Mad Farmer Goes to Market

For the past month, we have been selling our vegetables at the local wet market. On Thursdays, I veer from my early morning routine of staying dry indoors, while the sun dries out the dew. I step out onto the wet grass for the harvest. What a rude awakening, when the cold dew on these vegetables fall on my bare back; the vibrations from my sawing reverberate from the lower branches to the leaves above me. Yes, these vegetables grow overhead. They are the tree leaves of moringa (Moringa oleifera, kelor in Malay) and turi (Sesbania grandiflora, or agati).

By late morning, they would have been delivered to the middleman in the market. Our middleman is a middle aged Indian lady named Julie. She runs a small stall along one of the quiet alleys within an otherwise hectic wet market. A true wet market with a slippery wet floor of broken tiles.

We have known Julie for a while. We used to buy vegetables from her before our garden yielded enough. Compared to her neighbouring vegetables stalls, hers is a quarter in size with an even smaller selection of produce. Three shelves, each five feet wide, is all there is. She handwrites neatly the name of each item in Tamil and Malay (or English) on cards cut from old cardboard. Julie offers a calming presence amongst the sea of hurried buyers and sellers. A rest stop that we deeply appreciate. We almost never have to queue, thus basking in her attention and gentle smile in this age of automation and anonymity.

We exchanged numbers some time ago when I got from her tapioca stem cuttings. Since then, Julie has been sending me a verse from the Bible every morning unfailingly. She did ask if I minded, to which I told her I didn’t. I could tell she was not preaching. It was refreshing how blunt she was in wanting to share something that brought her meaning and joy.

I don’t recall how I turned from customer to supplier. Did she ask or did I offer? I only remember it was after the abrupt hiatus she took early in the year. I found out from her market neighbour, the banana seller she shares a calculator with, that her husband had passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack. I checked in week after week during market days but her stall was always vacant. Once I saw her walking in as I was leaving the market. “Aunty, how are you?” She paused longer than customary before replying, “Not okay, my loved one is gone.” In moments like these none of my words would have been fitting. I did my best to look compassionate, but it is doubtful I was able to convey my compassion through my blue face mask.

Her return was as surprising as her temporary departure. When I had finally stopped anticipating, she was back there at the same spot one day. I flouted social distancing rules and put my palm on the back of her shoulder. We were both awkward about it, I think.

Our first sale of 1.6 kilograms of moringa leaves to Julie, wrapped in old newspaper and proudly carried under my arm, came to RM5.60 (roughly US$1.35). “This feels a bit paltry, doesn’t it?” I thought. The sale might not have been enough to cover my round trip petrol, had this transaction not piggy-backed on my weekly market run. We never talked about the price beforehand, just when and how much to bring. There was no question that she would give me a fair price. And so when I handed her the vegetables and she balanced them on her weighing scale, I had no inkling of how much I would receive. I just thought that a double digit would at least sound respectable. Later, a friend laughed kindly when I told her the sale proceeds. To confess, part of my surprise was also from the lack of celeberatory gestures by everyone at the market over our first vegetable sale.

Anyway, our vegetable sales continued, and we added turi, another vegetable that loves to give me morning cold showers. On days when I am more brain than heart, I ponder how I can fetch more for these vegetables. I mean, we are talking about organic, slow-grown, same-day harvested, local, family-run, heirloom, perennial vegetables. I could sell them for a higher price at the nearby organic shop (which I have been avoiding due to the very pushy shop owner). I could dry and powder them to add value. There is social media to tap on.

Julie never asked if my vegetables are organic, just like I did not ask about the selling price. Between us there lies a trust that whatever I bring to her is something I am proud of and satisfied with, organic or not. Proud and satisfied enough to feed a wife and two children.

I dont know if Julie or her customers care about organic, or know about soil erosion, pesticide residue, eutrophication of water bodies, genetic modification, biodiversity loss, glyphosate, food miles, or the sixth mass extinction. Yet there is a subversive glee in supplying these fresh vegetables grown in a way with a conscience on all these issues. I sometimes linger around her stall to see these unsuspecting folks buy our vegetables at non-organic prices, without so much as a word ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ tagged onto them. Talk about non-disclosure! Well, why not, if Monsanto can lobby to refuse labeling genetically modified foods? Why not, if farmers can grow the vegetables they eat on a different patch from those they spray for sale? Why not, if Buttercup’s main ingredient is palm oil?

Dear reader, if this does not make sense to you, take comfort that it often doesn’t to me. Farmer-poet Wendell Berry challenges us to “every day do something that won’t compute.” This is mine for Thursdays.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

2 thoughts on “Mad Farmer Goes to Market

  1. I enjoyed this piece so much! Both heart and mind are breathing in deeply, the courage, conviction and inner strength it takes to care so little for the conditioning we have all been soaked in, and so much for integrity we came with. I hope your relationship with this vendor has blossomed since you wrote this. Or rooted, or shown its gold in whatever way.

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