From the childhood moment in in which I discovered the imaginative potential of our backyard, I have fostered a great love for the outdoors. As a child, my short bowl-cut made it easy for me to maneuver through our thick grove of trees without getting my hair tangled in branches, and it was a daily struggle for my mother to convince me to actually put shoes on, which I viewed as constricting and unnecessary, or to wash the mud off my feet, as my young tomboy mind didn’t understand the purpose of washing something that would just be dirty again within a few hours. This fondness for the outdoors and its inhabitants has continued and grown as years have gone by, but I have never felt more connected to nature, more a part of it, than I did one hot afternoon this past summer, deep in the leafy, tangled abyss that is our tomato field at Laughing Loon Farm, in Northfield, Minnesota.
As I was growing up, my mother kept an acre-sized vegetable garden on our property in rural southern Minnesota. Although it was her own personal project and hobby, weeding and harvesting tasks were often delegated to me and my siblings. Despite my love of the outdoors, I truly detested this garden. Most summer days were hot and humid, and my knees and back would be sore within minutes of being hunched over a bean row or wandering squash vine. I believe that a lot of this resentment was due to the fact that I took no ownership in our garden; it was my mother’s pride and joy, not mine. I felt no personal gain in pulling weeds or shaking plump pea pods into a bucket. Despite my childhood antipathy toward this acre-sized peek into the agricultural world, my college years brought about a growing interest in sustainable agriculture and its place in our food system, which led me to take an intern position at Laughing Loon Farm.
I began working at Laughing Loon Farm in late May, helping to plant, weed and harvest the crops grown on our six acres of field space. By late July, the acre of tomatoes was beginning to ripen, showing preliminary hints of orange and red hues. I waited in great anticipation for the day in which we’d finally be able to begin harvesting the tomatoes. They have always been my favorite of all the vegetables, and as we had planted 16 different varieties, I couldn’t wait to see the divergences from the typical plump red tomato, from Green Zebra to Russian Moscovich, Black Cherry to Indigo Rose. I checked them every afternoon, each day hoping to discover one fully ripened.
One hot, humid July afternoon, I was taking my usual pass through the tomato field as the rough, leafy branches slapped my legs and grasshoppers exploded from the foliage in front of me. I was beginning to think that it would be just like every other day before, when I suddenly spotted a flash of red deep in the depths of the tomato row. I pushed the branches and trellising twine aside, revealing a ripe Speckled Roman tomato, its jagged orange stripes giving off a dusty glow. I eagerly wrapped my fingers around it and pulled it from the vine. Because of its oblong roma shape, the tomato fit perfectly in my palm, its sun-baked flesh warming mine and the rough cracks scratching my calluses. Wind was pulling strands of my hair from my ponytail and whipping it into my face, I could feel a stray droplet of sweat rolling down the center of my aching back, and a small thistle weed was poking thorns into the side of my foot (which was bare, of course).
Despite this, however, all I cared about was that warm tomato in my hand. Hundreds of hours of back-breaking work had led to this seemingly insignificant vegetable. I had picked countless tomatoes before throughout the years of helping my mother with her garden, but this was entirely different. I felt a strong sense of ownership in the farm that I had helped to build up; I wasn’t just out in these fields day after day because it was a chore and I had to, I freely chose to come back every day because I truly cared about the outcome of the farm, the results of my hard work. We’d had floods wash away a third of our acres, and extensive hail damage to all of the crops, followed by a period of drought. This acre of tomatoes was one of the few areas of the farm that survived all this, making it even more monumental to be finally harvesting it. I was able to take pride in the fact that I had contributed to its survival. Hours of trellising, bug squishing, and scooping smelly composted chicken manure onto each individual plant, cracked from hail and stunted from water shortage, had led to this beautiful heirloom Speckled Roman tomato. To many people, picking a tomato seems like a very ordinary task, an everyday experience. But to me, it was huge. It reminded me of all the effort that I had invested in this farm, how much I truly cared about its outcome.
The necessity to feel a sense of ownership in this situation is not very different from that of humans and their relationship with nature. If we do not feel this sense of ownership in relation to the earth, we won’t care about our actions and their likely consequences. Rather than forcing people to make environmentally conscious decisions, we need to find a way to help them to want to be environmentally friendly. Feeling this personal connection to nature and its well-being will lead to positive stewardship and a cooperative relationship between humans and the environment, rather than a damaging one.