LittleField Notes: Comentarium Agriculturae Miscelenea
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
Nota Prima – In which I for a moment, become a part of the flock.
A spring-fed waterline serves every coop and corral in the farmyard. It pleases me to have the freshest water flowing in all seasons. It also pleases me not to have to drag hoses around to clean out and replenish stagnant troughs. From time to time my clever livestock watering system gets clogged with sediment necessitating the need to blow out the lines with compressed air.
One such maintenance session occurred on a recent summer afternoon, and after a great deal of fooling around, I finally got the water flowing properly again. For my final task I crept into the chicken yard to clean out the rubber tub into which the newly restored water was dripping. The tub sits in a corner of the yard where a plump black hen was busy pecking about. I expected her to move off as I approached, but instead she became confused and panicked, squawking and flapping her wings in an attempt to climb up the side of the chicken-wire fence as I crouched down in front of the rubber tub. It was at this moment that I became aware of a certain menace behind me and an instant later felt something engage my back. There was a violent flapping of wings and the stabbing pain of talons. It was Rex, the barred rock patriarch of the flock. I twisted and stood up quicker than I thought possible, throwing him off in one motion. Naturally I was alarmed, and not at all pleased. I chased him around the pen and snatched him up. Staring into his beady little rooster eyes, I spoke to him words that he would clearly understand. I told him that he may be a grande and beautiful rooster, full of might, but that I am a grander and far more powerful rooster, full of greater might even than he. My message delivered, I gently set him down. He skulked off to a far corner of the coop to think things over.
The only other rooster I have had that attempted this kind of attack put holes in the back of my oldest son Rowan’s back when he was maybe only four years old. Fredrico was his name, and he lost his head. The attack on Rowan was completely unprovoked, out in the open, away from the flock. There is no good reason to keep a rooster like that. Rex got to keep his head, and I don’t actually hold this recent incident against him. To his way of thinking I was attacking one of his hens and he was acting out his responsibility to protect the flock. I respect him for that. He has never before or since shown any aggressiveness towards adults or kids. I’m confident that this incident was enough to strongly reinforce that I am, at the top of the pecking order, a concept that he completely understands.
Nota Secunda – In Which I Continue to be Confounded by the Success of Industrial Agriculture
Nothing important comes into being overnight; even grapes or figs need time to ripen. If you say that you want a fig now, I will tell you to be patient.” – Epictetus
I am not exactly sure how to say what it is that I am about to say without sounding like I am making overblown compensations for my own perhaps wayward convictions. I am also not sure how to say it without coming across as a cold-hearted doomsday huckster who wants nothing more than to see the collapse of the modern world and starvation for the masses. In short: I know that vast amounts of farmland are paved over each year, and I understand all too well the weaknesses inherent in a monocultural, chemically intensive farming model. The system as we know it, is almost by definition doomed to fail. So why does it seem to function so well? I’m bothered, in a strange nagging way, with how the industrial agribusiness model carries on year after year, ostensibly without a hitch.
I walk into a supermarket and a few steps in I stop stock still, in a state of bewilderment. The colors: red, blue, yellow; the shapes: squares, rec-tangles, circles; looks like a kindergarten room bedecked with primary colors and basic shapes. Be it January or July the scene is identical.
Squares: breakfast cereal boxes, frozen dinners, candy bars, 1/2 gallon boxes of milk. (Imagine if you told someone who lived 150 years ago that milk would someday come in a throwaway box!) Circles: frozen juice concentrate, yogurt containers, soda cans, canned corn, bottles of water. (Imagine if you told that same person that someday people would pay cash money for water in a plastic bottle, while it flows endlessly and free from a tap located inside the house itself!) And don’t forget those cans of Pringles. (How do they make those odd little sodium bombs that so little resemble anything that comes from the earth?)
For odd shapes and less brilliant colors I stray over to the produce department. Despite their more muted appearance, these colors and shapes too pop with a bright, crisp regularity born of the perfection of form. Immense peppers shine with sports car green. I pick up a perfect apple, exactly uniform, exactly red, so red that it defines in a dictionary kind of way, the color – tempting in such a way that I feel an instant empathy with Eve – now I understand. Looking further I see a heap of watermelons, a bin of sweet corn, pound plastic bags of cherries, a pint of enormous pale strawberries that I know have the consistency of soggy balsa wood and the flavor to match.
