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Farmers feel chill of autumn deeply

Mon., Oct. 4, 2004

This is why Lisa Kinyon tears up in the fall – because the long summer days at her Otis Orchards truck farm give way to empty fields and farewells from patrons of her vegetable stand.

She spends her days locating charities in need of food and eyeing the bedding plant season five months away. Soon, she will be uncomfortably idle-handed.

“It’s like retiring every year,” Kinyon said. Two hundred days of sun have turned her face a buttery bronze and her auburn hair glows in direct sunlight. “For about a week, you don’t know what to do with yourself.”

Fall is the best and the worst of farming, a time when success can be measured out on a spring scale and stacked into piles like cordwood. It is the prize at the end of a long, hot race that coats every runner’s mouth with the grit of the earth and has every joint creaking like a sprung screen door.

But it is also the bearer of death’s cold kiss, that 32-degree blow that sends green lifelines withering when frost blankets the stage like a cold, dark curtain.

And so farmers like Kinyon, her husband, David, and old timers like Chester Utecht of Greenacres do what they can to buy time, to give that first frost the slip, by somehow holding their collective breaths and letting nature’s heart attack pass over their fields. No one is hoping to work the soil in perpetuity. Rather, they bargain for just a few more days in a season that, like life, is quickly gone.

Farmers 20 years ago would fight the frost by gathering corn stalks in standing bundles and burning them throughout the night. The practice secured an extra week or so for hard, green tomatoes to do in weeks what earlier batches did in months.

For lack of a burn permit, Utecht will rise in the middle of the night to see how his plants are holding up to the chill. If the frost is likely, the 80-year-old farmer will turn on his sprinklers and armor his plants with an icy shell.

“I’ll try it for one night, but if it looks like it’s going to be cold for three nights, I won’t bother,” Utecht said.

A few more days on the vine would suit Utecht. This growing season will likely be the last for the Spokane Valley farmer, who supplements his breath with bottled oxygen. Utecht is battling cancer and his farm chores are being taken over by his wife and children.

He ponders the similarities of farming and life, the rush to plant in the spring and the impatient willing of seedlings into fruit-bearing adults, the plateau that is harvest and the startlingly sudden end.

“I like spring the most,” Utecht said. “I like to plow.”

This season, Utecht harvested the largest early girl tomatoes he can remember. They were bigger than his fist. He has no idea why. Sometimes things just go your way.

David Kinyon battled aphids, lost 65 percent of his pumpkins and much of his corn. It was just his turn to play a bad hand. If the morning dew freezes tomorrow, he might not fight it. He may just watch.

“Most people don’t get to watch what happens when fall comes, but farmers are a part of it,” David Kinyon said. “The pumpkins ripen and when the sun goes down, they glow back at you. I’ll have a glass of wine and sit on the back of the pickup truck and just watch for 15 or 20 minutes. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life.”


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