmers. Hopefully into their beds, to dream of next year’s farming vindications. Oh, but that’s at the end of this season. There are still miles to go before we sleep, from my early season vantage point.
Fall is the traditional harvest season since most farms of yore grew wheat, corn, beans, and barley, long-season crops that were ripe by the fall. In this farming day and age, we farmers harvest all year long (if we are lucky), what with many different crops, multiple crop successions, and quicker ripening times. But fall is truly the vegetable convergence, when absolutely everything a farmer grows on the farm is ready. Everything.
When I host school groups on the fall farm, I ask them, “what do you think farmers do every day?” The answers vary wildly since kids are thankfully not yet uniform, but they do stereotype. Some think we eat corn all day, or just drive around on tractors, or pick our teeth with straw for a good portion of the season. We also hear a lot of, “you pick pumpkins.” No, halleluiah! You pick the pumpkins! That is the one thing that we do not need to harvest, as the public harvests them for us! A Tom Sawyer job if I ever saw one, with the public spilling out onto the farm to heave the heaviest of crops into wheelbarrows and pay good money for doing this back-breaking work.
We do however harvest the rest of the farm crops: the dry beans, corn, the remainder of the tomatoes, sweet and spicy peppers, fall broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, sunflower heads to save seeds, and many other seeds—spinach, lettuce, cherry tomato, amaranth, zinnia, cilantro. There are some crops that only come at this time of year—Brussels sprouts, winter squash, parsnips—that start to get harvested. Here in the Pacific Northwest even crops that all people consider “summer food”—sweet corn and watermelon—strangely ripen in fall. September and October are heavy with food from the farm.
It’s a time for the best-tasting food, too. Frost is on the pumpkin, and a freeze that doesn’t kill our crops makes them all the sweeter. Fall is when the sugars start coursing through food crops in cooler climates like here in the Pacific Northwest. Chilly nights dip into the 40s and 30s, and these low temperatures awaken the plant’s own antifreeze system: sugar.
Sugar is pumped throughout the leaves and fruits to keep the plant from freezing, and adds this extra fall sweetness decidedly notable in vegetables like broccoli, winter squash, cabbage, sugar pie pumpkins, kale and collards. This is the season is where the California crops just cannot compare.
I love fall. Its long, buttery-colored afternoon light. Its warm, kindling colors contrasting with the cool days.
I love all the fruits and vegetables of my own and other’s labors. But fall is a finish line for me too, one that I happily limp across in November, thankful for the rest, thankful for the down time, the “Fall of the Year.”
Papercut illustration by Anna Brones