I know a little about planting, growing and harvesting a crop. I understand something of the vagaries of weather, the menace of pests, endless uncertainties, the constraints of local conditions. So it feels strangely unnatural to walk into a supermarket on any day in any town and see virtually the same glowing selections with never a blemish. Where are the worm holes in the apples? The carrots that twine around each other? Were these potatoes even grown in soil, because how did they get so clean? And how is it that you can buy fresh grapes year round? And never a crop failure? Never a shortage?
Everything always available
Everything always perfectly available
A modern miracle, really, of which I am completely stupefied and utterly terrified. But why should year round abundance and perfection rankle me so? What kind of Scrooge am I to begrudge the general population their watermelon in January and spinach in August? It sure beats a February meal of turnip soup, and a bit of mutton. Or does it? Those California strawberries that look like Barry Bonds after years of steroids? I consider them both with the same regard: flavorless cheaters. How about a seedless watermelon? A fruit without seeds is like a dog with no bark, a cat with no purr. A seedless watermelon in February is like a cat that barks. That turnip soup and mutton would at least taste like what it was, which is to say, more than a mere shell of itself.
My supermarket bewilderment is not only a result of the blatant disregard for seasonality, but also the way the industrial food model seems to have so successfully conquered the challenges that farmers have struggled with since the dawn of agriculture. From the outside looking in, the rules just don’t seem to apply to the modern food chain.
Of course you, dear reader and I, well know that all of this supermarket perfection and unseasonable selection is nothing more than a house of cards, built on sand, fueled and fertilized with cheap oil, harvested by exploited labor. And we know it can’t last forever. We well know the soft underbelly of agribusiness-as-usual. This magazine and others have been warning of these perils for decades: the ruinous nature of monocroping, alarming rates of soil erosion, loss of agricultural diversity both in crops and livestock, the massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, drinking water poisoned by agricultural runoff, the pandora’s box of genetic engineering wrecklessly opened, corporate consolidation of seed stocks, chemicals and fertilizers. Have we little people been wrong? Are we simply being alarmist, clinging desperately to some romanticized version of an agrarian landscape that can never again exist? How long can science and human cleverness trump the laws of nature that small farmers have always been beholden to?
For my part, I’m sticking with what I know, with what I have learned from scratching at the dirt with a stick, pressing in a seed, watching, tending and waiting until at last a ripened fruit is plucked and with the juices of gratitude dripping, savored. Because I have eaten of the honest fruit of my own land and labor, and because I well know what that entails, I fear for our collective future.
Of course I would never wish for people to go hungry, and I hope that humanity comes to its senses voluntarily, before it is forced to by extremely unpleasant circumstances. That said, nothing would make me happier than to cast an eye toward the produce section and see a sign under an empty bin that reads, “Cherries sold out, next shipment arriving June 2020.” At least I would feel like there was order to the universe, and that maybe soon that bin would hold some fresh juicy peaches.
Nota Tertia – In which I discover that barns can house unexpected crops.
I couldn’t help but reflect on these themes when I recently had an opportunity to walk about an old farmstead not far from my home. Here was the modest farmhouse, and off to one side tucked under some towering cottonwoods, a machine shed, milk-house, a couple of small outbuildings and finally a grand old barn sporting blue paint. Because someone had bothered to give her a new roof, she was still standing, and though the paint was peeling, she still had a lot of life left in her. I opened a creaky door and stepped inside. The walls still retained a fair amount of white wash – this was once a dairy barn – but the manure trough and stanchions had been removed and the floor leveled with new concrete. As I stood there and gazed about, I felt a bit of sadness, a touch of melancholy. Yes the barn had not fallen in under last winter’s snow (thank goodness for that), and yes someone over the years had taken the time and gone to the expense of performing basic maintenance – all good things to be sure. But something was missing: the cows for one. And with the cows gone, the obvious question is, where is the milk that the cows produced? Who took up that slack? And don’t we have more mouths to feed now than in the 1960’s when the milk cows were likely sold off? And with this barn empty, and most of the barns in this country either idle or demolished, how is it that grocery store shelves are still well stocked, indeed more well stocked than ever? Again, the strange alchemy of science and industry that gives us year round perfect food, seemingly without regard to seasons and cycles, also does so apparently without farms or farmers.
