I stand in the snow, panting, on a sunny winter day. Sweat rolls down my forehead; rivulets drip down my back. Though temperatures have peaked in the mid-thirties, I’ve discarded my jacket, scarf, and gloves. My shirtsleeves are pushed as high as they can go. I lean against a sagging chain link fence, brushing my hair, which clings to my face, away from my eyes. I’m sucking air like I’ve just run a marathon. I need a moment’s rest, so I focus on the rugged, white mountains that rise in the east and the piercing blue sky. A woodpecker alights on a nearby telephone pole, embarking on its evolutionary carpentry: tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. I have just spent an hour shoveling a narrow footpath in knee-deep snow along one side of the fence, preparing the dark, wet soil to receive thousands of little pea pods for the spring harvest. I am in the Pea Plantation of greater Salt Lake.
My friend, Casey, the enabler of virtually all of my culinary adventures, kneels about twenty feet away, hunched over in the snow-crusted soil, pulling up the woody remains of last year’s pea plants. Later, she tells me how much the intractable woody stems frustrated her, but each time I look over at her, I see only her bright smile, directed at me or at one of the several others with whom she labors. Later, I tell her how hard it was to shovel all that snow, especially towards the ground line, where it hardened into ice, but in the moment I work slowly and patiently, gleaning snippets of information from the volunteers who shovel with me. Cameron, a reedy young chef in a white t-shirt and skinny jeans, is a fellow kombucha connoisseur; he has repurposed an old bottle for carrying water. Jorges and Mirielle, an attractive Latin couple, are transplants from Texas. They have a young baby at home – a fact belied by lithe Mirielle’s flat abs and perfect butt – and practice veganism out of their respect for the sustainability of the planet. They tell Julia, a brunette graduate student from North Carolina, about different types of food documentaries, one of which (whose name I miss) makes Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation look like cartoons. I smile to myself. Though shoveling snow is hard work, I am among my people: foodies at their finest.
Ironically, we are all migrants of a kind: transplanted souls called to Utah for various reasons. Unlike the migrants who typically do the backbreaking work of today’s industrial farming, however, we have gathered voluntarily at a local, family-run farm, united by our beliefs and by an honest desire to effect a change. Casey found this community through a website called meetup.com. Our fellow farmers cited other social websites and word of mouth. There were fewer than ten of us in all, but many hands can clear away a lot of snow in an hour.
The Pea Plantation is one of fourteen community gardens scattered across three acres throughout Salt Lake City and operated by Sheryl McGlochlin. Sheryl’s website is liveandthrive.com, for those interested in exploring her work further, but, basically, her farms have flourished, producing table-ready produce until late November each year, because of local volunteers who help her work the soil… and reap its bounty. She charges a $100 annual membership fee. Members receive a bounty of produce in exchange for the fee and a little sweat equity. For people who want to try it out before committing, like Casey and me, there are Saturday gatherings, where one can put in an hour’s work and receive a freshly cooked meal from Sheryl, along with a bag full of the extras, like bagels or cookies, that she gets from bartering/trading with other local businesses.
As the sun begins to set, our bodies cool and we stand huddled, hugging ourselves. Sheryl feeds us a delicious 16-bean soup, salty with bacon (which Jorges politely reserves and shares with Julia) and pleasingly warm. After dinner, we thank Sheryl for her hospitality and disband for the day.
Later that night, Casey and I settle into our hostel beds, nursing zinfandel from mismatched coffee mugs. “Just think how much work it must take to manage 14 acres of farms,” I say. “I’m gonna be so sore tomorrow.” My respect for Sheryl and our fellow farmers is sky high. Though I only contributed an hour’s time, I feel really proud of what we accomplished. I want to keep coming to help.
“I think I’m already sore,” says Casey, laughing as she stretches her long legs. Then she winks at me and says, “That was fun!”