Backyard Farming

I call them backyard farmers, but they probably don’t agree with me. It’s popular among Asian immigrants in New Jersey to engage in backyard farming every year. I even know a couple who don’t live in a house and don’t have a backyard to grow their produce. What do they do? They rent a plot from Rutgers University for $25 a year to grow half an acre of vegetables from May to October.

It’s an arduous task. The seeds have to be bought and planted. The Asian grocery stores here sell cucumber, loofah, long bean, and even winter melon seeds. The cucumber has to be the kind with little spikes on the dark green skin, not so prickly to bleed your hands, but rather gentle barbs to tickle your fingers. The inside is so crispy that you can hear the crunchy sound when you take a bite. The loofah is the most popular since it is quite expensive and non-fresh from the store. Planting is the first step. What follows are months of labor and vigilance. Fence has to be erected to fend off rabbits and deer; frames to be constructed for tomato vines to climb; fertilizers are bought and deployed. There are also various tools to dig, till, twist, rake the soil for the best planting condition.

Once I was staying in a place in upstate New York. The couple I was staying with had a backyard more than an acre, on which they grow cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions, leeks, and several other items as well. The couple invited me to go to the backyard to pick vegetables to make salad for dinner. They are very proud, sort of a back to nature kind of style for them. I had no interest in their backyard farm, but I had to accompany them, offering my compliments and pretending that I envy their food, self sufficiency, organic life etc. I feel myself so fake. Why can’t I just say I have no interest at all in planting, farming, or harvesting?

When I was in high school, we were sent to a village not far away from the big city for two weeks. Our whole class of 50 or so students lived in two separate farm houses, one for boys and one for girls. It’s the harvest season and the rice field is endless. The farmers didn’t really want us there since we didn’t know how to do things. Harvesting rice with a sickle is not as easy as we tend to think. I couldn’t advance even three feet within half an hour. It ended up that I had to give up my sickle–a big curvy knife–to somebody more skilled than I was. The most menial job was assigned to me–to pick up the stalks with grains and yellow hulls that were left in a harvested field.

The farmers worked from dawn to dusk. They didn’t go home for meals. The whole village became a collective unit with only several older women cooking for the whole village. They cooked and delivered the meal to the field. At the end of the day, the villagers were not going home to take a rest. They continued to get the crop husked on whirring machines at a corner of the village. Then the husked rice were laid out on the ground to dry. They worked all night, taking turns to go back home to sleep. The machines never stopped for one minute. This went on for as long as it could last. Rain is the biggest enemy for the harvest season. All stalks that have been cut down need to be husked and dried before the rain come. In the subtropical region it is hard to find a whole week without rain and things need to be organized well and executed efficiently and swiftly.

I really admired these farmers and their hard work, something that I can never do. When we went back to school, I submitted my homework assignment on the backbreaking work of the villagers. My teacher disliked my essay and criticized me for being too negative, which I vehemently denied.