This Week in Jewish Farming: The impostor farmer

Ben seeding

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris seeds a field.

In a small gallery off the main entrance to the University of Hartford library, there’s an exhibit now on display about the history of Jewish farming. The walls are lined with sepia-toned photos of Jews tilling the fields, building kibbutzim, tending livestock. And there among them is a picture of yours truly, looking deadly serious clutching a fistful of beets.

I arrived for the opening reception on Monday fresh from the field, hands caked with dirt and sporting a new Root Down Farm T-shirt. Avinoam Patt, a Jewish history professor then in the midst of an abbreviated recounting of the history of Jewish farming, promptly announced that the evening could commence now that a real live Jewish farmer was in attendance. Men in pressed khakis and women tottering in heels all turned to look at the dusty guy in waterproof boots. My mother, standing next to me with two sandwiches she had scavenged from the catering table for my dinner, looked up at me beaming.

It’s probably be fair to say I’ve become a minor celebrity since moving to Hartford, though that’s only because the bar for celebrity status is depressingly low in this town. I’ve been written about in the local Jewish paper and the main city daily. Next week, I’m doing a discussion on Jewish farming at the JCC, and another in the fall with Patt. Almost every week someone writes to say they heard about what I’m doing and want to buy me a beer or volunteer on the farm or pick my brain about something. Pick my brain? Don’t they know they’re talking to a guy who nearly lost his whole onion crop (and still might)?

More than occasionally, I have felt like an actor playing the part of a farmer just before the stage lights come up. After our first plant out last week, we got hit with heavy rains that turned our poorly drained fields to mud. When I went to inspect afterward, I took one step into the field and sank nearly two feet into the muck. How did I think I was going to work this field? And that was hardly my only water problem. For the life of me, I couldn’t get the irrigation system working. For days I wrestled with the well pump, solicited help from every source I could think of, purchased new parts — all for naught. The hose that should have delivered hydration across 300 feet of field just sat there, limp.

collardsBut things turned around this week. On Sunday, the months-long search for a truck ended when I bought the ugliest beast of a pickup you can imagine. The weather finally turned in our favor a little, a few days of dry sunshine and mid-60s temperatures that, with help from some volunteers, allowed us to get several beds of kale, chard, collards, kohlrabi, beets, snap peas, radish, arugula and potatoes in the ground. I also benefited from a little neighborly kindness: A guy from a major industrial pump manufacturer who happens to work nearby agreed to come look at my malfunctioning irrigation system. He couldn’t figure it out either, but he invited me to bring the uncooperative pump to his shop, where a bunch of guys more competent than I got the thing working in seconds. I brought it back to the farm, and the water began to flow. Triumph!

I have to believe the early Zionist farm pioneers encountered many such moments of near-disaster, but looking at those photos at the university library, you’d never know it. The men are bare-chested and hale and striking fierce Zionist poses, or smiling broadly arm-in-arm with their comrades. In my picture, I’m wearing flannel, jeans and a pair of Brooklyn writer glasses and looking intense — a hipster caricature of a farmer.

In my mind, that kind of says it all.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.

From the annals of Jewish farming: In 1954, Jewish organizations came to the aid of 50 Jewish chicken farmers in New Jersey — many of them German refugees — whose farms had been completely destroyed in a hurricane.

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