For seven years we were stewards of fifteen acres of beautiful silt loam soil in central Illinois. We raised diverse vegetables, poultry, and two young boys in that little Eden. Each year, our farmhands arrived in early May. They were a remarkable bunch of people seeking refuge and solace in the country—mathematicians, poets, philosophers, sailors, wanderers, marines, a Navy Seal, and an Australian sheep farmer. We were all attracted to farming for similar reasons: the security and self-sufficiency of being able to grow food and the psychic and physical well-being it engendered in us. The physical work was deeply satisfying, and the small fields and rolling hills made us feel at home in the landscape.
The deep, well-drained soil in our lower field along the banks of Walnut Creek is where the Golden Gopher thrived. We planted the rare seeds of this heirloom melon in early May and tended them through three months of potential disasters—flood, drought, and hail, as well as insects and hungry mammals, large and small. Many creatures, including us, wanted to partake of the Golden Gopher. This heirloom melon was bred at the University of Minnesota in the 1930s as part of an effort to produce disease-resistant melons for market growers. The cultivars of the Golden Gopher stretch back to farmer-bred cultivars developed in the United States in the 1800s. Those cultivars were built upon the work of farmers from around the world, beginning in Persia and spreading to Europe in the 1400s.
The Golden Gopher is delicious, but it represents the end of the era in which on-farm breeders considered flavor part of their selection criteria. We have since abandoned flavor in our rush to create an industrial food system that requires durable, uniform commodities. Thus, one of the benefits of operating outside of the industrial food system is that we could choose to prioritize flavor.
We tracked the Golden Gophers’ growth from the emergence of the seedling that was pulling itself up out of the soil. Each tiny plant begins life as a fragile being. Slowly it develops roots, then leaves, and eventually, the vines start to run out. By midsummer, the melon patch is a riotous, solid expanse of large, flat, green leaves that hide a burgeoning treasure in their understory.
The melons are first visible as small, fuzzy golf-ball-sized fruits. It is best not to get too excited at that point. Many things can go wrong and destroy or diminish the treasure. If all goes well, though, the fuzzy golf balls slowly expand over the summer and gradually transform into mature melons, each one about six inches in diameter and two pounds.
The fruits will reach their peak only if the vines stay healthy until they are fully mature. Healthy soil and a diverse ecosystem on the farm are the best ways to ensure the health of any crop. In a healthy system, a diverse cast of insects helps keep at bay the proliferation of cutworms, ground beetles, wireworms, cucumber beetles, aphids, and whiteflies, all of which can threaten the harvest. Ideally, the Golden Gopher vines are still green and growing when the fruit is ripe. You cannot rush the ripening. Once the melons reach full size and maturity, about ninety days after planting, I check on them every day or two. The first clue that they are close to being ripe is the enchanting, sweetly perfumed aroma that fills the air in and around the melon patch. Other telltale signs are a subtle change in color from green to yellow and the appearance of a crack that develops where the stem attaches to the melon. When this crack is close to encircling the stem, you can carefully pick up the melon, and if fully ripe, it easily releases or slips from the vine.
When a melon slips from the vine, you are left holding a gift, a distillation of summer created by sunlight, rain, and the mysterious cooperative network of life in the soil. The density and weight of a Golden Gopher are surprising. I raise the warm melon to my nose. This is the moment of truth. The intoxicating aroma of the melon patch emanates from the melon and saturates my senses. The first inhalation is the best one. The essence of the melon reveals itself in waves of opulent, elegant, velvety smells that stimulate something deep within my brain. Tears come to my eyes as I realize that we succeeded in manifesting this ephemeral experience, possible only through the grace and generosity of nature.
I walk over to the farm lane and casually place the melon on the cushion of the back seat of the truck, trying to play it cool and hide my excitement. Our shared lunch today has just taken on a heightened significance and great promise.
When we return to our house, I wash the melon, place it on a cutting board for everyone to appreciate, and find the appropriate knife to slice it in half. I assess the overall symmetry of the melon and the best place to slice it to produce two even halves. I draw the knife through the melon, holding it in place. I apply light pressure as the blade enters the rind, but the friction quickly falls away as the leading edge enters the soft interior and passes through with little resistance. I slowly lay the two halves open, revealing the interior. The kitchen fills with an intense melon scent, which surprises us, every time.
Our entire crew gazes at the melon. Now, we get a second insight into its character. The flesh is a uniform and vibrant dark orange. I scrape out the seeds and cut the melon into slices, carefully arranging them in overlapping layers on our special oval serving platter. I set the platter in the center of the table. Everyone falls quiet. Then each person takes a slice and admires it before taking the first bite. As people start to eat the melon, the silence gives way to subtle intimations of delight. These eventually turn into exclamations as juice runs down chins. Our senses are preoccupied with this otherworldly experience. I hear “this is incredible,” “my god,” and “so good” breaking the silence.
