The life of a root is born from its seed into an environment teeming with microbiology, loaded with organic matter, and abounding with nutrients. That soil protects it from the elements while a caretaker sporting rubber boots delivers precious water throughout the summer. To reach maturity it may be a season or two of dormancy followed by vibrancy. A root is the sole contributor to the lush foliage which is its only connection to the outside world, the photosynthetic life-force.
One of my earliest memories on my family’s farm was picking Echinacea purpurea roots out of a field with a dusting of snow. My siblings and I worked alongside workers and a handful of neighbors who turned up to help us “save” the harvest before winter truly set in. The financial significance of that harvest was immense. Being so young at the time, I only now understand how stressful that must have been for the adults. If the ground froze or more snow fell, we would have had to wait until the following year to finish harvesting. With perennial crops, farmers might have the luxury of waiting, but not with annual crops.
Those were the early days when machinery had not been perfected and roots were manually gathered after a crude digging machine brought them to the surface. Surely smaller farms still rely on this tried and true method. They might be producing a specialty crop not readily available on the domestic market. Larger operations have specialized equipment to handle popular herbs demanded in mass quantities. Wild-harvesters might only have a handful of customers.
Regardless of size or nature of the enterprise, the ones digging are constantly making improvements in methods: sorting, washing, and drying equipment to maximize efficiency in production and ensure quality. A meager harvest might delay purchasing new pitch forks or tires for harvest wagons until next year. Bumper crops might allow for a brand new pickup or machine that is badly needed. It is always a gamble, but appreciation for hard work and love of the plants keep us coming back for the next season.
Persistence eventually gives way to daylight when harvest arrives. A cold bath removes the final remnants of a root's former home. Blasting warm air dries the fibers in preparation for its next destination. Precision blades and screens finally transform the tangled raw mass into a uniform finished product. Careful hands fill parcels that arrive eagerly awaited. Whether steeped, encapsulated, extracted, chewed, or infused in oil for its precious content, once consumed, a root’s hope is to become compost - the very matter from which it was born.
In a single moment, a farmer nervously realizes that summer has run abruptly into fall. A sigh of relief suggests that time is up and root harvest will bring the final bounty of the year. We are all at the mercy of Mother Nature, but no matter what she brings, we will be ready.