Paulette Whitney on the dirty business of organic farming.
I’m showered, my shirt is clean, my hair is brushed, and, if you look closely, there’s even a slick of lipstick – a tiny effort at 5am to look presentable for market. But there’s one thing I can’t fix: my hands. Although I’ve scrubbed with scratchy wheatgerm soap and wielded a lathery nail brush, my hands are still veined with dirt.
The sap from tomatoes, while smelling magnificently of summer, leaves a yellowish, tar-like film that’s almost impossible to remove. Constantly losing my gloves has allowed soil to become ingrained in my palms and fingertips, and the spines from zucchini plants have left a crosshatching of pink scratches, tattooed with earth, along my forearms.
Despite my best efforts, when I pass a jar of preserves across my counter to a customer, her look of horror at the state of my hands – hands touching her food – is unmistakable.
I wish there was time to sit with her and have a cup of tea. To explain that my hands, notwithstanding their appearance, are as hygienic as any others at the market, that the plastic gloves that put together the burger she is eating have probably handled warm meat and cold lettuce all day, and, God forbid, possibly even cash.
My friend Luke Burgess once sprang to our defence when a tiny caterpillar, obviously not wanting to add itself to the protein content of a meal, inched its way out of a radish flower onto a diner’s plate at his restaurant. The diner was aghast at this living thing in her dinner, seeing it as something inherently unclean. Luke tried to appease her, explaining that organic gardens teem with life, that this creature signified a healthy environment devoid of agricultural chemicals. I’m not sure whether it was his explanation, or the complimentary dessert, but she left happy.
I can empathise with her when I recall the traumatic childhood incident of finding half a very plump caterpillar in my just-bitten broccoli, but these days I’m more afraid of the spray schedule required to have brassicas at the table with no surprises lurking in their swollen buds than I am of the surprises themselves. Rather than spraying
(or going without an entire tribe of vegetables), we work with the seasons, growing most of our kales, cabbages and broccoli in winter when our arch nemesis, the cabbage white butterfly, can no longer take to the wing because of the cold, and we feast upon pest-free chard, basil and lettuce in the warm months.
It’s all a matter of perception. Clean or dirty, disgusting or delightful can be interchangeable depending on your viewpoint.
In my husband’s eyes, nothing is more pleasing than tearing open a pristine new bottle of mayo and applying it liberally to whatever dinner I’ve placed before him.
I, on the other hand, looking at that off-white goo, envision row upon row of chickens kept in Camp
X-Ray conditions, the yolks of their eggs handled in many mysterious ways to reach the factory door. And in my mind’s eye there are millions of squeezy bottles piling up in the planet’s landfills.
In the eyes of the gardener, foul things – manure, fish heads, rotting seaweed – are all coveted, their load of microbes and smelly nutrients the very things that make them precious. Combine them with the correct ratio of dry, carboniferous stuff and lush green weeds, water and turn them, and before long the bacteria feasting on that fragrant mess generate enough heat to kill harmful organisms. The informed gardener will never apply fresh manure to crops; intelligent handling of challenging substances and basic good hygiene are all that’s required to reap their benefits.
Last night my daughter saw me stretching my hands and came to massage them for me. She rubbed the soothing balm we make from our beeswax and calendulas into my fingers, examining all the scars and marks of hard work they wear, and not judging them one bit.
“In the eyes of a gardener, foul things – manure, fish heads, rotting seaweed – are all coveted.”