What a Great Place to Put Jerusalem Artichokes

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STORY BY MARGARETT WATERBURY
ILLUSTRATION BY LORI DAMIANO

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I am riding shotgun in a rusty farm truck bumping along an uneven dirt road late one fall day. John Eveland is driving, and I’m interviewing him about his farm when the phone rings. It’s an order for 200 pounds of Jerusalem artichokes, that strange relative of the common garden sunflower that produces edible, starchy underground tubers. The buyers want to pick the sunchokes up the next morning, and there is not much daylight left.

John is in his mid-60s, imposingly tall, with the ease and unhurried demeanor of a professor emeritus or a visiting dignitary. He and his wife, Sally Brewer, founded Gathering Together Farm in 1987. After a modest start – one year, he tells me, they only stayed in business after Sally got an insurance settlement after being rear-ended – Gathering Together has grown to more than 50 acres in Philomath, just outside Corvallis. At the height of the summer, the farm employs more than 80 people on the farm alone, not including the small army of market staff and delivery drivers.

When we think of farms, we usually think of summer – the lush farmstand display, the sun warming fragrant tomato leaves, the shiny, glinting shoulders of pepper and eggplant. But a lot of farming –the less glamorous components – happens in the off-season. For every heirloom tomato sold at destination urban markets for $6 a pound on the perfect August morning, there are flea beetle–infested radishes to treat, unsold potatoes rotting in their totes, a walk-in refrigerator in grumbling need of repair. And today, there are sunchokes. If I want to finish my interview, I’ll have to tag along.

“You ever picked a sunchoke?” John yells at his assistant, Dan, who’s driving a tractor through a freshly vacated field. Dan takes his protective earphones off. He looks at John warily, with a mixture of exhausted irritation and amusement. It is November, and everyone is tired.

“No. Is it like picking potatoes?”

“Yeah, sort of, in that we grovel in the mud and our intention is to separate them from the earth. Go get your rain bibs.”

At the end of its life, the sunchoke is not particularly beautiful. Twelve-foot-tall stalks die off, become brittle and grey, and fall over into one another like tangled hair. At their base, the plants disappear into the damp, thick, clay-filled soil of the Mary’s River floodplain, and until John and Dan separate them from the earth, their tubers remain out of sight.

This field of sunchokes is made up entirely of volunteers, plucky survivors from last year’s crop. The plants grow haphazardly, scattered without rows. John and Dan kneel in the heavy mud and dig, quickly and carefully, revealing clusters of grubby tubers caked in thick silt. I, the useless writer without work gloves or bibs, sit on the bumper of the truck and watch the tubs slowly fill, John and Dan pausing occasionally to clean their tools of the soaking mud.

This is all for a vegetable that John is not particularly fond of. Born and raised in Iowa, John is more of a corn man. “But this is what you do when you’re chasing the almighty dollar,” he laughs. “You grow things you don’t love.”

Twilight arrives as they finish packing the order. Covered in mud from head to toe, John and Dan look exhausted, and the surrounding fields are empty except for a few tufty, bed-head rows of celeriac. Harvesting in November always feels like snatching victory from the jaws of winter, just before they snap shut for good.

But there’s always something to appreciate. Tubs of sunchokes loaded on the flatbed truck, John finally straightens and looks around at his surroundings. To the west, mist from the Coast Range seeps in through the flame-orange poplar windbreak like a slow-moving river. The sun’s gone down, but a last bit of light glows gamely against an oyster-colored sky. The tractors’ engines cool, and the farm is quiet. “My God,” says John, “What a great place to put Jerusalem artichokes.”

 

Margarett Waterbury is a food, drinks, and travel writer who lives in Portland, Oregon, and the managing editor of Edible Portland.

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