The Young Farmer Diaries: Night Farming

By / Photography By Helen Chandler | November 01, 2013
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When I set out to farm, I did not picture myself working in the dark. I don't expect many people see darkness when they imagine growing vegetables. Nevertheless, throughout the season, sporadically and then regularly, I have found myself working the night away, insects flitting about my face as they try to get closer to my gleaming headlamp.

During the cold winter months, I sat snuggled up with the dog and plotted out the season. I felt that although I couldn't predict every upcoming event, I understood the magnitude of work ahead. Around the same time, I heard tell of other farmers getting stuck working in the dark. I had difficulty imagining the need to do that and wondered if working faster and harder was an option, a sure sign that I hadn't quite comprehended the demands to come.

As the earthy smells of spring rolled in, I was itching to get in the field. The days were getting longer, the soil was warming, and the seedlings were growing in the greenhouse. I had deep stores of energy, the result of a restful winter and excitement about my endeavor, and I drew from them to work long days. I was cautioned by farmer friends to pace myself, I had a long way to go, but it was hard to imagine that I would get worn down. I sprinted into the future.

Before I was ready, the market season was underway. The spring plantings were in the ground, still more crops were being seeded and transplanted, and I was harvesting and bringing produce to markets. The workload was increasing and there was less time to think. I followed the meticulously designed written instructions I had left for myself, explaining things like how and when to plant and harvest, and how to market my produce and share information about the farm. But even with all the preplanning, I found myself needing to make more decisions by the seat of my pants, which also added to the workload. Life still felt manageable though. After all, the days were lengthening.

But even then, the days weren't quite long enough, so began the night farming. When I harvested peas in the dark, I did not expect that it would continue after the peas were gone. I recall leaning over them in the darkness with just the cone of light from my headlamp to see by, pulling them pod by pod from the vine, thinking thank goodness peas don't last all season. And then when the tomatoes needed to be planted and there was no daytime to do it, it was night farming for them, but it still felt like an exception. It felt okay to lose a little sleep. I could bounce back with a little extra sleep later.

Oh, but then August came. The workload was not ceasing or decreasing and the days were getting shorter. From the beginning of July to the beginning of August, we lost an hour of daylight. I began donning the headlamp more frequently just to get through the regular tasks of harvesting.

I am not particularly bothered by the dark. And I don't usually get scared, but Exie the dog sure is on edge at night. She growls and barks and refuses to relax, which in turn, because of my dog-trusting nature, puts me on edge. Exie issues a low growl and my imagination goes wild. I once convinced myself that someone was behind the melon hoop house and even went as far as to walk over and yell hello, just like in the movies before a catastrophe. Of course, in the end, it was my headlamp flicking across the plastic that gave the illusion of someone else.

Night farming isn't always fieldwork. I remember a night toward the end of July that I got stuck laying the onions out to cure in my storage bay. I had uprooted them a few days earlier hoping to cure them in the field, but because of an incoming storm, they had to be brought inside before they were soaked. It was dusk as I brought them back to the storage bay, and by the time I finally got going, it was pitch dark outside. The contrast between the light inside and the darkness outside made it impossible to see more than five feet into the night. I was thinking, now this isn't so bad, I have light, life is good, but of course Exie proceeded to stand at attention by the rolling bay door and growl into the blackness. I told myself it was just her imagination, I coaxed her into lying down on occasion, but how unnerving. I won't put you through the range of images that my mind conjured up that night, but I was certainly glad to go home when all was said and done.

So far, all disasters have been imagined and night farming has been nothing more than working in the dark, the worst side effect being a slight increase in exhaustion. It now takes a little more "extra" sleep to regain my sparkle. But despite it not being so bad, I prefer to do my work during the day. This winter, I am definitely going to be figuring out how to reduce the need for night farming, and the solution won't include working harder.

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