Planting onions, ZJ Farm
One of my favorite moments of every day was when I finished milking, had cleaned the milk buckets and cheesecloth in the kitchen, and headed out the back door. As I walked down those three cement stairs, in the last coolness Iowa would offer that day, I always felt this sensation that I was in the right place. Those few steps felt like the rhythm of my pulse, when my legs and skin and lungs screamed that I belonged here. I’d go look for Susan and the work of the day, and my mind would return to the bottom of another steep learning curve.
I found her in the garden, eight rows already tilled and marked that morning. I helped unload boxes from the bucket of the tractor.
“David’s coming,” she said. I looked around, and he was nowhere in sight. “We’ve got to get these onions in the ground. The first three rows are Walla Walla, and then one row of Candy,” she continued.
“Okay…” I responded. She organized the boxes at the head of the rows. They were filled with onion plants, rubber banded into groups.
“About the length of your finger between them,” she said, showing me. “Just stuff them in. Don’t worry about being gentle; they’ll survive anything. Just get ‘em in the ground, because we have 10,000 to plant.”
“10,000. Right. What are you going to do?”
“What, you think I’m not working?” she said, smiling. We had this ongoing banter because I never knew what she actually did after giving me my tasks.
“Exactly,” I tease. “We should trade jobs sometime. Especially at a harvest when you just sit in the packing shed doing nothing all morning.”
“Doing nothing!” she said, laughing. I loved when I could be so absurd that it brought her joy. In my mind, it was worth way more than my fulltime labor. “How about you run the harvest sometime?” she offered. “You can send me to the field.”
This was probably a bad idea. “You can’t handle it in the field,” I joked.
“Oh yeah right,” she said, still smiling. She climbed onto the tractor, the dog jumping into her lap. “I’ve got to till and mark the rest of the onion rows to keep ahead of you guys. I need to get as much work out of David as I can, once he gets here. He’s going to pace you. Keep up with him.”
I was about twenty feet down the row when David came out. “Good morning. Happy onion day,” I said.
“Yeah right.” He threw some bundles ahead of him in the row, and started stuffing the plants in the ground at twice my speed.
“Geez, your fast.”
He shrugged. “Just wanna get done.”
“You’re like, burying the stem and everything.”
I tried to reign in my perfectionist ways, since he was rapidly catching up to me. I tried to mimic his style, on his knees, not squatting like me. “Do you do this every year?”
“Mom always makes me because I’m fast.”
We worked on in silence, and he caught up to me.
“Damn, I should’a brought some music,” he said.
“Don’t worry, I’ll sing to you,” I said, in that deliberate embarrass-the-teenager voice.
He looked at me, shaking his head, half smiling. “Nah, that’s okay. I’m good.”
I sang, “Ten thousand bundles of onions to plant, ten thousand bundles of onions… You take one out, put it in the ground, nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine bundles of onions to plant…” I kept singing as he talked over me.
“You’re so weird.” And then, “Are you really going to keep singing?” He shook his head and chuckled again. “You’re slow.”
I stopped singing. “I’m not slow. You’re the one that’s trying to kill them.”
“You’re supposed to go faster.”
“I’ll go faster if you sing with me.”
“No thanks.” He was past me now.
“Are there any jobs on the farm that you actually like?”
“Not really. Well, the ones I get paid for. But they’re still stupid.”
“Are you getting paid for this?”
“See how lucky you are? I’m not getting paid jack,” I said. As if this proved something.
“Sucks to be you.”
“What do you need money for?”
“Whatever I want that my mom won’t buy me. Playstation games. Mountain Dew. New trucks for my skateboard.”
“She won’t buy you new trucks?” He was so far ahead of me I was practically yelling.
“The ones I want are hella expensive.”
He looked back at me. “You’re frickin slow, dude.”
“Oh, yeah? Watch this. I got mad onion skills.” I went as fast and carelessly as I possibly could. “Pow, pow, pow, pow.”
We worked on in silence again. I concentrated to keep up with him as we eventually settled into something of a rhythm. It was quiet, one of those times that farming seemed like meditation.
“Aren’t you gonna sing?” he asked.