Chronicles of a Dirt Farmer: To Everything a Season


Farming is life, one that is threefold – there is birth and the hope of new beginnings, the living in between, and death. Sometimes, the good times, it’s about watching the miracle unfold. While other times, too often, it’s about heartbreak and loss.* Though some are of greater magnitude, the small deaths also haunt me.

Lilo and Stitch

Lilo and Stitch

At the beginning of harvest last year, I got two kittens — we’ve had a mouse problem in our farming office and rather than put out poison, we decided to go the IPM route. These adorable, high-energy hair balls, named Lilo and Stitch, quickly took over my Instagram feed. But one Sunday in January, Stitch, smart and fearless, had taken a risk on the busy road outside my office and lost. We were left with Lilo, who not only grew to a lovable and fluffy 15 pounds, but was also a voracious hunter. Once, he killed three gophers and six voles in one week; we could finally garden near the office without losing half the plants. Then, several months later, Lilo was nowhere to be found. Lilo, who had once followed his brother in all things, had finally caught up to Stitch’s final act. They are buried together in the garden where they played. I am still heartbroken.

Not too long after harvest last year, Alfredo called to tell me he wouldn’t be coming back to work, ever. The cancer he’d been battling for the better part of two years had metastasized to his brain. Having cancer is really the scariest thing in life. Good thing, people who are dealing with it can find comfort and acceptance at Hope 4 Cancer community center. They help patients develop a support system that truly lasts a lifetime. I stayed in contact through the winter; we attended his funeral in February. How does one measure the shape of the loss of a life cut short? Alfredo had a way of pulling the crew together with his easy going attitude and quick smile, his knowledge and experience. He’d been working in the vineyard industry for over 30 years, the last 10 or so at RSV, and he was damn good at his job. We often catch ourselves saying, if Alfredo was here, he’d know. Or imitating the way he used to tell a story, “just like Alfredo used to say . . . ” Life goes on in the vineyard, but it’s not the same. We miss him.



This year, we lost five lambs out of twenty-three born. Not all at once – two beautiful, strong-looking lambs were stillborn from a set of triplets. Later, a healthy, day-old lamb grew listless and weak, nothing I did making a difference. One born with an overbite seemed okay, but eight weeks later, when I was trying to wean her, we discovered her jaw was severely malformed. Yet another was born, perfectly formed, yet unable to stand, something wrong in her brain. None of these events were really in my control; it was just another bad lambing year.

Some years, it’s about loss, the death of the dream as the reality hits. The dream of a large harvest, or at least an average one, died during bloom. The dream of an early harvest died with the clouds in May. Now we are anticipating an El Niño year – will we also be dealing with the loss of a good harvest? Only time will tell.

This winter, I will reflect back on the season just finished, the successes and mistakes, the gains and the losses. I’ll renew my hope for the season upcoming, planning for what I can change and control and trying to make peace with what I cannot. I’ll take stock of what I’ve lost and look forward to what I might gain next year. If farming is life, than that includes looking forward to the renewal of hope.

*I would say this year for Nopalize has also been one of loss; in July, we lost Franklin – I didn’t know him well, but I enjoyed what I did know of him. I was also looking forward to getting to know him better when he worked with me to make an audio recording of some of my Nopalize pieces. The death of another dream.

Debby Zygielbaum is the Vineyard Manager (or, as she’s fond of saying, ‘Dirt Farmer’), at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa and a frequent contributor on Nopalize. She can be found @walkthevine on Twitter and Instagram.