A Humbling Harvest | Agriculture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Humbling Harvest

Taking in the squash is a hands-on game at Rockville Market Farm


Published September 16, 2009 at 5:41 a.m.

A few weeks back, Starksboro farmer Eric Rozendaal issued me a challenge. He smugly proclaimed that he doubted I could hang with his cultivating crew while they harvested their cash crop, butternut squash, and invited me to his Rockville Market Farm to prove him wrong. I balked at the implication that my years of sitting at a desk manufacturing paragraphs had made me soft. And, with a hubris I later regretted, I agreed to the test.

It should be noted that I’ve never farmed a day in my life. I don’t even like to garden. The fact that a key component of plant cultivation is bright sunlight is a huge disincentive for me, as my skin burns at the mere suggestion. So, obviously, farming isn’t really my jam. But the gauntlet, or more appropriately the gardening glove, had been thrown at my feet, and I had to step up.

On a brilliantly clear Thursday, I turned onto the gravel drive that leads to Rozendaal’s certified organic farm. He had told me to arrive at 12:30 p.m., just after his three farmhands finished their lunches. I was thankful for this midday start, since it meant I didn’t have to wake up with the animals. But the sun was at its zenith, making me question my decision to wear heavyweight utility pants.

The task of the afternoon seemed clear enough: Fill eight bins with butternut squash. Luckily for me, the squash had already been clipped and windrowed, so all that was required was picking the squash up and placing it in the bin. I’m making it sound like picking squash is as serene and pleasant as plucking wildflowers from a meadow. It is not.

Before the winter squash harvest can even happen, the plants have to be put in the ground. Between May 25 and June 1, Rozendaal and his crew — John Sheehan, who lives over the hill in Starksboro, and two Guatemalan men, Walter Pec Ticun and Eduardo Tuch — transplanted 65,000 squash seedlings into the rocky soil that makes up the farm. Half of Rozendaal’s squash crop is butternut, and the other half is composed of acorn, delicata, sweet dumpling and red kuri varieties, as well as pie pumpkins. In his outside rows, he plants baby-blue Hubbard squash. It’s particularly attractive to insects and thus acts as a decoy, drawing the bugs away from the more important crops.

The 42-year-old Rozendaal began farming in 1994 at Burlington’s Intervale after he returned from a tour in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. While in Central America, Rozendaal lived and worked on an organic coffee farm and got hooked on the lifestyle. “I said, Hey, it’s outdoors, and it just sort of happened,” Rozendaal said.

Eight years ago, Rozendaal moved his operation from the Intervale to a 108-acre farm across from Green Mount Cemetery. Unlike the Intervale, with its loamy floodplain soil, Rockville Market Farm, which Rozendaal runs with his wife, Keenann, is rocky and not at all suitable for root vegetables or other produce that can be wintered over. Squash thrive in that environment, though, and the vegetable has become Rozendaal’s stock-in-trade. The couple grows other market produce — heirloom varieties of peppers, tomatoes, melons and more — and raises organic chicken and pork, but squash is their claim to fame.

Before the harvest began, Rozendaal ordered the guys to load the tractor and wagon with 20-bushel bins. They lifted six bins onto the wagon and two into the tractor’s bucket. Dani and B-Nut, Rozendaal’s two dogs, scampered in front of the tractor as Pec Ticun and Tuch chained the bins in place. “Most people don’t harvest squash this way,” Rozendaal warned. “We’re fairly primitive.”

With the bins on the wagon, we headed out to the fields. Rozendaal drove the tractor, while Sheehan and the Guatemalans followed in the Gator. I hitched a ride on the wagon as it rumbled along the dirt track to the field. By the time we alighted, I was already covered in dirt. My sunscreen, which I had responsibly slathered all over my exposed body parts, seemed to have picked up all the grit kicked up by the tractor’s giant wheels. I was already dirty and we hadn’t yet begun the harvest.

Once in the field, Rozendaal gave me a quick lesson on squash harvesting the Rockville Market Farm way. Most farms this size use a conveyor belt to load the squash into bins. But not Rockville Market. Instead, Rozendaal and his crew use the pitch and catch method, where one person tosses the squash and the other person catches it and gently drops it in one of the big wooden bins. With two teams of two working, they can fill the eight bins in less than two hours.

By October 1, or the first frost, Rozendaal needs to get all the squash out of the fields. Currently, he and his crew are harvesting eight bins a day, but as the first frost creeps closer, they’ll have to ramp it up. This year there’s far more squash to harvest than last year, which Rozendaal called “a disaster.” Early rains prevented pollination, leaving every third or fourth squash in the field rotten, he said.

