Monday, February 26, 2007

The start of the new season…

I have trepidation. We are just about in March which means we are just around the corner from a new gardening season.

Up until now, that is to say since I have been in Belarus, I have looked forward to gardening season with enthusiasm. I am not so sure about this year though.

Last year we had so many apples. Really it was an exceptional apple year. Every week we gathered maybe 100 to 150 kilos. It was ridiculous how many apples. But selling them on the market was a great disappointment. Everybody had apples of course so there was nothing special or interesting and at the height of the season the price of apples had dropped to the point that there was almost no value in them at all.

We have a juicer and what we ended up doing was converting most everything into three liter banks. We have been drinking apple juice all winter.

Now I like apple juice and true enough, our juice is just as good as any you might buy from the store. I am addicted to having a huge cup of 25% fresh juice mixed with some filtered water with a squeeze of lemon. But looking back on how much work we put in, the cost of the car, the taxi we had to call every week just to haul back the apples from the dacha and how little we made from selling our extra, we are having a hard time finding the enthusiasm this year.

Is this hard to listen to? I am sorry but it is true.

In Belarus, planting potatoes has always been a part of things. True enough it is survival here. Or maybe it is better to say that it has been part of the self sufficiency that was embedded in the Soviet Union's culture. It's not hard to see. You get the equivalent of say four hundred dollars a month from your job, your house only requires $40, if you can grow your own food, you save money and live better. Or maybe it is the connection to the land.

I have been talking to a lot of people from the west lately and I know that they have no interest in this sort of thinking. They only laugh and ask why someone would want to put themselves out for this sort of thinking. I agree that there needs to be some altruism mixed in. And some group thinking. And some economic necessity. A lot of this last perhaps.

It was a part of the life here. People did this. They learned how to do this or maybe remembered is a better way to say it. People, human beings have been growing their own food for time immemorial; since Adam really. It has only been in the last hundred years or so that human beings have had mechanized farming. I could sit here and say you can taste the difference between your own food and "shelf-life" product but certainly this thought is more related to taste and preference than it is to necessity. You can't only think of this in dollars and cents right now. But then again, you have to think of it in dollars and cents. I think that this is where the trepidation comes from.

Last year, a very good year and brought home a lot of food but at the same time, we realized that a lot of what we did at our farm was not very cost efficient. Absolutely what we paid in transportation costs, fertilizers, bug sprays- forget about the cost of our time- we might have broken even against what it might have cost if we had simple bought from the market. This is absolutely true for potatoes and tomatoes. And we didn't make anything from all of those apples.

It is possible that we have simply become a bit more professional about things. Maybe this means that we see more now then we did a few years ago or maybe it means that we understand more of what needs to be done. But in any case looking ahead to this season is not the same as it has been.

So the plan is to be there a bit less. Maybe to go out and light a fire more often would be good. But we are planning to be a bit more realistic in terms of cost and time this year. We plan to plant less potatoes this year; only early potatoes and no tomatoes. Both of these crops require a lot of attention and it has been our experience that they are not worth it. Oh, that last sentence was hard. Of course, if we think that we might not have any money to buy potatoes, a real possibility, not growing them could be a mistake. And it would be nice to have some ketchup during the winter. But it’s a time and money decision we are making here. It's a decision we are making from experience.

I guess that's the key: The money.

All of these westerners I have been talking to do not understand this at all. The thought doesn't even occur to them. Just go to the store and buy. The level of personal income in America is such that people cannot even fathom such esoteric ideas as saving food. This is a quaint habit from grandma's time.

But there is something to touching the land. No, this is too poetic. There is something in having that responsibility… No, this is not true either. Connection to the land? The fight?

How about that? You know it is a fight. The weeds, the work, the organization. The lifting and carrying and digging and shoveling; it's a war between you and the land trying to scratch out some cabbages and beans. But then in winter you have it to eat.

Last year we grew some cabbages that have great saving potential. There are cabbages that you have to massage and salt in order to save and there are other sorts that can stay in the cellars a bit longer. It is almost march and this freaky winter has allowed for fresh cabbage for an extra two months for us. I eat this for breakfast now with blennies. A little fried cabbage with blinnies. I love it. I really do.

It's not a game, but it is. Maybe it is the connection to the land. Maybe it is that there are only supposed to be strawberries and blackberries in the early summer- a gorgeous time of sweet gluttony and jam making. Maybe it is the ridiculous comedy that is zucchini, those obscene and hard to carry objects that NO ONE WANTS TO EAT! I read last year the greatest recipe for zucchini: Take one over coat, one pair of dark glasses and 100 lbs of zucchini. Drive to the market and find a car which has been left unlocked. Put the zucchinis in the back seat and run away.


I just stopped typing to go and get another cup of juice. A little filtered water and maybe 30% juice. What does it taste like? It is a little tart. A little dry. Not exactly sweet, we didn't put any sugar in it. But it is very refreshing, much more refreshing than Coke for sure. And it is mine. I cared for those apple trees and I picked these apples, carried them from the field and washed and cut them and juiced them. We are not going to have this next year. It doesn't work that way that you can just gobble up litres and litres of apple juice whenever you want. Good apple years, even if there wasn't any money in it only come around once in a while.

So what's it really worth? There is that TV ad: A new shirt: $40 a bouquet of flowers $25 a first kiss: priceless. What is this cup of apple juice really worth?

But like I say, I have trepidation. We are making some decisions about our gardening and farming that have to do with money and time. And also the situation is going to be a bit different in terms of being available to go and work. I am planning on biking out to the dacha more rather than taking the bus and I will be working alone more this year as most probably Tanya will be going back to work. And we are planning on trying some new techniques for weed control and such. More beans less potatoes; That reminds me, I have to build that fence for the beans. More onions than last year, though the cost of onions has gone up; we didn't plan on that. I need to set up some plastic tents to try and get some melons to come out right. Less zucchini! More carrots, though we did ok with carrots. More garlic. Some mustard plants this year and more herbs. We did great on lettuce last year and the summer was made up of endless salads. And pickles. Yea, the pickles we'll do exactly the same. We just opened a perfect bank of pickles this weekend. You never ate such a pickle in your life. Had a few glasses of vodka yesterday with some brown bread and some pickles from this one particular bank. Oh… So good. Yea, just exactly the same for the pickles. Absolutly, the pickles were perfect.

More soon…