why farm?

I was talking to my mom on the phone today, describing The Flood. “It doesn’t sound like you’re enjoying farming,” she said.

“Oh, no,” I said. “I’m just describing the event. I don’t like waking up at 5 a.m. to a giant flood, is all.”
But then I thought about it. And on some level, I do like waking up at 5 a.m. to a giant flood. I kind of enjoy disasters, although I rarely admit it at the time. (During disasters, I prefer to swear profusely — another secret delight — and perhaps pout.)

That got me thinking about the appeal of farming. What, exactly, is the appeal of long hours in the hot sun, modest wages and the imminent threat of disaster? Is it the romance of the thing? The challenge? The simple pleasure of growing? The drama? All of the above?

In English class multiple choice questions — and essays, for that matter — the answer is typically (e), all of the above. [NB: this does not hold true for science or math; my hypothesis is that English teachers are simply too kind-hearted to throw in a red herring (e), while many math and science teachers are pure evil.] If you’re guessing that I’m more of an English teacher than a science teacher, you guessed right. Extra credit goes to those who answered “all of the above”: farming’s got back-to-the-land romance, honest physical challenge, a certain life-giving zen, and something of the theatre, too.

Still, if I had to pick one choice to defend for 5 paragraphs, I’d go with the drama. Every day on the farm is a mortal struggle: Beans v. Bugs. Lettuce v. Sun. Tomatoes v. Inexperienced Farmers. There’s the hopeful joy of a young bean rearing its head from the ground, the subsequent struggle as the young, tender leaves are attacked by diabrotica. And then hope again as the plant puts out leaf after leaf, faster than they can be eaten; and then finally sends out a climbing runner which whirls in a slow-motion dance, looking for something to grasp onto. Every vegetable’s tale is different, but common in its struggle to survive — a struggle that means a good deal to a farmer, who relies on its survival for income.

Another way to weigh drama is in its value as instant feedback. Very few jobs today permit a person to tangibly experience the error of his ways. In farming, there’s no gentle upbraid courtesy of a manager or boss. You forget to water the salad bed, you’re in deep doo-doo. All of your investment — time, energy, emotion, and money — will disappear tragically in a bunch of withered, flatlined greens. You don’t know your way around heirloom tomatoes? Don’t be surprised when (as has happened at The Patch) they end up with some weird, unidentifiable withered-leaf disease. Didn’t prepare for an invasion of flea beetles? You end up with “Swiss” bok choi.

For someone who can’t remember facts to save her life but never forgets a good story, farming offers potent narrative. It also offers an alluring combination of instant gratification — wilting greens, with a little water, perk up within minutes — and delayed gratification. Our first yellow zucchini, maybe 1/2 an inch long, appeared on a plant today — a plant that we grew from seed, transplanted, watered, and weeded.

I couldn’t be more delighted.

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