A family farm’s Russian invasion


The author says that in summer, a small farm like New Morning is a love-it-or-leave-it kind of place. (Sarah Bay)
June 17

One summer in the early 1990s, during the golden days of glasnost and Boris Yeltsin, our small organic farm in Pennsylvania was invaded by a Russian. Like most invasions, this one was complicated. At first we welcomed the visitor named Stepan, even if we were a little wary. But as the summer wore on, he managed to destroy our vehicles, threaten our neighbors and consume our resources. He even sank our boat.

One of the most distinctive things about New Morning Farm, where I was born and raised, is how much it feels like a small, isolated country of its own. There are very clear borders, an intense zeal for the culture of growing vegetables and a citizenry of apprentices that lives around the village of the barnyard. It’s an empire of tomatoes and corn, and our main trading partner is another little kingdom, the District of Columbia.

My father had learned Russian in the Navy, and for years we sold apples and cheese to the dank commissary in the basement of the embassy on Wisconsin Avenue, where hearty women with wide smiles full of gold teeth stocked shelves of pickles, duty-free Marlboros and counterfeit Johnnie Walker.

My father and I even went to Moscow once, visiting once-grand market halls and muddy warrens of vegetable stands where young men constantly asked whether they could buy our blue jeans. As part of our tour, we were driven for hours in an unmarked van to a collective flower farm, then seated in an office with a bare light bulb and a desk full of telephones where the director extolled the Soviet model of growing tulips.

But the arrival of Stepan didn’t feel like this kind of friendly diplomacy. The farm is so busy, so utterly focused on the battles against beetles, droughts and the rising tide of the harvest, that there can be no compromise. The USSR had been a totalitarian state, but there’s also no tolerance for subversion on a small farm in the middle of the summer. It’s a love-it-or-leave-it kind of place.

We thought that Stepan was a fellow traveler, but though he had somehow acquired an agricultural visa, he wasn’t a farmer. He had been trained as a nuclear physicist. The truth was that we didn’t really know why he was there, and he never completely explained it. We came to suspect, over time, that the farm was just a convenient beachhead and that he might be planning to defect.

In the meantime, he worked in the fields, a pale, muscle-bound man with a severe haircut, looking like a cosmonaut who had landed on a strange planet called Pennsylvania. He halfheartedly transplanted long rows of fennel and got down on his knees to shuffle through the strawberry plants. But once it was clear that the farm held no strategic value, the invasion tipped over into farce.

Each morning he came into the kitchen and poured a huge glass of milk, which he drank silently on the front porch while he surveyed the terrain. He built a rudimentary gymnastics apparatus from locust posts and steel bars, and at night he brooded over an acid-green concoction that he made by soaking herbs in a jar of vodka.

Though he had never driven a car, he began commandeering any vehicle he could find. The dairy farmer down the road called to say that our truck was in a ditch, and that there was a man wearing shorts and a tank top cursing it in a strange language. A wild joy ride on a cultivator cut huge swaths across a neighbor’s hay fields, and an adventure in a box truck led to a downed telephone pole.

The boat was the last straw. A crew of apprentices had lovingly constructed a little chip of a craft, which we took to a lake for a picnic. Stepan rowed with huge angry swipes of the oars, making great progress until he was swamped by a passing motorboat. Then he abandoned ship, grabbed onto the back of a passing jet ski and ordered the driver to tow him to shore.

We didn’t ask Stepan to leave, but the relationship settled into a deep chill. He decamped at the end of the summer, and there was a rumor that he had overstayed his visa and was working in a laboratory at the University of Chicago.

The farm moved on. We mostly forgot about Stepan until one day about a year later, when he pulled up in a secondhand Mazda, explained that he had been driving for 32 hours straight, that there was a problem with his brakes and that he desperately had to get to White Sands, N.M. My mother poured him a glass of milk; he drank it on the front porch, then climbed back into his car and went roaring out of the barnyard.

It turned out that we were wrong about his plans to defect, and that his commitment to Russia had apparently never wavered. We realized that when we saw his car, whose entire hood he had painted as a giant Russian flag. He carried that banner before him as he sped down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, away from our farm’s long campaign against summer, and toward his own destiny.

A farm’s constitution is written on the lid of a bean box, its flag is a muddy T-shirt, and its anthem is the sound of wind in the corn. Its founding principles are about nourishment: sweet corn wrapped in a hot tea towel, a bowl of raspberries pulled from a cold fridge. Putting it all on the line to defend these principles isn’t for everyone, but a farmer is certain in his knowledge that a perfect tomato is absolutely something worth fighting for.

Crawford is the author of “A Farm Dies Once a Year: A Memoir” (Henry Holt, 2014). New Morning Farm sells at three markets in Washington: the Sheridan School (36th Street and Alton Place NW) on Tuesdays (June-September) and Saturdays (year-round); the Watkins School (13th and E streets SE) on Wednesdays (June-October); and FreshFarm Dupont Circle (20th and Q streets NW) on Sundays (year-round).

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