This Week in Jewish Farming: Meeting the neighbors

With the help of a CoolBot -- and a neighbor -- farmer Ben turned this used cargo trailer into a refrigerator. (Ben Harris)

With the help of a CoolBot — and a neighbor — farmer Ben turned this used cargo trailer into a refrigerator. (Ben Harris)

Back in the spring, I struggled to figure out a good cold storage solution for the farm. I settled on the idea of buying a used cargo trailer and converting it into a refrigerator, which isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds.

Several farmers I know, and supposedly thousands of other buyers across the world, have purchased an ingenious little device called a CoolBot, which essentially tricks a standard window air conditioner into functioning as a fridge. Hook the Coolbot to the AC, stick it in a well-insulated room, and presto.

The main part of this job was laying the insulation — 4 inches of foam on every surface of the trailer, according to the manufacturer’s recommendations, and the thing needs to be both airtight and waterproof. My mom’s favorite handyman helped me out at first, but after two days it was still unfinished and he had to leave town. At this point, I was barely a week away from my first farmers market and, typically, I was getting nervous.

I wandered down to the hardware store where I had befriended the manager and asked if he knew anyone with carpentry skills who could do a weird job on short notice. Turns out he did. It further turns out that the carpenter in question was my next-door neighbor.

Larry is a 76-year-old lifelong bachelor who grew up on the land he still lives on. His father was a dairy farmer and his extended clan – two brothers, an uncle, some nieces and nephews, and various other relatives – all live in neighboring houses. Larry runs a small boat repair business out of the shop in back of his house and he agreed to shepherd my makeshift refrigerator through to the finish, though he was deeply skeptical of the idea. Still, a week later, he pulled his truck up to the farm with the trailer hitched behind him. We hooked up the CoolBot in a matter of minutes and, within the hour, the temperature was down to 37 degrees. Victory!

Since then, Larry has become a regular presence in my life. He built me a custom box to protect my pricey scale when I lug it to the market and a plywood tailgate for my truck. He replaced the truck’s hitch, repaired the pig-tail electrical connector and cleared a clog in my backpack sprayer with his air compressor. When the starter on the truck blew a few weeks back, he towed me back to his house. Bare-chested and lying on a piece of cardboard on the ground, Larry replaced the starter while his brother Raymond and I talked about water pumps.

I’ve paid Larry for some jobs — sometimes in cash, other times in tomatoes – and others he’s done just to be nice. Every couple of days I’ll drop by his place on my way home. He’s normally laid back on a cot in his living room watching TV, his supper on the coffee table nearby. I’ll sit for a bit, he’ll tell me the same story he told me the day before or rant about the news. About the only thing I can offer in exchange for his many kindnesses is loaning him my weed whacker and providing some company. And that seems about enough for Larry.

In an earlier post, I soured a bit on this notion that food is the great community builder. But my relationship with Larry harks back to what I imagine community life was like in an earlier era — a time when neighbors performed vital functions for one another, when the connections were thick and lasting, when the sense of mutual dependence was real. It’s something I never experienced before, neither in the density of Brooklyn nor in the roomier, white-picket-fence suburb of my childhood.

It’s the kind of thing I think we all idealize in our hazy, sepia-toned imaginations but rarely experience. And it’s the kind of connection born less of food than of need and proximity — though greasing the skids with some fresh-picked delicacies from the fields certainly helps.

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 1934, JTA profiled a new collective farm near Saginaw, Mich. run by 80 Jewish families, most of them first time farmers from New York.

NEXT STORY