We are nearing the end of the shmita year, the sabbatical year, or seventh year in the seven-year agricultural cycle, when farmers are supposed to take a rest from planting and only harvest wild foods and perennial crops. On Rosh Hashanah, the seven-year cycle will end and begin again. During the last weeks of summer, it is time to slow down and enjoy the slower pace of shmita. One way to celebrate shmita is to search out and find some wild berries to pick and enjoy, or go fruit picking on a farm. To learn more about shmita and what people are doing this year you can visit this Hazon site.
On our farm, we are celebrating the shmita year by planting less and taking a break from producing weekly CSA shares. I love the idea of a full shmita in part because it would help us all connect to the wild plants around us. If we had to rely on wild foods and untended perennials, we would all pay better attention to the natural world around us.
If we lived by the sea, we would learn about the kelp and seaweed we could forage. Those of us in the city might discover fruit trees we had been rushing by for years. Gardeners would learn to eat the healthy “weeds” like purslane. What would you discover in your yard or neighborhood?
When I was a child, I always knew where the wild raspberries, blackberries and huckleberries grew around our home. My children know where to find our cultivated berries and an amazing diversity of wild berries that grow on the edges of our fields—the tiny blackberries, the giant ones and the newer wild wineberries.
Over the years, we have struggled to establish some of our perennial berries. We had a good raspberry patch for several years before it succumbed to disease spread from wild brambles in the nearby woods. Some berry plantings did not do that well. Engulfed in weeds they simply vanished over the years. Perennial crops can easily take a back seat to the more immediate needs of the hungry annuals, tomatoes begging for water or sprawling in need of stakes.
After all of these challenges, we were finally rewarded with our strongest blueberry harvest ever this July. We planted these blueberry plants about seven years ago, and they grew slowly in an area of the field that is prone to strong woody weeds. Sometimes we could hardly find the plants under all the vines. They seemed to flower and then produce only a few berries before disappearing behind aggressive vines.
Last year my husband cleared the saplings and vines between the blueberries with a chainsaw. The cold winter helped, too, since blueberries like real winters. In June, my husband and I were racing past them on our way to check on some beans when a flash of blue caught my peripheral vision. I turned and saw our blueberry plants almost comically laden with ripe berries. We ran to get the children, and then we all started picking and eating.
We have been talking about shmita for years now and thinking about how to mark the year by slowing down and rethinking our farm. But standing with the children stuffing our mouths with blueberries was our shmita moment. The abundance was almost absurd; sometimes G-d is not subtle.
For the next few days, we kept returning to the blueberries. We harvested them as fast as we could before a rainstorm, children keeping close by and watching the clouds roll in. We picked them during dusk, when the green berries looked almost blue. My son brought his best friend to the patch and saw a turtle laying eggs nearby.
Our fingers memorized the feel of ripe berries and how to flick past the green ones and catch the ripe ones in the quart baskets without even looking. We mostly ate the berries fresh, with our yogurt for breakfast, in salads at dinner and swiping handfuls at every pass of the kitchen table throughout the day. A few quarts made it into the freezer, and a few were given away to friends.
My husband and I often talk about Eli, the manager of the vineyard we worked with on a kibbutz shortly before we had our first child. When we left Israel, he told my husband to go home and plant perennials like fruit trees and berries and have some children already. The permaculture folks and shmita–law writers have something right: perennial crops are amazing and fill an essential niche—they make us plan ahead and think a little more long term, with an eye toward the next generation. And best of all, if they don’t get lost in the weeds, they can completely amaze you!