Harvesting in the Heart of the Polar Vortex

Imagine driving down a country road and witnessing the following scene from your car window: A bearded man is kneeling in a field. By his side is a peck-size basket made of braided wood veneer, soiled with faded vegetal stains. Leaning forward, the man works a trowel, carefully raising a perfect beet from the earth. Placing it in the basket, he stands up, smiling. He’s pleased with his harvest. Now you notice he’s wearing boots, bib overalls, and a hat. With a red barn as his backdrop, the man walks a line and repeats his actions.

But something’s amiss you say?

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The man’s hat is knit wool and ear-flapped rather than straw and brimmed. His bib overalls are, to be more specific, of the snow pants variety. And his row of beets is revealed only by the green stakes that poke up above a foot of snow. Before his harvest is complete, the whiskers around his mouth will be laced with icicles.

You may say this scenario is absurd, surreal, or even ridiculous. And it is. It’s me, gardening in Chardon—in January.

In the four years I’ve lived in Chardon, I’ve spent much of my conscious life on more than two acres of land behind my family’s house. Here, each spring, I plant a bewildering—all-too-often unmanageable—assortment of vegetables and fruit, beans and mushrooms, herbs and flowers, and corn and buckwheat. I’ve planted trees, shrubs, and other perennial food plants. I boil down maple syrup and lazily tend a hive of honeybees.

Ostensibly I am producing food on these acres. I’m not satisfied with casually gardening during the summer months. I want to discover how much of my family’s food budget I can eke out from the land. Relying mostly on technology slightly more advanced than stone tools, I chop, dig, and pull. I wrestle out endless weeds and pile them up in one spot to later haul and spread the heap somewhere else. I knuckle walk along rows of seedling crops that have been choked by weeds and try to rescue them. I wring my hands, devising plans for how I might thwart the many unstoppable others that eat my produce before I can harvest it. And yes, I search for, and more often plan for, crops surviving under the snow.

Admittedly, I’m new to this. And yet this is primeval human economy as practiced by all of our ancestors. Procuring food really is the world’s oldest profession, and by some estimates, 40% of the world’s people today get their food from small plots of land—typically five acres or less. That percentage is much higher in developing nations.

When people in developing countries practice this mode of food production, we usually call it subsistence agriculture, a term loaded with the connotation of being on the edge of survival. For the lone pioneering American family, more likely we’d call it homesteading, a term that connotes heroic self-reliance. Either way, the persistence of this lifestyle confounds social scientists. To use their vernacular, the struggle to make a living by working the land should have been replaced as these workers were captured by the marketplace—that is, gave up their farmer’s tool kit, both literal and figurative, to become laborers working for a wage that they use to buy food products in a grocery store. And yet subsistence agriculture persists alongside the market. In developing countries, laid-off workers who retain farming knowhow often return to farming fallow fields until their next job. In this country, millennials take to learning farming techniques just as the hippies did in their return to the land movement.

I too want to test—and expand—my self-sufficiency, and in Northeast Ohio that means surviving winter. As the first snows fall, this wannabe subsistence farmer resists the lure of grocery store produce. My family’s attention shifts from the garden to the larder, where await the canned tomatoes and preserved jams; the frozen vegetables and berries; the dried herbs, beans, and mushrooms; bushels of black walnuts and potatoes; bottles of mead and jars of kraut. These are tried and true technologies developed by subsistence farmers in temperate climates to carry summer’s productivity into—and hopefully through—the winter months.

I’ve come to learn that many crops can persist in the field into the new year, resisting even hard freezes, surviving until the soil itself freezes. With a blanket of straw or plastic provided by the grower or snow from nature as cover, produce can remain edible into spring, when it resumes growth for an early harvest.

Last January, during the first of what we called a polar vortex—later to be known collectively as the winter from hell—I harvested two varieties of lettuce and radicchio, arugula, leeks, beets, spinach, and kale. I used these crops in salads and soups, ferments, and risottos. The radicchio grew to become the first harvested crop of the following spring. Buoyed by an amateur’s excitement over modest success, I have a new goal: To survive winter on my own sustenance. Other subsistence technologies that allow crops to grow actively during winter with seductive and strange names like hotbeds and walipinis are my next frontier.

Back to the opening scene:

Negotiating the snowdrifts, you pull into my poorly shoveled driveway. Bundling up, you gracefully slog across my winter field where I’m crouching. There you ask me pointedly, and with some exasperation: “What on earth are you doing out here? Do you propose this is how we’re gonna feed more than nine billion people by mid-century? Would you have all of your neighbors out in their yards doing the same thing?”

You point out the economic inefficiency and redundancy of small farms. You wonder how our technology-driven economy would function if everyone walked away from his or her job to eat like me.

I doubt I’d be able to satisfy you with answers. I can’t say I know how to feed the future world.

But that night, arctic air will pull the mercury down to zero. I’ll be eating a freshly harvested salad. And it will all make perfect sense.