LittleField Notes: The Life of an Agrarian
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
It’s hard to believe I’ve been scratching out this column now for something close to 11 years. You, dear readers, have been kind, indulgently suffering my random agrarian musings and generally not tossing too many rotten tomatoes. When I cast about for ideas for an upcoming column, I am often struck by a sense of panic – I have nothing left to say! Alas, I fear that my witicisms (so few) are used up, my best stories told, my romantic, sappy sentiments worn out, (these, I imagine, grow especially thin for those of you who want more about how to troubleshoot knotter problems on a 24T converted ground drive John Deere baler, and less about how I profited by watching a covey of ducks fly at 60 miles an hour up the river on a sultry early August afternoon while pausing from my work on said baler).
To wit: I have noted over the years a fairly steady trickle of letters to this magazine (and others incidentally) from folks who would like to see more specific how-to articles, more about nuts and bolts, adjustments, modifications, rotations, constructions, fertilizations, and less about the philosophy or the why of farming – that is to say, the Romance of farming. These folks want more information about how to grow roses, and less about how fabulous they smell.
I understand this sentiment. It is true that farming by its nature requires a vast array of knowledge, a large inventory of tricks, techniques and ways of doing, a slight-of-hand move here, a rabbit pulled out of a hat there. A few examples to illustrate: stunningly, somewhere in Belgium, a team pulling a plow is driven with only one line; a magician/teamster turns a buckrake by backing one horse while simultaneously stepping up another; a young barefoot woman stands on a disc and effortlessly drives 6 head on a hillside farm in Ohio; after 30 years of meticulous work, an open pollinated field corn is developed in Montana for success in cold climates; farm stands display a multitude of products, some seemingly too beautiful to eat, each requiring its own font of knowledge and skill to produce: mold ripened cheeses, massive red shallots, heads of heirloom radicchio that look like they were painted by an Italian master, great mounds of fresh produce fairly glow with color and vitality. None of these scenes is possible without a vast array of skill and knowledge, much of which in earlier times was transferred from generation to generation, from person to person within a community. Sadly, that familial community-based transfer of knowledge is now largely broken, and the skills required for successful farming must be acquired by other means. Indeed, the topical breadth of potential how-to articles is staggering.
Despite the common practice of familial transference of agrarian knowledge in days past, there exists nevertheless, a long history of writing about how to farm. One of the oldest known how-to farming manuals, De Agricultura from around 160 BC, was penned by the Roman writer Cato the Elder. In this early text Cato takes up such varied subjects as garden tools, raising fruit trees, grafting, layering, field crops, farm buildings and management. Apparently the need for clear and concise information on a variety of subjects is nothing new. We’ve been talking and writing about how to farm for a very long time.
To this end, I want to say a word of praise for Anne and Eric Nordell, and their excellent column “Cultivating Questions,” which appeared regularly in this magazine for years, and occasionally up to the present day. Without their thoughtful and carefully considered articles, I would likely not have known the same success I had in my early farming years at Crow Creek Farm, our high altitude Wyoming market garden that I worked in the late 1990’s- early 2000’s. The Nordell’s carefully, and thoughtfully crafted “how-to” articles came at a time of intense study for me, when I was hungrily searching out information, devouring books, buying videos (this was before YouTube), reading back issues of this magazine, and talking to other farmers. There was no end to my questions in those days, and questions of course, are at the core of the Nordell’s column Cultivating Questions. The queries sent in by readers are answered in a rational, meaningful, thoughtful, and deliberate fashion. The Nordell articles treat a great variety of important subjects: straddle-row cultivator set-ups and modifications; the most thorough treatment and explanation of cover cropping that I have yet seen; reduced and modified tillage practices like skim plowing and planting garlic into a living mulch, and much more. For those who haven’t yet read the early Nordell cannon I suggest purchasing their collection of columns available from this magazine. Anne and Eric are brilliant at taking a specific question and finding a specific answer, tested and proven in the field by experience, and in turn passing that information on to others. Their articles are a wonderful example of the best of the how-to kind of information that many people who read a magazine such as this are seeking.
Obviously the how is tremendously important; process and procedure inform how a crop is transformed from humus to harvest, and that process looks a lot different from the climate-controlled cab of a $200,000 combine than from the seat of a McCormick-Deering grain binder behind four Belgians abreast. A person of the modern era cannot successfully take up the complicated and arcane business of growing grain with horses without knowing how to thread the needle on the binder, or where to attach the short cross check straps on the inside horses of that four abreast hitch. Thoughtful implementation of a broad array of knowledge is essential to successful farming.
