HOMEGROWN Life: Working On (and Off) the Farm

| 8/26/2013 11:03:00 AM

book cover

I’ve been rereading a book lately that I hadn’t picked up in a few years. It’s called Fields Without Dreams, by Victor Davis Hanson. This 20-year-old book is worth a read. It makes you think—perhaps especially if you’re living and working on a family farm—about why it is we care about the deeply revered and celebrated American institution of agriculture.

Why is it that so many are called to work the land, listening and learning from its rhythms? Why do we choose to live a life of hard physical labor when we could be hanging out in the air conditioning? Why do we pour money into something that might not be there for us the next day?

Now, Hanson is a Greek classicist and orchardist whose family lives and works the annual grape-to-raisin harvest in central California. I’m not the biggest fan of the writer’s politics, as he can be an apologist for conservative economics and a worldview that lashes out at “the other.” He’s not up there on the pantheon of greats exploring the agrarian tradition, like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, or Gene Logsdon.

Still, Hanson has a lot to offer. He is not a happy-pants romantic about farming. (That’s a good thing.) He understands the sacrifices and struggles we go through in coaxing income and such from the sometimes-fickle notions of plants and photosynthesis. His family’s greatest challenge is that of water management—irrigation, mostly, since they are in a very dry climate, although they’re also in a region and an industry that can be destroyed at harvest time due to rain.

Raisins, you see, are harvested grapes that are dried by the sun on paper trays, right out in vineyard, in the spaces between the grapevines. It’s a very traditional and non-industrial process. So the annual harvest’s quality and value is dependent upon this narrow little window of sun, rain, and temperature that occurs during drying time. If grapes are on the ground and the rains come, they’re soaked and ruined. If grapes are on the ground and the temperature is too high for too long, they’re burnt up and ruined.

In other words, what has taken 365 days of work (plus decades of time beforehand) to create and generate the family’s livelihood can be gone in a single day.

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