The world closes in as your body revels in this experience, outside distractions fade, and you are bound up in bliss. Your senses are captivated by a resonant complexity. When the melon hits your taste buds, you get an initial burst of sweetness. This is what you expect from a melon, but the Golden Gopher is just beginning. As the sweetness fades, you get a cascade of complex flavors that dance and evolve on your palate. Hints of vanilla and honey emerge and linger. Your body has a visceral reaction to this depth of flavor and nutrition. It is deeply satisfying and nourishing.
As we take our last bite, we realize that our collective care and effort have produced something extraordinary. You cannot buy this experience; it is an ephemeral distillation of place. Time, distance, cold storage, and disconnection all conspire to downgrade the extraordinary into the merely passable.
Our shared experience of growing and eating the fruit of our labor builds coherence in our lives. The Golden Gopher grounds us in a profound and elemental way. The melon’s opulent flavor sets a high bar and casts other food in a different light. We realize that we were meant to eat food like this, food that nourishes, food that resonates with our body. We were humble people working within our sphere of influence, and we wanted others to share in this tangible experience of beauty in the world. For us, it was the Golden Gopher; for hundreds of our customers, it was myriad other vegetables that resonated with them. Each person brings to bear their own experience and perspective with food. We know from conversations with our customers that our vegetables made a lasting impact on them and imparted a connection to particular people and places.
Our fifteen rolling acres of beautiful silt loam soil that produced hundreds of varieties of fruit and vegetables were embedded in a sea of industrial-chemical monocrop agriculture. We were an agrarian cultural island that functioned as a refuge where we could seek to orient ourselves to the land. We had a tenuous existence at the margins of an empire. We were in a once soft and resilient landscape that greed had made harsh and brittle. We came together in that place to embark on a journey. Nature imposed strict standards on us, stripped away our egos. We had to address pressing challenges every day regardless of our state of mind. We were at the mercy of weather, whitetails, rodents, and raccoons.
Every year, we could see how time spent immersed in nature softened perspectives, rubbed off hard edges, and drew humility out of people. We slowly became more cohesive and in tune with one another and our collective consciousness. The foundation of our work was the dark prairie loam. We nurtured dynamism in the soil, and we brought that dynamism to our customers through our produce.
Over the course of seven seasons, our shared humanity blossomed as our economic viability crumbled. Despite our apparent isolation, we were reminded daily of the power and extent of our mechanistic industrial food system. The shadow of the spray plane darkened the land as it broadcast pesticides and sounds of war. Most of the land around us is coerced with chemicals. The daily bombardments against life were unnerving. This industrial approach to food production erases human potential.
It turns out that I am one of many who follow the same trajectory: farming for five to seven years before moving on.
My farm was like a seedling oak in the understory, trying to survive in the shadow of giants. Our farm crew was also primed for release, waiting for sunlight to flood in and power our growth. We sought to enter into a synergistic relationship with the natural forces that would carry us across seasons, allowing us to survive and even to thrive.We embraced our vulnerability, young and old, coming together in service to one another and our farmers’ market and community-supported agriculture customers. They meant the world to us, and we were out to feed our world. But we were able to survive only seven seasons.
How can we nurture the small trees and small farms that represent a brighter future? Both hide in the understory, waiting to be released. Nature knows what to do. She finds solutions to every challenge by engaging interdependent networks that are based on mutualism. Our challenge is to mimic her approach and find ways to create diverse, interdependent human networks that are oriented to place and regional food systems. The result will be more golden orbs of joy nestled under deep green melon leaves.
Encouraging new life to reach for a brighter future requires that we focus on the things that we all have in common. The pilot in the spray plane is a community member with young kids. My neighbors who farm conventional corn and soybeans rent their land to me. To do so, they remove acres from their own. This means they get fewer subsidies, and they have to do more paperwork at the local office of the US Department of Agriculture.
We are all connected to the land, but we are all also trapped in a food system that puts corporate profits before people. Still, we attempt to support one another in myriad ways. When my neighbors spray the fields next to my vegetables, they wait for the wind to blow from my field across theirs and lower the spray boom and pressure in order to minimize drift. They watch our kids for us, and we share dinner together and celebrate our local bounty. It is on those occasions when the special “farmer only” produce is unveiled: the fruits, vegetables, and meat that are too rare or too fragile to take to market. The Golden Gopher melon is one such delicacy. Sharing it has the power to bring us together.
A Sliced Cantaloupe on Black Background. By Skyler Ewing. Permission via Pexels. (Featured Image)
Vegetables along Walnut Creek. By author.
Golden Gopher Melon. By Terra Brockman. Image use permission granted by Terra Brockman.