December 9, 2009
Chanukah at Ten Apple Farm
When my daughter Beatrice was 4 days old, we took her on our first family outing. Bundling the baby against an unseasonable chill, my husband, Karl, and I strapped her in the back seat with her older sister, Charlotte, and set off for two destinations: an organic seed potato sale and lunch with our rabbi. Long before we got around to her naming ceremony, Bea’s Jewish life began on a damp May morning in a warehouse full of spuds.
Karl and I are raising our family on Ten Apple Farm, a small, integrated homestead where we also tend a herd of dairy goats, assorted poultry, a large kitchen garden and an old apple orchard. We live in southern Maine, a state whose rich agricultural tradition is thick with potatoes. Trolling among the bins at Fedco Seeds that morning, our girls in tow, we were overwhelmed by choices but ultimately decided on five types: purples and pinks, russets and waxy golds, a few fingerlings. From the aisles, we heard seasoned farmers debating the merits of each tuber, but I can almost guarantee that in the entire warehouse we were the only family choosing potato varieties for their latke-worthiness.
Chanukah, for us, begins in late spring, when the soil in our garden thaws and can once more be worked. The winters here are hard, and from November until March our land is swallowed by snow. In April, the ground warms and we till, lightening the earth with composted shavings from our chicken coop and enriching it with manure from our goats. A few weeks later, after we’ve put in the hardiest greens and earliest peas, we carve out rows and plant our seed potatoes, quartering the tubers and placing them cut side down with the eyes poking up before mounding them over with dirt.
The year Bea was born, we used Karl’s paternity leave to plant, celebrating the miracle of her birth with work that would ensure that, much later, we could celebrate another miracle. Planting, like procreation, is an essentially optimistic and hopeful act. We have faith that these scraps — not so different from the peelings we toss to our chickens — will put down roots, nudge their fat, glossy leaves through the soil and ultimately nourish us. We believe in these plants and we work hard to nurture them. We teach our daughters how to tend them, how to pull weeds and hoe trenches and avoid disturbing the roots that (we trust) are swelling out of sight. When we’re ready — when we need proof that our work is worthwhile — we head down to the garden as a family and tug the first stem. In spite of blight, in spite of withered leaves, in spite of occasional neglect, there is always a miracle. Our faith and our toil are united and the potatoes always deliver.
Nowhere is Judaism more obviously agricultural in its rhythms than on a small farm. Beyond the festivals of Shavuot and Sukkot, our growing cycle nestles neatly into the religious year. At Rosh Hashanah, we pick apples in our orchard, sneaking sweet bites as we fill our baskets. At Yom Kippur, to forget our hunger, we spend much of our fast digging the farm’s bounty. Charlotte, our 3-year-old, hauls her load in a bucket; Bea, now 18 months, toddles along with a fingerling in each fist. We pile potatoes in the root cellar and there they sit, dirty and cool, until December.
Miracles are abundant on a farm. From the peeps of hatchlings to the magic of raw milk cheeses, we are continually given reasons to marvel. At Chanukah, our family rejoices in the miracle that we can feed ourselves, even in the middle of a Maine winter, with the fruits of our land and labor. We teach our daughters that the gift is in the work, in the memory of each day that we have spent digging in the dirt to come to this moment: From the bins in the cellar, we bring up potatoes. From the chest freezer, jars of applesauce. We cut hanging onions from their braided ropes and send the girls into the coop to collect eggs from the nesting boxes. We heat the schmaltz, rendered from our spent hens, until it shimmers. At the table, the miracle comes in one crisp bite.
Margaret Hathaway is the author of “The Year of the Goat” (The Lyons Press, 2007) and “Living With Goats” (The Lyons Press, 2009). She lives with her husband, Karl Schatz, their daughters Charlotte and Beatrice, and an ever-growing group of animals on Ten Apple Farm, their homestead in southern Maine. For more about the farm, visit tenapplefarm.com.