Stop and Smell the Cows

Close-up of the head of a large, white cow in a barn; two others in profile behind it.
My friends the cows.

I take a deep breath. Cows. How long since I’ve smelled cows? I turn and see them, lined up in stalls inside the compact, white wooden building behind me.  The cows are mostly white as well.  And mostly quiet, so it must be past the milking.

Cows. In the west of Ireland, where I lived for 15 years, I inhaled their scent most days. I’d pass them in the field or barn, or they’d pass me on the road, heading for a summer milking. I’d find stray heifers munching grass in my back garden and navigate carefully around the occasional road-roaming bull.

But now I’m a city girl. So the cows, in their stalls, in an urban farm off Henry Avenue in Northwest Philadelphia are the first ones I’ve seen (and smelled) for a year and a half. Twenty-five yards away to my left, four-lane traffic whizzes by and city buses slow-screech to a stop. To my right, however, is nothing but green. Green fields sloping down to green trees at the edge of the very green Wissahickon Park.

I’m not here to inhale cows, however, I’m here to work, as part of my Weaver’s Way co-op membership. With one wistful look back at my bovine buddies, I go in search of the farm supervisor, Emma, who turns out to be a friendly young woman in wellies (wellies! another blast of Ireland), happy for help, even from someone as clueless as myself.

There are two new workers this morning, myself and Danielle. We’re offered the outdoor washing shed–where the morning’s harvest of lettuce and arugula floats languorously in huge tubs of water–or putting scallions into bunches in the fluorescent indoors. I quickly claim the shed. Sorry Danielle.

Close-up shot of arugula in the ground, ready to harvest.  A small stick with
Like it says on the stick

The tub of arugula is my workspace. Emma shows me what to do, picking out the yellow and brown leaves, the stems, grass, and occasional insect and tossing them onto the shed floor (gotta love a job where you can throw stuff on the floor). My shed compatriate, Angela, a seasoned pro, gives me a method. “Clear a space in the water and move the arugula around clockwise into that space, so you can see the bad bits. Then you can use the skimmer.”

The small spiky arugula leaves look a bit sad to me, floating in that huge tub, unanchored from the dirt and somehow not yet food either. I start to swirl them in the water, picking out the dodgy bits, moving a picked-over section on its way, bringing new leaves into my cleared space. It seems like slow work but soon the debris clears.

There are yellow plastic bins for the cleared leaves. I grab one and set it up next to the tub. With a hand skimmer I fish up small clumps of arugula, check them again, and flip them into the bin. As the leaves in the bin accumulate, the arugula regains its personality, earthed, among its fellows, part of a team. I fill one bin, then two. It’s time for the spin and weigh.

In the shop at Weaver’s.

After 30 turns in the world’s biggest salad spinner the leaves emerge crisp and green — this is food, real food, fresh from the farm and soon to be in someone’s kitchen.

I shake the spun leaves into a clear, plastic crate for weighing. When I’m done with everything, I’ve got 4 lbs of arugula. The day’s harvest. Ready for cold storage.

At shift’s end I head back to my car near the cow shed and take one last sniff of that most farmy of smells.  Just like home.