Farm Journal: Enduring the Heat

This is the sixth post in a summer-long series from a young farmer working as a harvest crew leader at Gardens of Eagan. Check out previous posts, Laying New RootsWhen Farmers Stay DryBuilding Farm CommunityBringing in the Harvest, and Don't Treat Your Soil Like Dirt.


Growing up in the South, I learned that summers are sticky; your shoulders slump from the weight of your sweat-drenched shirt; your eyelids fall heavy just before dinner, sweaty face swooning over a plate of creamed corn, tomatoes, and mayonnaise; your skin tears open and heals several times before the heat crawls slowly away in late September. I like to think, or at least pretend, that summer is my favorite season: autumn brings auburn, rust, and ochre sweaters falling from closets; winter allows for farm bodies to grow soft and limp with the dusting of snow; spring thaws yards into mud, brings rain, teases us with warm days and freezing cold nights; but the sweetness of summer lives under the thin skin of an heirloom tomato, in the heart of a perfect watermelon, in bowls of ice cream eaten at least six times per week. 


Cherry tomatoes ripen up well in the heatCherry tomatoes ripen up well in the heat


Last week in Minnesota, temperatures rose well above 90 degrees, with heat indexes toppling 110, driving the harvest crew at Gardens of Eagan into the shade, into juicy halves of Sunshine watermelon, into daily showers after arriving home. Farming in unrelentingly high temperatures – while climbing through heavy, stagnant air – slowed our work down. In order to cope, our days began earlier; we arrived at 7, only half an hour earlier, but that extra thirty minutes allowed us to blaze through greenhouse tasks before humidity plastered our clothes to our bodies with sweat.


The heat in the field renders a constant battle for farmers and produce. For even the smallest harvests, we carted out a chest of ice in which to nestle our kale and broccoli, adding extra scoops as the heat climbed. Though my fellow harvest crew leader, Molly, and I took precautions for hydration – demanding everyone stop working for multiple water breaks – maintaining morale within the crew becomes the most important element of dealing with the heat. A professional farm operation, Gardens of Eagan also booms loudly with laughter; our field crew – Michael, Holly, and Tony – and our stars in the greenhouse – Beth and Ashley – never slow down, never give up, and always remember that sweating just comes with the job.


Molly, Holly, and Tony with their broccoli harvestMolly, Holly, and Tony with their broccoli harvest


As we entered the week, sweating before our carpool even left the Twin Cities on Monday morning, my heart swelled with memories of home, of weeding and plowing and harvesting through blankets of thick humidity, mosquitoes dancing around my ankles, the rays of the sun barreling into the hot, red soil, my mother giving me chills at night as she diligently turned the A/C just below 65 degrees 


In the south, summer never sleeps. Heat is all encompassing, with no relieving fall to usher the growing season to a close. As an Alabama baby, I cannot, should not, will not complain. Do you hear me? At the day’s end my skin feels hot to the touch, trying to give off and get rid of the field heat that I soak in all day. The fans only take wisps of this hot air away, but in the morning, I do not grimace going back into the hot sun. When I arrive home in the still sweltering early evening, my girlfriend has to beg me to get in the shower – and make it cold! – I don’t even express concern at my loss of electrolytes, dizziness, and excess fatigue. Unlike our melted kale bunches that soak in 40 degree water just to revive themselves, I, stubbornly, take no such precautions.


Brave and happy faces on Holly, Molly, Michael, and me, ready for another day in the sunBrave and happy faces on Holly, Molly, Michael, and me, ready for another day in the sun

I boasted on the way to the farm and back that I loved the heat, craved it all winter long, ached for the feeling of home. But as we harvested cucumbers, their seedlings planted in pairs along beds covered in silver black plastic to maintain high temperatures and deter mammalian pests, I had to choke back complaints of exhaustion, of desires to forgo the cucurbit search, to stop for just a moment’s rest in order to wipe the sweat from my nose, my neck, my knees. When the new, tender velvet kale bunch melted like butter in my hand, when the air remained stagnant over the wilting brassica field, when my throat whined for just a drop more of lukewarm water, I stubbornly would not cry out for relief, for just one small break.


What holds back my confession of loathing for the heat?  How does such stubbornness well up within me, when even the backs of my knees drip, drip, drip with sweat? A Southerner’s pride for her heat tolerance resembles that of many Minnesotans who claim of their hunger for the first frost, for red, running noses, for numb fingers, toes, and thighs, who wait until their dry skin can no longer take the blasting wind to run inside for a mug of hot chocolate and complain about the sidewalks they must later plow. Only once these supposedly winter-loving Minnesotans admit that they, too, wish winter would move just a little bit faster, will I confess that the sweat dribbling down my spine and the ache clawing at the back of my head from a bout of dehydration make me irritable, angry, and sick to my stomach. Until then, I will wander Minnesota declaring my love for high humidity.


Katie Willis is a native of Birmingham, Alabama, where she grew up with NASCAR, twangs and drawls, and lots of fried okra. Her farming career began on an urban farm in Birmingham, where she ate arugula and swiss chard for the first time in her life. Eventually she moved to rural New York to work with chickens, goats, and really strong women. She enjoys a rowdy round of arm wrestling, discussions on all things related to heternormativity, seasonal food preservation, long bike rides, Toni Morrison, and ice-cold beer. Katie recently moved to the Twin Cities with her girlfriend, Lily. They live in Powderhorn and eat lots of butter, maple syrup, and frozen kale. This year marks her seventh season with soil underneath her fingernails and a bounty in her fridge.  Her last post for SGT was Farm Journal: Don't Treat Your Soil Like Dirt.