The butternut crop in the fields when I arrived clearly hadn’t suffered from the midsummer rains. The vegetables were the size of footballs, their creamy orange skin free of blemishes.

Here’s one important rule about squash harvesting with Rozendaal: He is always a catcher. When you’re the boss, even a benevolent one, you are never the pitcher. Generally, Rozendaal and Sheehan work as a team. They are never as fast as the Guatemalans.

When it comes to efficient harvesting, physique matters. Rozendaal is a jolly type, with meaty hands and a bit of a belly. Sheehan, 53, is tall and slim. They proved poor competition for Pec Ticun and Tuch, neither of whom stands more than 5’5” or appears to weigh more than 125 pounds. Rozendaal joked that in some of his fields the weeds are so tall he has to tether Pec Ticun and Tuch together so as not to lose them. Despite my athletic build and stronger than average arms, I was clearly no match for the Guatemalans, either.

I watched the two teams of men make their way through the weedy rows of squash before I tried my hand at harvesting. I planned a strategy to maximize effect while minimizing sweat. My plan failed spectacularly once I started tossing. As I pitched the squash to Sheehan underhand, Rozendaal yelled at me to keep up with Pec Ticun, who was already 6 feet ahead of me, despite having started even with me minutes before. For every squash I hurled, Walter threw at least three, maybe more, depending on the size.

A few minutes into this rather embarrassing display of athleticism, Rozendaal offered me a few tips on squash tossing. “You don’t want them to spin or flip over in the air,” he shouted from atop the tractor. “You have to work on your loft.”

The idea is to hold the squash with both hands, take a wide stance, and chuck it up in the air so it keeps its orientation as it floats through space. It’s meant to look like a knuckleball, only about 90 miles per hour slower.

My first few tosses using Rozendaal’s method flew wide of their intended target — Sheehan. “I’m pretty sure this isn’t OSHA approved,” Rozendaal joked.

But once I got the technique down, I was ready for a rematch with Pec Ticun. He beat me again, cruising through the rows of butternut like he was powered by a NASCAR engine.

Sheehan and I soon switched places, and I took a turn catching the squash. The trick to receiving is to treat the squash like a fragile egg and give a little with your hands. This job suited me better than throwing, though I lost a few errant squash as they sailed right through my gloved fingers and landed back on the ground.

Despite wearing long pants, short-sleeved T-shirts over long-sleeved tees, and bandannas with baseball caps on top, neither 20-year-old Pec Ticun nor 29-year-old Tuch looked particularly hot or tired. That’s because they’ve been doing this since they were kids back in Guatemala, Rozendaal explained. Both men work 12 hours a day, six days a week. Sundays the pair plays soccer with other farm workers at Champlain Valley Union High School.

Rozendaal tried to encourage them to play in the Thursday night pickup game as well, but Pec Ticun and Tuch said no; they’d rather work. With their H-2A visa certification, the men can legally work in the U.S. as long as the work is seasonal, agricultural and temporary. They both leave for Guatemala by December and return to Vermont in April. Rozendaal pays them each $120 a day, and they’re “worth every penny,” he said.

In less than two hours, we harvested eight bins, or 160 bushels of squash. Each bushel is about 40 pounds, making our total for the day about 6400 pounds, or 3.2 tons, of butternut squash. Our take outweighed my car by almost 400 pounds.

That was a light harvest day, Rozendaal said. Normally they pick twice that. One day in 2007, Rozendaal and 14 others picked 1000 bushels, or 40,000 pounds, of squash. This year’s harvest should be between 120,000 and 150,000 pounds, or approximately 3000 to 3750 bushels.

We left the field, the wagon lumbering along laden with full bins. Rozendaal steered the tractor up to his new squash warehouse, and the crew unloaded the day’s harvest. In the warehouse, which holds 15 acres of winter squash, I joined the guys in boxing up the squash for Johnson-based Deep Root Organic Cooperative, one of Rozendaal’s clients. From the co-op, his wares will probably go to any number of Whole Foods markets around New England; the chain is Rozendaal’s biggest customer. Rozendaal also sells squash to local grocery stores and restaurants, as well as the general public at farmers markets and his 70-member CSA. Squashes that aren’t shipped whole will be peeled, cubed and packaged for lazier home cooks.

While I didn’t come close to edging out Pec Ticun and Tuch in the squash field, I did prove to be a quick study with some fight in me. I left the farm with a touch of contact dermatitis courtesy of the butternut, a patch of new freckles and a deepened appreciation of Rozendaal’s job. And my own.