Yet, despite the clear and present need for good how-to books and articles, chances are the sort of person who has never given much thought to the why of farming, will probably never feel that mysterious attraction that would lead a person to want to learn the how in the first place. After all, nobody ever went into farming for the money. Ever. Most farmers throughout history were born to it; they never had a choice in the matter. A man’s father farmed, and his father’s father before him, and so on back into the mists of time. He would have come from a long line of farmers and country people, and would have assumed that that agrarian line would continue on after him. That familial lineage is now mostly broken, and so today there must exist another reason, another call to take up the mantel of farming, because on the surface of it, there is no good reason to take up agriculture as an occupation.
In short, farming is too much work for too little pay. It offers no vacations, no pension, no health insurance, no unions with collective bargaining, no guaranteed salary or stock options. It’s either too cold or too hot, too wet or too dry, the soil ph is too high or too low, soil blows away or runs off, plagues of grasshoppers ravage a whole spring planting in 24 hours. You’ll experience hail storms, microbursts, unseasonable killing frosts, inopportune breakdowns, trouble finding good help, hoop houses crushed by wet spring snow, hoop house plastic shredded by incessant winds, escaped hogs rooting up freshly planted cash crops, hoof abscesses, aneurisms, runaways, fights with self-important regulators at farmers’ markets, chefs that don’t pay, chefs that drop your products in favor of cheaper inferior California imports…
Sounds dramatic, I know, but the examples above are not hypothetical. Each is drawn from personal experience after a quarter century in agriculture, and it is by no means an exhaustive list.
Which brings me at last back to where I began: why. Why would a sane person choose this way of life, fraught as it is, with uncertainty, calamity and all manner of vagaries over which one has no control?
Notice that I referred to way of life in the preceding paragraph rather than job or career. This is the fundamental idea at the heart of why a person would choose farming as a career path over more conventional methods of earning a living. When we talk about way of life we are talking about the embrace of wholeness, an integration of disparate elements which form a whole. If you live in a suburban tract house, you are likely going to drive off every morning to a distant job that holds, other than a paycheck, no connection to your home life, your family, or your personal interests. You live the life of the job by day, and the life of home and family by night and rarely will the two meet. Your days are spent servicing other people’s dreams, helping people with more money and more connections than you acquire yet more money and status, further augmenting their wealth and ambition. Yet this lifestyle serves the American Dream: a house in the suburbs, two or three cars, an occasional vacation to Hawaii or Disney Land, all paid for by the distant job. It works for lots of folks. It’s safe, fairly secure, predictable.
But for some, this modern suburban lifestyle leaves a hollow feeling, as if life amounts to nothing more than a simple exchange of time and energy for money.
I am reminded of a conversation out of my distant past, maybe 30 years ago. Though in those days he was a teacher by trade, for many years my dad has always kept a couple of saddle horses around, for elk hunting, pleasure, and occasionally helping friends work cattle. One day while I was yet in college, we had gone out for a short ride. By the time we got back to his little barn it was blowing a gale and snowing sideways. As we unsaddled, over the roar of the blizzard I told him that despite my own studies in the field of education at the University of Wyoming, what I really wanted was to be a rancher. Always the rational one, he said to me, “Sure, that life sounds great until you have to go out in weather like this at 2:00 am to check on a pregnant cow.”
“But,” I protested, “I would be happy to do it because it would be real work, necessary work, that cow might die if I don’t check on her.” Despite the potential hardships, I felt the pull of necessity, of authenticity, of a meaningful life.
After eight years of teaching school I did realize my dream when I quit to become a full time farmer (and to concurrently follow my other, and equally dubious career path of free-lance musician). There was a lot of whispering and head shaking in our little town about my decision to leave a Monday through Friday career job with health insurance, retirement and summers off, for one with no insurance, no retirement and, essentially no time off.
For better or worse, I took the leap and dove into the murky waters of an independent life on the land. And it wasn’t long before I got what I asked for, a midnight trip to the barn in a snow storm that resulted in orphaned goat kids, their little bottoms wrapped in diapers, warming themselves in front of the wood stove. Those first years of my farming life were rich and full, featuring grand successes, and equally dismal failures. I had a young family, built a house, moved a barn, learned to plow. I developed relationships built around the love of good food and hard work. I wouldn’t trade the experience of those years for anything. Because I now work a farm owned by another who shares my values and vision, I am sheltered, at least monetarily, from some of the vagaries of agriculture. But the pull of the land is still very much there; the urgency of the why, and the necessity of the how still hold sway over my days and months now stretching into years and decades. I still check on pregnant cows and mares in the middle of the night and worry over weather reports.
