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From farm to table: What does that mean?

Last Sunday, I was a farmer for about six hours.

I had joined Chelsea Morning Farm's community-supported agriculture group, agreeing to donate a few hours to help get each member's share -- a crate of produce -- ready for Monday delivery.

I learned very quickly that my small contribution was just a drop in a very big bucket.

Each week, the farm's 75 members receive a crate of beautiful, organically grown produce -- luscious berries, delicious golden and red tomatoes, spring onions, crisp cucumbers, string beans, summer squashes, deep green chard, peppers and chilies in all the colors of the rainbow, and much more. I've been a member, and when my crate arrives at the News-Chronicle office, it feels a little like Christmas. Now I realize there's more to it; like every true gift, it is overflowing with heart and soul.

When I arrived at the farm, I found several others already at work in fields dotted with tarps and blankets; any kind of cover that was not immediately needed for another purpose. The threat of frost the night before had necessitated a hasty effort by the farm's owners, Cree and Jason Bradley, and Joe, their right-hand man, to protect the harvest. The trio spent hours in the dark and cold to save the rows of ripening vegetables. Then they arose early the next morning to begin preparing for the arrival of volunteers and Monday's deliveries.

That wasn't the only adversity they've face with this harvest. They had to contend with a very late spring and hungry deer. Last year, it was a worm that posed the threat.

Throughout the day, we picked peppers; packaged Swiss chard and hundreds of the season's last tomatoes, pulled the coverings out of the field and packed crates. We lifted and hauled. I walked miles, stood for hours and fell down once (no permanent damage done).

At the end of six hours, I got into my car and headed home for a hot shower, dinner and an early bedtime. I'd had a great time and was happily tired, sore and dirty, but I couldn't help but think of Cree, Jason and Joe, who still were hard at work. They didn't complain, and I was impressed with their good humor and generosity of spirit throughout the day. Cree mentioned wanting to take a break to have lunch (it was already 4 p.m.), but she kept finding tasks that required her attention. With a smile, Jason supervised a pair of little boys eagerly washing carrots -- getting themselves and everything in sight wet.

The Bradleys have farmed in northern Minnesota for seven years in a battle against a fickle climate, heavy clay soil and an unstable economy. They grow vegetables and raise chickens; they fish in the fall and make maple syrup in the spring, and they network with farmers and ranchers throughout the region to offer their group members a wide range of products. Cree also works a regular "day job." There's no such thing as an eight-hour day or eight hours of sleep, and holidays and weekends are few.

Why do they do it when their success is often determined by factors beyond their control -- snow in May, seed costs, market prices and policies made by people who know nothing about the lives and labor of people on family farms? I can't claim to know, but I'm glad they do. And I'm grateful to be reminded of all that goes into getting food from farm to table. I'll remember the next time I'm tempted to complain about the cost of groceries.