“Gardening requires lots of water—most of it in the form of perspiration.” – Lou Erickson
Hello, Grow Appalachia family! My name is Marcus Plumlee and I am an AmeriCorps VISTA working at Grow Appalachia’s central offices in Berea, Kentucky. I started my work here Tuesday before last, and already my life has changed considerably. For one thing, I received my first paycheck last Thursday following a long period of unemployment. I have also been introduced to the world of grant writing much in the same way older siblings introduce their younger siblings to swimming (by pushing them into the deep end). The past fortnight has been a crash course in developing both professional and financial maturity, and I can’t say I’ve quite gotten the hang of it yet. (I still have a habit of springing for fast food out of laziness.) However, I would have to say that the most memorable change in my life since starting work is turnips.
Yes, turnips. Before this past Monday, the number of turnips I had eaten in my life was right at zero. It has only been a week and that number must be nearing twenty-five or thirty. I also have more turnips in my refrigerator right now than is in anyway necessary. This may seem like a relatively arbitrary change to many, but I believe it represents a sudden and substantive shift if my life and beliefs. Let me explain (the long way around).
You see, my work here at Grow Appalachia is mostly in-office. I help to keep our website and many social media outlets updated, as well as researching and applying for grants that could be beneficial to our organization and partner sites. As my year of service continues, my role in building capacity for Grow Appalachia should continue to grow and I hope I have the chance to meet many of you all along the way. For now, however, I slog away in the office, in front of a computer screen and in walking distance from a water cooler. Except for once or twice at the beginning of the week. That’s when I work in the gardens.
I was informed on Day One that although my work was to be mostly in the office, I would absolutely have to get out in the world at some point and get my hands dirty. Literally. This surprised me a bit, but it did not bother me. I had been somewhat hoping I would get out of the office sometimes and really learn what Grow Appalachia is all about. However, though I was ready to give it a try, I have to admit that I am a former city boy (Augusta, Georgia), and I have no idea how to garden or really how to feed myself at all. (My culinary repertoire extends to what I can microwave easily and quickly.) But I was about to learn a lot about food and how to grow it in a short amount of time.
Last Monday was my first day in the Grow Appalachia garden. I started with weeding, using many tools including a wheel hoe, a scuffle hoe, and my hands to clear rows of onions, kale, spinach, and of course, turnips. I got to taste a few of both the turnip varieties we grow—Scarlet Queen red and white Hakurei. I’d never eaten a turnip before, but I was pleasantly surprised. I had guessed, with a very childlike view of vegetables, that they must be bland and laborious to consume. I did not expect that they would actually be very fun to eat! Their peels crunchy and flavorful, somewhat spicy even, and their insides juicy sweet. (Although they were both good to me, the Hakurei turnips were far superior, and if you are like many of the turnip averse I would meet at the Farmers Market the next day, I would highly recommend them for a second chance.) Like all of the veggies I ate that day, plucked straight from the ground, they were as delicious as anything I’d ever eaten. Who had been hiding such scrumptious food from me my entire life?
Well, we watered all of the plants, went home, and came back the next day to harvest them. We picked pecks and bushels of the crops we’d decided to sell for our first foray into the Farmers Market. (The Grow Appalachia offices primarily provide logistical and educational support, of course, but we have our own garden to research different growing and marketing practices.) With our hands, coolers, a hose, and a table, we created an assembly line to clean and bundle our vegetables. (Spinach was the most time-consuming, as we had to wash it twice, spin it, and package it in plastic. As one of my co-workers said, “It’s kind of a snooty crop.”) Then we headed over to the Berea Farmers Market, set up our table, and waited to make oodles of money for our products.
Except this is the real world. Small growers lack the supply chains and infrastructure of big growers, and Farmers Markets are kept alive by the community members who make an extra effort to support them. We sold about half of what we’d harvested that day, and most of that was our peppers and leafy greens. The poor turnips sold the worst. Turnips, I learned, have an unimpressive reputation, and aside from the purchases of a few market-goers who were curious at our different varieties, they were mostly ignored.
So we split them up and took them home, and for a glorious week turnips reigned supreme at my house. I even gave many of them away at a party I hosted last Friday. The turnips both tasted great and felt great to eat. (Who knew food could be both good and good for you?!) But along with my joyful discovery of both gardening and turnips came a look into the struggles of local, organic growers. All that sweat and sunburn and dirt I put into those two days is a fraction of the effort serious growers put into their work, and they can’t always expect to make a profit. They should—their food is generally better and healthier! But the systems aren’t always in place to help them succeed. They are deserving but under-appreciated. Like turnips.
And so I have become determined to help local food growers any way I can. Nothing could have motivated me in my work more than actually experiencing both the joy and pain of gardening. I am committed to doing whatever I can do to support community gardens and gardeners. And I’m at the right place to do that—Grow Appalachia. So to all of our partners and volunteers I say two things: Keep up the good work! and Long live turnips!
(I’m the one on the left.)