It was 10:30 in the morning on the last Saturday in September, and Fabio, Francesco, and I were comparing our impressions on the first day of the rice harvest before beginning the second day. Fabio and his handyman were trying to fix the combine that wasn’t starting. What was a perfectly functioning combine yesterday was an immovable piece of machinery today.
“You won’t believe me, Ariane,” Fabio said in Italian. “I know you won’t. But the combine isn’t working because Marco stopped by to check on our progress yesterday evening.”
Fabio does all of the harvesting for the farm. He begins in June with crops like fava beans, moves on to wheat and other grains in July, brings in chickpeas and lentils in August, and ends in October with rice. In the months that make up our harvest season, Fabio’s old Fiat combine breaks at least a few times. This was the first time I had heard him blame a person instead of the machine itself.
Francesco, my farmhand, was focused on Fabio’s words and started nodding. “Even Giacomo told me to be careful around Marco,” Francesco added. Giacomo was the farm’s retired farmhand who stopped by throughout rice production season to check up on how things were going. Giacomo’s opinions carried the weight of forty years of experience working for the farm.
“I know you don’t believe in this stuff, Ariane, but it’s true,” insisted Fabio. Apparently, everyone from the local tractor-supply salesman to my neighbors took preventive measures every time Marco came around. Measures were as extreme as not letting him cross over a property line to the less-drastic touching a good-luck charm whenever he was in the vicinity.
“Marco is uno iettatore,” continued Fabio. “He brings bad luck wherever he goes. It’s because of him that the combine isn’t working. I know you don’t believe me, but that’s the way it is.”
There exists in the Italian language a noun to describe a person whom the local community believes to bring bad luck – uno iettatore. The definition includes the notion that this person is unaware of his or her status in a local community, and goes about life unknowingly spreading bad luck around. Everyone in the local community, however, knows and takes any number of preventive actions to protect against the iettatore’s negative vibes.
My not believing Fabio on this point had less to do with whether or not I was superstitious, and more to do with the fact that I had heard all of Fabio’s other excuses for why the combine wasn’t combining. In this harvest season, we had gone through everything from flax fibers almost causing the machine to catch on fire during flax harvest, to the weeds in the rice fields clogging up the augers.
At every new crop to harvest in the season, Fabio and I have to negotiate a series of factors that all have to coincide for a crop harvest to happen. At the very base of whether or not to harvest is the readiness of the crop itself. Everything we grow has an ideal humidity at which it should be harvested. Most grains can be harvested once the plants have dried out to 12% humidity or lower. This means that the crop can be harvested and safely stored without the risk of mold forming or fermentation happening. Plant humidity, however, is a fickle and mutable measure; plant humidity changes throughout the day and with the weather. My chickpea crop was dried out and ready for harvest but then a summer storm came through and increased the humidity such that I had to wait a week before I could harvest again.
After plant readiness, the key factor in determining when to harvest is the weather. If it’s raining, we can’t harvest. If it’s about to rain, and the crop is ready, we will make the push and harvest as much as possible before the weather changes. With rice, because it has to be harvested at a higher humidity, a big risk is also the wind. The wind can dry the rice out too much, causing breakage during processing. If there is strong, dry wind in the forecast, we will work hard to get the crop harvested.
And then there are all of the human-controlled factors. On farm, I do some “post-harvest handling” – agriculture jargon for activities that involve managing harvested crops before they are processed. For me, this includes cleaning grains and, in the case of rice, drying rice in a grain dryer. I don’t have the on-farm capacity necessary for long-term grain storage, so I have to ship grain in trucks shortly after harvest. I coordinate transport logistics with a trucking company and receiving logistics of processors where I deliver my crops. Fabio has to manage the harvesting needs of all of his other clients.
Getting the crop readiness, the weather appropriateness, our post-harvest handling ability, the truck availability, the processor receiving and storage capacity, and Fabio’s combine availability and proper functioning to all coincide becomes the majority of my job during harvest season. When all of the pieces come together, I feel like farming is the best job in the world. Because the pieces rarely do all perfectly coincide, I spend a lot of harvest season with a headache that varies in strength based off of how many factors have still to be sorted out on any given day.
Here we were, on the second day of rice harvest – the last crop of the season – and Fabio was introducing into the mix a new factor to manage: Marco, the iettatore.
So, now the combine was stopped because Marco had passed by the evening before. Fortunately, the mechanic was also able to stop by on a Saturday and fix whatever wasn’t working. With only a couple hours’ delay, the second day of rice harvest could get underway.
That afternoon, as Francesco and I were unloading the rice into the grain dryer, we were having trouble getting the loading auger to work. We tried the old-standby tricks like turning things off and on again, and after a call with the grain-dryer technician, we found out that the loading sensor was broken. We would have to control manually a function that is usually automatic until the replacement piece arrived and was installed. “You’d think Marco had stopped by again,” noted Francesco.
Great, I thought to myself. Marco and his iettatore status had officially become one of the harvest factors to manage.
On Sunday, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and we continued to harvest. When I went out to the fields to check up on how things were going, I saw Fabio, a stopped combine, and Marco. Marco had come to see how the harvest was proceeding. He chatted with Fabio while Fabio was trying to get the combine’s unloading auger to work. Behind Marco’s back, Fabio looked at me with pursed lips and wide eyes, and shook his head. Because I couldn’t tell Marco to just leave, I tried to ask him questions about his harvest season and move him away from Fabio. When I left, I called Fabio to tell him not to let Francesco know that Marco had stopped by, or else things would just keep on breaking.
This year’s rice harvest took almost two weeks, which is about what it normally takes for us to harvest, dry, and ship out our rice. The challenges of this rice production season – excessive weeds due to a cold spring and a very hot summer – created problems in the harvest. The weeds altered the humidity of the crop and meant that most loads of rice from the field had to be dried twice in the grain dryer to fully dry the crop. That lengthened the drying time, which slowed down our harvesting time, which delayed our shipping intervals. The yields were lower than expected, again due to the weeds.
But the hardest part of the rice harvest should have been the easiest to manage. Normally all of the requirements for shipment and delivery are set several weeks, if not months, in advance. Because different processors have different requirements, and those requirements are sometimes hard to organize, they are communicated at the very beginning of the harvest season in June. On the first day of rice harvest at the end of September, those requirements were changed. I spent several days at the beginning of harvest having to manage additional and complicated logistics. The complexity of those changes almost jeopardized the quality of the rice that I delivered. Of all of the challenges that exist in producing organic rice, it is hard to believe that I almost lost part of the harvest due to a communication problem.
As we close out this agricultural year, we are already beginning to prepare for the next. We are planting all of the cover crops in next-year’s rice fields, including planting a trial field with a mix of cover crops that are antagonists to some of our worst weeds. We are cultivating the other fields where we will plant our fall and winter crops. We are getting ready to process our rice that we sell under the farm’s label.
I don’t know whether Marco brings bad luck or not. The local community certain believes that he does. But with all of the things that have to work, not only to grow crops, but to successfully harvest them, it often feels like there must be some magic at work.