When I was growing up, my Uncle Roger seemed like an alien. To a kid from the suburbs who’d memorized the prime time TV schedule, his upbringing—on a farm as one of 13 kids—was so foreign to me that I felt more in common with Laura Ingalls than my own uncle. Adding to the gulf between us was his manner, which I perceived as gruff and unfriendly, so much so that my brother and I nicknamed him “Uncle Ogre,” only half-jokingly.
He hunted, fished, built everything himself, constructed a smoker in his backyard, and kept a one-acre “garden” that mainly went toward supporting his pickling and canning habit. Every year, he’d bring out his well-used crock and make the most amazing sweet pickles I’d ever tasted—everyone in the family was addicted, and when he handed them out at Christmas, I can’t say there wasn’t squabbling if someone got just one extra jar.
As I got older and became more and more interested in sustainability and farming, his experience and my enthusiasm finally overlapped, especially in the past few years as Karla and I worked to start our own farm. We sat around his kitchen table, talking about cucumbers and turnips, tractors and markets, and his once-gruff language now seemed like the best kind of straightforward talk I’d ever heard. Like a mentor, he asked questions that led us toward thinking in new directions about what we were growing and how we intended to sell the result.
When we’d convinced him that we were serious in our farming venture, he gave me the famous crock and said it was my turn now for the sweet pickles. Neither of us knew that only a few months later, he’d lose his fight with colon cancer, and he’d never get to taste the results of my first effort. But still, there was a sense of a torch being passed, of family continuance, of that crock becoming an heirloom of sorts.
He never got to see our farm, yet he knew about every bed, all the varieties of tomatoes we’d planted, and gave us ideas about how to handle the imminent abundance. Our last conversation, just a few days before he died, was about radishes. “Pickle ‘em,” he said. “People who don’t like radishes don’t know what they’re missing, so you teach them with those pickles.”
A month later, we’re now faced with the abundance that he knew was coming. In this first year of harvesting, Karla and I are suddenly in the swing of trying to capture all of the gorgeous flavors in the ways that my uncle knew well—canning, pickling, dehydrating, and fermenting. When it came time to make the sweet pickles, I brought out the crock and followed his recipe, crying my way through most of the process. But they all sealed and looked perfect, and I could almost hear him behind me with that tough old voice of his, saying only: “Yep, you got it.”
It made me think of the long line of family behind me, all farmers except for a couple recent generations. My father used to tell me about my great grandmother and how she could grow anything and had no use for people who couldn’t make themselves useful. I have a photo in my office of my great aunt holding up a long string of trout, with a grin on her face that seems to say, “I only quit because I got bored.” And without knowing it, when I chose a house in Minneapolis, it was only two miles from where my great uncle had a sprawling, beautiful farm that’s now (sadly) a shopping mall.
When Karla and I started farming, I thought my interest came from a recent, personal impulse—to be closer to my food system, to provide organic produce to my community, to live sustainably. But when I heard those first pings of sweet pickle jars sealing, I knew that I was part of a much older, much more intimate tradition.
I now have a deeper sense of humility and gratitude for all who’ve come before me—living through the loss of my uncle in a season of fresh beginning and abundance has taught me that I’m part of a cycle and a tradition. Preserving our harvest has now taken on more meaning than I could have ever imagined, and connected me not just to my family, but to a broader sense of simplicity and sustenance.
Like my uncle said, it’s my turn now. And I intend to cherish it.