PRO­DUCE

Paulette Whit­ney on the dirty busi­ness of or­ganic farm­ing.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Contents -

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.”

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