Upon closer inspection of the barn I noticed that everything was not entirely normal. There was a spaghetti bowl of PVC pipe snaking through the loft floor joists, and against one wall, a 500 gallon square plastic fuel tank like I’ve seen biodiesel delivered in; lined up neatly on the floor, a row of about 20 grow lights; in the barn loft a single giant room finished in cheap wafer board, oddly independent of the gambrel roof framing. Very strange indeed. Strange, but not so strange that I couldn’t do the math and conclude that it had been a marijuana grow operation. It had clearly been in business before the stuff was legalized in Washington State a few years ago. Running an illegal operation of this size so close to neighbors and a main road would certainly cause a bit of anxiety; would render an incurable case of glancing-over-one’s-shoulder accompanied by uneasy sleep and a certain distrust of everyone. Not surprisingly, signs of paranoia and fear were everywhere: cracks between boards were sealed with insulative foam in order that the constant shine of grow lights not be seen from outside, garage doors sealed shut, security cameras everywhere.
There is a story I’m sure: a family farm, a passing from one generation to another, a new enterprise, secrets kept, promises broken, family members estranged and scattered, family farm for sale, the stuff of fiction. But the story doesn’t need to end here. I would like to imagine it as a new beginning. Whatever happened here in the past is immaterial to what could happen in the future. The place is an opportunity crying out for fulfillment: an old home place gone off the rails, but essentially intact, good land, solid buildings, excellent location.
I was not intending to buy the farm, but as I stood in the silent farmyard, the sweltering summer heat mingled with the surreal nature of the things I had just seen. My consciousness softened, blurring the lines of reality…and I fell into a rêverie. I started with rebuilding the stalls in the barn, then quickly removed the strange haymow edifice and oiled up the hay trolly and installed a new rope. I built an attractive farm stand. I hitched up a team and plowed up a few acres of rich land between the farmstead and the woods and planted vegetables to stock the farm stand. I filled the shop with my tools, moved machinery into the machine shed, and was just planning how I would prune the overgrown apple trees out behind the house, when Liz tapped me on the shoulder, gave me a quizzical look and said it was time to go.
Nota Quarta – In which my iPhone doesn’t understand farm words.
This may come as a surprise, but at times I “write” some of these notes by dictating them into my smart phone, especially handy if trying to catch an idea while in the field. This is an impressive technological feat: I can take up my telephone, speak a few words, and voilà, they instantly appear. It is quite good at what it does, however it is interesting to note that the programmers of these new devices seem to have no knowledge of, or use for, the language of farming. A few examples from the first rough dictation of the previous note will illustrate. When I spoke “horses,” I got “hoses;” when I spoke “barns” I got Barnes. Farming and all of its vocabulary have simply evaporated from the consciousness of most Americans. Why would any of the 99% of people who don’t live on farms need to text the word “barn,” “sow,” or ”manure.” (I got “mature.”) If I watch as I’m dictating, I can see the little digital brain thinking as it tries to sort out what I’m saying. When I spoke “hay” – first it tried “hey,” then “hi” and finally settled on “hair.” All I could do was exclaim “Holy coward… crown…COW!”
Nota Quinta – In which I pay tribute to the elderly.
Twenty-four years. That is how long it takes for some horses to settle down. Josie is our equine matriarch, the first Norwegian fjord I bought for Littlefield Farm. At the time she was 11 years old, had been ridden a bit, but was pretty ragged around the edges. I managed to get most of the rough off, but she never forgot in which direction lay the barn. She has always been a girl who knows her mind, a girl who likes to eat above all, and a girl who knows that if you go faster and work harder, you will be able to return sooner to the barn, that comforting place where food is stored and dispensed, and harness and saddle are removed.
With young horses in the offing, Josie has moved into semi-retirement the last few years, only working occasionally. As I write this we are in the thick of a busy haying season and with a young horse hurt, I pressed her into service this afternoon, mowing a bit of bottom ground hay. She worked with her son Ole, now 13. What a pair! What joy! What harmony! Despite her years, Josie stepped right into the work, leaning in to the coller with practiced authority, Ole matching her, step for step, breath for breath, marching together, feeling every movement of the mower, including the subtle hesitation as a mower guard pricked a mouse house, me too slow-witted to catch it, cussing the two of them for stopping without reason. The streak of uncut hay behind told the unvarnished tale of my ignorance.
Josie can work a mower one day, the rope hoisting jags of hay into the mow the next, and pack nephews and nieces bareback around the yard the day after that. She’s lost a bit of her spunk, but not her appetite or work ethic. I think every farm needs an old lady or gentleman horse around to remind us that you can age well, that it’s fine to slow down but not to stop, that it is good to always have a little work to do, and above all – never lose your way back to the barn.