Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Early this summer we were invited to Jean & Pierre’s house for breakfast. We bought our house from Jean 13 years ago. She now has a house closer to town, in an area of mostly farms. The farmland around here is rolling hills, used mostly for hay for cattle. As we drove to Jean’s we noticed farmers busy plowing fields for cash crops like corn or grains. The roads were a hive of activity as farmers hurried to get fields plowed and planted. After a cold and wet spring there was finally some sunshine and so the farmers knew they needed to hustle. The forecast was for another week of rain so there seemed to be a bit of a frenzy to get crops in the ground before the fields got too muddy again.
I have a great deal of respect for farmers. Every year it’s a crapshoot to earn a living. Whether it’s the price of beef, the weather, fuel costs, too much rain, drought, equipment breakdowns… really, who in their right mind would want to earn a living farming?
And yet every year, for eons, humans have gone to the fields to plant food. And I believe either I am a reincarnated farmer, or that the basic human instinct to plant food is embedded deep in my DNA. We probably all share the instinct to grow food but most of us suppress it at the mall, or by planting flowers. As I drove around those country roads that morning and saw all that activity I felt kind of left out. I own 150 acres, but it’s mostly forests. Sure I grow some food, enough to sell some in town each week, but still, I’m growing a few acres, as opposed to hundreds of acres like full time farmers. And I sell books as a back up plan in case things don’t pan out. In poker terms, farmers are “all in.” Yes there is crop insurance and government support programs, but no businessman or farmer wants to rely on them. They want to earn their living from the fruits of their labor. From their sweat and ingenuity.
Nope, farmers are THE most important people in our society (after mothers). It’s not doctors, or lawyers, or hedge fund managers, the people society rewards with the highest financial compensation. It’s the people who put food on our table. When I was a teenager I worked for my uncle who had a number of equipment magazines, and I spent a lot of time at farm shows and farming events. I was raised in suburbia and wouldn’t have known a PTO (Power Take Off, used to drive farm implements being pulled by a tractor) from a combine, but somehow I was drawn to farmers. There was no pretension. There was nothing phony. It seemed they didn’t have time for the crap. Just give me the facts and I’ll figure it out.
There was also this fierce independence. While they will always pull together to help each other out, when you have a narrow window to get crops planted or hay harvested, and all your neighbors are in exactly the same boat, you can’t rely on anyone else. It’s up to you and your ingenuity to get things done. Farmers always have toolboxes on their tractors so that they can fix stuff. When you’re bringing in square bales and something breaks, it’s usually not long before something is fabricated to fix the situation. And when I’m when I’m in a store that sells parts and equipment, farmers are there buying the bits and pieces they need to fix stuff. They’re not bringing things in to get fixed. They’ve torn that piece of machinery down back in the shop and now they just need the “hex nut” “cotter pin,” “fill in the blank,” to fix it. Well it probably wouldn’t be a cotter pin because they would have broken enough of those over the years that they’d have a full selection of them back at the shop.
I learned this lesson the hard way when my neighbor Ken was up the phone pole installing a solar panel on my remote phone system shortly after we moved off the grid. Ken yelled down asking for a bolt. I got ready to throw it up to him. He asked how many I had. I said, “You only need the one.” Ken’s response was, “So let me get this straight? I’m 35 feet up a telephone pole, trying to attach all this equipment, and you have to throw up a bolt, 35 feet, which I have to catch in one hand, and if I drop it, it will fall into the rocks and underbrush and never be seen again? And you only have the one? Is this what you’re telling me?” From that day forward, if I was working on a project that involved screws or fasteners and Ken was involved, even if we were working in a garage with our feet firmly planted on the ground, I always purchased a number of the items I needed. For the marginal cost of the extras, it was insurance that the job got done that day.
And farmers have learned that if the hay baler broke once it might break again, so they’ll buy two of those bolts and leave one in the toolbox on the tractor.
While I don’t have a narrow window to get my corn planted before wet weather, I do have deadlines for books and other work that I do. Somehow they don’t seem as important. Oh they do to the customer or printer I’m providing the work for, but somehow a field of corn isn’t at stake. If it doesn’t get done, people will still have enough food to eat. That’s because of the farmer sweating bullets that the rain will stop, or start.
Thank you farmers. Thank you for growing the food that nourishes my body. As I like to write when I sign one of my gardening books, “May your days be sunny and your nights be rainy!”