Watching Rick and Rita move to the rhythm of farming, you have a hard time realizing they haven’t spent their entire lives on a farm. They started farming full time after Rick’s retirement in 2004. Before that, Rick spent his weekdays (and nights) tirelessly working in state politics and regional development while Rita ran the radio station they owned in a small river community outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On weekends they migrated to the farm that Rick, Rita, her sister Marian, and brother-in-law Kenny purchased in the 1980s. Come Monday Rick would return to the frenetic pace of the city with tractor grease under his nails and an incredibly refreshed spirit. I’d known Rick for more than a decade and knew the farm held a special place in his life and his heart, but it wasn’t until I visited the farm for the first time that it was infinitely clear he had the heart and soul of a farmer. It was something he was meant to do.
My first visit to the farm was in mid-August during the heat of summer. The small crop of green beans was so perfect you could pick and eat them right in the field; rows of sweet onions were bursting out of the ground just waiting to be pulled to freedom. The farm’s primary crop, potatoes, had a bumper growing season with more than 20 acres of the starchy treasure waiting to be unearthed in the fall, enough that the farm might even see a profit that year. It was ideal…a perfect day for a farmer.
The next trip, however, revealed the unpredictability, challenges and near heartache that farming can bring. It was mid fall, harvest time, and the trees were still on fire with the season’s color. The stalks of feed corn in the fields had turned an eerie pale white and looked like ghosts rising out of an early snow that blanketed the ground. That day I walked with Kenny who has tended these fields for the past 20 years keeping the farm alive before Rick and Rita joined Kenny and Marian full time. Steady rains over the previous couple of weeks had the ground too wet for equipment, so the majority of the year’s potatoes lay concealed in the muddy ground waiting for the weather to cooperate (just a little) so the rest of the crop could be harvested. That didn’t keep us from trodding out into the field that cold autumn afternoon. With our breath visible in the cold air and pitchfork in hand we steadily dug up mounds of the starchy treasures hidden in the muddy, snow-frosted ground.
Snow and cold temperatures are critical to successful potato farming. Snow even provides insulation against the cold for tender potatoes waiting to be harvested, but not against the bitter cold that eventually took more than half of Laurel Vista’s crop this particular year, making the few bags of potatoes we took home with us that day all the more special.