Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Cabbage Gang

First, a comment about "climate change." The phrase is redundant. Climate and change mean practically the same thing. That's why we call it "the weather."

Which is something that farmers understand. I have a friend who farms outside of LaConner, and being short of help, he asked me to work for him last week to plant the cabbage seed crop.

Many thousands of cabbage seeds had been carefully, mechanically deposited into hundred of trays in late July to begin the crop. By mid-August the little plants were 3-4 inches tall with several light-green leaves -- ready to go into the field.

The seedling trays are loaded on to trucks and carried out to fields in various parts of the Skagit Valley for transplanting.

The transplanter, powered by hydraulic hoses, is carried behind a medium-size tractor. Two field hands ride on the transplanter and take the plants from the trays and drop them into a tube, which goes down to the ground, where a small furrow has been made. The transplanter squirts a bit of water and then smooths the soil around the seedling as it moves down the field at the pace of a slow walk.

Another field hand walks behind the transplanter. His job is to poke little plants into holes which may have been missed, or to straighten them out a bit, if they are planted sideways or upside down, as sometimes happens.

All the cabbage seedling trays are carefully labeled, according to type, and whether they are designated male or female. The boy cabbage seedlings get blue tags, and the girls have pink tags.

Every variety must be placed in a separate field to prevent one kind from breeding with another. It's very complicated, and the farmer, who organizes all this, sometimes tears his hair out with frustration if the wrong tray gets sent to the wrong field.

This is a seed crop. The seedlings will mature into youthful cabbages by late fall, and then go dormant through the winter. In early spring, they will grow again, but, because this is their second season, the cabbages will not turn into cabbage heads, the kind we eat, but will grow into 4-foot bushes with creamy-yellow flowers in the merry month of May.

The plants continue to mature and produce seed pods, which are harvested in July. These seeds will be cleaned, sorted, and sold to farmers all over the world and we will all have plenty of cabbages for kole slaw and kim chee and sauerkraut.

The farmer I worked for is a first-rate fellow and, as hard as we worked, there were plenty of jokes and songs and stories among the crew. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I also found it, at age 61, exhausting. My co-workers were all under the age of 30 and none the worst for wear. But I made a joke about it. "Soy viejo y mi espalda se duele," I sang out, as we walked across the dusty field, "I am old and my back hurts."

I was the only one who spoke English. No matter, I can speak country Spanish pretty well, by which I mean that country people from Mexico are very tolerant of mangled Spanish. It makes them laugh. So I began to make up nonsense songs, like, "Yo no puedo cantar, porque no se las palabras, la-la-la, la-la-la." That means, "I can't sing because I don't know the words, and la-la-la, and la-la-la."

Singing made me feel less tired. Fairly soon I was getting requests from the two ladies on the crew. I dug into my repertoire of Tejano music -- the Hispanic music from Texas -- especially the great soulful songs of Freddie Fender, who died last year.

Surprisingly, they had never heard of Freddie Fender. I guess not, because they were from Cuernavaca, a pretty little town near to Mexico City and they have a different kind of music down there.

"Pero yo conosco Cuernavaca, hace muchos anos," I said. "I know Cuernavaca, I was there many years ago."

Then they said, "Are you married." No. "Why not?" Mala suerte -- bad luck, I answered.

So it went, hour after hour, down the row, turn the tractor, down the next row. Stop at the water tank and fill the tractor again. Wait for the truck to bring out more seedling trays from the greenhouse. Take a longer break when the hydraulic hose snapped a coupler and needed repair.

Looking at the sky, it was not hot, but it was full sun and glaring in the wide field. I had taken off my flannel shirt as it got warmer. But I could feel the sun bearing down hard and sapping my strength. So I put my flannel shirt back on and rolled down the sleeves. I tied a cotton kerchief around my neck, and I put on my sunglasses. This made me more comfortable.

Later, I asked the tractor driver, "Que le gusta mas, una flaca o una mujer gordita?" Which do you like better, a skinny woman or a fat woman? This got a lot of laughs. The tractor driver said he preferred the fat ones. Whether he was telling the truth or being diplomatic, I couldn't say.

So the day passed and the week went by. I wasn't able to return to the fields the following week because of obligations in my landscaping work -- but I'm glad I did it, and I got paid, and I'd like to go again sometime.

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