Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Ah, summer on the farm. The tomatoes and peppers are coming along. The squash and zucchini are booming. And the cows are trying to get their fill of grass at sunup, before the heat of the day sets in.
Sounds perfect, right? The very picture of abundance, joy, and prosperity so many people think of when they hear “family farm.” The truth is a little more complicated. Sure, summer has its strong points but it also has its downsides.
First, let’s talk temperatures. So far, we’ve only had a few days over 90 degrees, but July and August are the usual boilers around here, in West Missouri. We also have high humidity. In fact, nearly every day I’ve watched a World Cup match, I’ve heard that the brutal temperatures and humidity in Brazil make soccer hard to play. And yet our temperatures and humidity in Missouri have actually been higher than those in Brazil. While farming is not a 90-minute endurance of speed, like soccer can be, it certainly takes a lot longer than 90 minutes each day to get our work done. And pretty soon it's gonna be 100-plus degrees, with hot winds and high humidity. It’s like carrying buckets and hoeing in the middle of a furnace.
Second, weeds. By now, summer weeds are sharp and tough. When weeding the veggie patch, you can hardly pull anything without getting a sticker stuck in your hand or finger. Oh, and don’t forget the poison ivy.
Third, mowing. Sometimes we mow pastures and bale it up (that’s hay) so that the cows, sheep, and goats will have something to eat in winter. Sometimes we mow so that the grass quality will improve for the next round of grazing. Sometimes we mow to kill the weeds starting to go to seed. We also have to mow our yards, which, unfortunately, are usually too large. I hate mowing, but it has to be done. It just never seems to end.
So, how’s a farmer to cope? Easy. Do what every farm family does. Get yourself a cheap little swimming pool. It’s hours of fun for the kids and it takes the edge off. It keeps me cool—and sane. Plus, even for us organic farmers who hate chemical fertilizers and such, the chlorine in the pool can be a very good thing when it comes to killing potential rashes. Yes, here at our house we try to keep the chlorine to an absolute minimum, but it’s still in there.
I know. I know. It would be nice to live in a place with cool and clean spring-fed creeks, the idyllic “swimming hole” of so many songs and poems harkening back to the good ole days. But not everyone can live along the Current River in the Ozarks. In fact, if more of us lived there, it wouldn’t be very clean and pristine. Not to mention the fact that it’s rocky, with very, very thin soil. In other words, not great for agriculture.
So, those of us in the Farm Belt cheat. We fill up our pools with water and blast that water with chemicals to keep it clean. It might disappoint some of you who think we farmers are strong and hardworking and stoic in the face of summer’s adversity. But we all need a coping strategy. Mine, and that of most farm families I know, is to pop open a beverage (I prefer Boulevard Beer from KC) and to take a dip.
Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multi-generational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.
Photos by Bryce Oates