Monday, January 16, 2012

Real Farmers

Recently, I read an article written by a woman who waxed eloquent about her dream to be a “farmer”. As I happen to be one (a farmer, that is... well, and a woman, too) and have been known to wax eloquent about it myself at times, my first thought was, "Awesome!  Another sister in agriculture with whom I can relate!"

That is, until I reached the second paragraph and was told exactly what she thinks it means to be a "real" farmer... a few acres of hay, a couple acres of vegetables, some chickens and goats, maybe a horse or two... and definitely NOT someone who might be "driving a combine over row after endless row of corn or managing a CAFO".

At that point, I could not decide whether to laugh... or be highly offended.

I come from a long line of farmers and married into another.  My definition of "farmer", when compared to that of the writer of said article, is vastly different.  While the fanciful dreamscape this author envisioned is truly admirable and, at times, attainable in certain snapshot-worthy moments, it is far removed from reality.

Why do farmers farm?  That question is akin to "Why do fish swim?"  Farming is in our blood. It is what we were born and bred and put on this Earth to do... and we will do nearly anything in our power to keep doing it.

In my life as a farmer, I've experienced days (weeks) on end of riding a potato harvester as it lumbers up and down the field through wind and rain, sleet and snow, with black dirt grinding its way onto every crevice of my body as my raw fingers bleed from hours of picking dirt clods from the conveyor.  I've spent sweltering days trucking grain from the field to the elevator, sweat running rivers down my body, chaff clinging opportunistically to every inch of exposed skin (and throwing a party in my bra).  I've sat in a banker's office and sold my soul to the devil across the desk, for the resources to farm just one more year.  

I spent my wedding anniversary, later that same year, waist deep in gumbo and floodwater after a seven-inch rain, attempting to save our crop from drowning.  We did save much of it; and my husband and I sat on the bin boards of the potato warehouse the night we finished bringing it in, crying tears of joy... only to have the bottom fall out of the market and to see most of those potatoes hauled back out of the bin, spread for cattle feed for the not-so-premium price of 25 cents per hundredweight.  There is a reason we now only raise potatoes in the garden, and it was not one of our choosing.

As a farmer, my life is one in which I am blessed with many beautiful, serene moments of bounty, joy, and new life... consistently (and sometimes unfairly) balanced by days of back-breaking work in heat and cold, mud and manure; devastating loss; gut-wrenching heartache. Sometimes bringing new life into the world means finding myself shoulder-deep in the back end of a laboring cow or mare... in the middle of the night... with a snowstorm raging outside... without benefit of an obstetrical glove or anyone around to hold a light or call the vet (or, God forbid, the ambulance, should I get kicked in the head).  

So why do I feel it… the heat, cold, mud, gore, hard work, monetary risk, chronic physical pain and grief… all worth the cost?  

Because I am a farmer.  Its what I do. 

I am totally, thoroughly, abundantly grateful for this life, all I am blessed with, and the ability to farm even though its on a much smaller scale than we had once hoped.  But those who look from the outside in, such as the woman who wrote the article in question, need to keep in mind it is not, nor will it ever be, Nirvana.  The scenario she imagined was one more akin to the retirement years of landed gentry rather than the life of one who is charged with the noble and daunting task of feeding the world. 

What concerns me is the fact that so many are now so far removed from any understanding of the realities of agriculture and the sacrifices of those who engage in it.  These same folks are passing harsh (and, in my opinion, uneducated) judgment, pushing legislation based on misguided assumption, pointing fingers and labeling as “good” and “evil”, aspects of farming which they do not understand nor have personally experienced. 

I’ve known many a farmer in my life, but cannot recall ever meeting one who did not love the land, appreciate nature, or care for his or her livestock to the best of his or her knowledge, resources and ability.  Most have, at some point, driven a combine "over row after endless row" of corn (or wheat, barley, oats, beans...), and know what an accomplishment it is to bring a crop from tiny seed to abundant harvest; nothing can compare with the high of bringing in a bin-(or corral-)busting crop. That feeling has little to do with money and a whole lot to do with fulfilling the very purpose for which you were placed on this Earth.

I have no issue whatsoever with those who dream of moving to a rural area to try their hand at a self-sustaining, organic, greens-and-grass-fed lifestyle.  My own is closer to that now than to one of highly technical and mechanized modern agriculture. To cultivate the land and dutifully tend to animals in any fashion is a noble pursuit and a lovely way to spend one's time.  

What I do take issue with, however?  Someone with little experience outside the ivy-clad halls of academia or the concrete jungle of the city, judging and deriding those who have succeeded in overcoming the elements, the cost of land rent and inputs, government red tape, public opinion and all the other obstacles to modern commercial farmers.  To call one of those folks anything but a "real" farmer is akin to saying a person cannot be a "real" corporate executive if they are any color but white, happen to be female, or perform their job in a less-than-conventional manner.  The trend of bashing farmers with the insinuation they rape the land and are Enemy Number One of Mother Nature and all that is good seems to be the last socially-acceptable form of discrimination.

When did being successful in one's chosen field become equated somehow with being anything less than real?  When did the use of knowledge, technology and resources to improve productivity and reduce cost become equated with something akin to evil?

I'll continue to ponder those questions as I don my boots and coveralls and venture out in the below zero windchill to tend to my animals.  The biting cold and frozen... everything... will invariably be balanced out by the cuddle of a friendly barn cat, the romp of a loyal dog, the friendly yearlings jostling for my attention. The sight of a pileated woodpecker flashing among the trees and sound of a blue jay scolding the dogs.  The smell of supper simmering in the slow-cooker when I walk back through the door and stomp the snow off my boots.  

These same sights and sounds, or similar ones, will greet countless farmers and ranchers all across the northern part of this nation as they go about their chores and come in for supper on this January evening... hugging their children, kissing their spouses, watching the weather forecast. 

I'm quite sure few, if any, will be plotting the demise of Mother Nature as they do so.  

I am also quite sure each and every one of them is "real". 

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