Working for wages allows you to buy food from the store, buy a house or rent an apartment, pay your bills. Whether there be snow, rain, sun, or frost, is really of no concern to you. These worries you will have outsourced to others. But when you choose a farming life, you choose one of integration, a life bound to the cycles of other life, of the weather, of the motion of the planets themselves. If an untimely frost threatens, you must take appropriate action or suffer the consequences. If you don’t make that nocturnal trip to the barn you may lose that mama cow and maybe the calf too. What you do today will have consequences months on. Because that Hubbard squash won’t ripen for 100 days, you had better be timely with your field work and planting, yet despite your best planning, you are bound to the framework of what the weather will allow. To this point, Cato the Elder offers this sound advice: “If you are late in doing one thing you will be late in doing everything.”
When you make the choice to live the life of an agrarian, hand in hand with its many inherent challenges come too its many rewards. When that first frog croaks from the bottom land on the first warm night at the tail end of February you’ll smile knowingly, because you’ll know, you’ll feel, that you are a part of it. The awakening the frogs feel will be stirring you into action as well, stirring you from deep slumber as the dark winter comes to a close. When you taste the first spring salad from the earliest planted greens you’ll feel a part of it. You have tilled the soil, sowed the seed, weeded the bed, watered, worried, and fussed over it, and finally you put it on your plate, and it nourishes your body – because you chose to be a part of the whole, a part of the very fiber and foundation that is life on this small planet.
An active participation in the world, which offers such inherent reward requires commitment and work. And yes, it is work, a lot of work, at times very hard work. To look askance at work itself is to fall into the modern trap of thinking that work is a miserable something to be avoided if at all possible; that the best we can do is suffer through our miserable work-a-day lives until the next vacation. This may well be true if your work consists of endless days in a cubicle staring at a screen, or equally endless days in an Amazon warehouse putting useless stuff into cardboard boxes. Of meaningful work Marcus Aurelius, stoic emperor of Rome, put it thus in his Meditations:
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you.
What more important job is there “as a human being” than that of farming? What higher calling? Is farming to be counted among the callings that “nature demands?” I believe it is indeed, though certainly not the only worthy calling. There are many other noble and necessary professions, but none quite so fundamental as that of agriculture, for without it, no other human endeavor can prosper.
Somehow, despite the struggle, the propensity, and at times necessity for overwork, good farming tends to make philosophers of us all. There is something about scratching out a living for many years rooted in a single place across many seasons and cycles of birth and death, growth and decay, that brings out the contemplative side of us. Keeping the why of farming always in the forefront of our minds allows us to work on through those inevitable rough patches. It reminds us why farming is a calling, not a job, a vocation, not a profession.
And so… yes we do need to know how to adjust the knotter on the John Deere 24T, but if you cannot appreciate the perfect beauty of a covey of mergansers flying at 60 miles an hour upriver on a hot August afternoon, you’ll probably never be in a position to need to know how to tinker with the baler in the first place.
Sign of the Times
How far removed are we as a society in the present day from our agrarian roots? It seems very far indeed, as witnessed by an article I recently came across about the Canadian draft horse population in decline. The author and editors at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation are apparently unclear about the respective roles of tractors and horses in agriculture, now or in the past.
“The declining numbers might be a sign of changing times. After all, farms no longer rely on horses to pull tractors [emphasis mine] or harvest crops.” (CBC 8/29/19)
Indeed I have had the strange sensation that some people are so profoundly distant from agriculture that they don’t realize that horses generally aren’t used anymore in the mainstream of farming. I have no evidence for this other than a certain odd neutral reaction I’ve witnessed from some chance encounters lately with people like UPS drivers, or repair men, who happen to drive down the lane while I’m working a team in the adjacent field. I don’t know whether it is complete disinterest, ignorance, or a feigned politeness, vis-a-vis the taboo against staring, but the fact is, seeing horses working in fields is not a common occurrence in this day and age. For this reason I usually expect to see a passerby give a smile and a nod, a thumbs up, or at least a slightly prolonged look of interest. I have witnessed these kinds of reactions countless times over the course of many years. But I have noticed of late a new phenomenon that seems to occur only with people in their early 20s. They appear completely disinterested, and pay such little heed to the scene that I can’t help but wonder if their knowledge of farming is indeed so minuscule that they are not aware that work horses have been largely absent from farms for 70 some odd years – and that teams of horses do not actually pull tractors.