A Farmer’s Life: What It’s Really Like
A small farmer should live like a traditional peasant: work hard; eat exclusively from your crops and herds and flocks; can, pickle, freeze and dry what you can’t eat fresh; be miserly; save; mend your old clothes; drive an old pickup and eschew the new technologies celebrated by the younger generation.
I say “should,” because for all the Occupy rhetoric, the economic tide is still channeling wealth to the wealthy (as in trickle-up economics), and prices for agricultural products are stuck back in the last century for many of us, while costs appear to be quite unstuck. Lie low, eat from the fruits of your own labor and keep your meager savings under the mattress—this has always been the way of those at the bottom of the economic food chain. It has been said that when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was no widespread famine, because people had long been accustomed to canning and drying food against the inevitable difficult times ahead.
But “should” is rarely entirely the reality in these United States of the year 2012. My wife, RoseMary, and I may not be typical small farmers, but in many respects our lives as such may not be unusual either. We did have our peasant days back in the 1970s when we built our own adobe house, raised goats and chickens and ducks and geese and rabbits, and began selling our produce at farmers’ markets, first in Taos and then in Santa Fe and Los Alamos. Now we think back fondly on the years when we had no phone and when making water flow in the house consisted of vigorously pumping a cast-iron hand pump on the kitchen counter whose wheezing and clanking still echoes in my ears. We were less fond of the outhouse in the winter.
But children, age, and secret wishes to creep back up into the middle class gradually served to reconnect us, and, in time, the attractiveness of certain conveniences and labor saving devices—running water, flush toilets, tractors, planters, roto-tillers, computers (to say nothing of vehicles that could be counted on not to break down at some perfectly dramatic moment)—led us by insidious degrees into a high-overhead situation. Mortgage! Home equity line of credit! Overdraft protection! Credit cards! At this point, the peasant may look up from his glass of home-brewed beer and ask, “What’s next, drug dealing?” Eventually, to use Thoreau’s wonderful image, the farmer no longer owned the farm; the farm owned the farmer.
This is not to say that we should have remained hippie-peasants. The incorporation of labor-saving mechanical transplanters and other equipment no doubt has spared our joints and generally extended our farming lives well into our seventies. And as I have argued elsewhere, if we were all paying what we really should be paying for nonrenewable fuels—$10 a gallon? $20?—and if the federal government (as in “We, the people”) were no longer subsidizing agriculture to the tune of $12 billion a year in order to keep commodity prices low, then small producers might be able to outprice the big boys and make a good living while they’re at it.
But this is the stuff of farmers’ market tailgate conversations; it’s not what I think about when out in the field tending my crops, which is where the reality lies. Not long ago, I spent a week with relatives in Southern California not far from where I grew up. From this distance of time and place, I tend to regard that part of the country as too fast, too neat, too grandiose, too ephemeral and with far too many people. Within a few days of returning to our postage-stamp farm in the Embudo Valley, I was out fiddling with the drip system and flushing lines and checking them for flow. At one point, I realized that my hands were dirty. I found this oddly pleasing. Reassuring, even.
Because it is so overwhelmingly so, it is paradoxically easy to overlook the fact that farming is a sensual experience. With my feet and hands, I can feel the condition of the soil, whether damp and spongy or dry and hard. One of the signature experiences of garlic harvest (my allergies have receded by then) is the unique aroma of freshly dug garlic and damp soil, which one knows only during those few days of harvest. Basil, tomato, parsley, onion, and squash plants all signal to us strongly through the nose. In the course of a morning out in the field weeding or planting or harvesting, we become less aware of clock time and more aware of the natural processes of the diurnal: the sun rising, clouds forming and melting away, shifts in breezes and winds, changes in humidity, the movement through the landscape of birds and insects and other creatures, rains of air-born seeds.
As workers in the field, we are embedded within a network—partially of our creating—of incredible complexity, of which only a tiny fraction is observable by our human senses, in a daily experience that challenges the act of description. We “know” what goes on in terms of photosynthesis in leaves and nitrogen fixing and countless other processes within the soil, but we cannot directly observe them with the eye, which can detect only comparatively gross movement. In the field, I sometimes feel I am as close to being an animal as I will ever know; in my own way, I am working the crops just as gophers, squirrels, rabbits, magpies, ravens, robins, butterflies, beetles and thrips do. Of course, I am larger, have a huge brain and possess an ego that can declare: These are my crops. And I try to be patient with the ravens, which like to peck holes in the drip lines.
And as in the field, so with the year. Each month—and often each week within the month—has its tone, its tinge, its flavor. Third week in June: garlic harvest. Third week in August: sniffing the winds in order to make that inner pronouncement that fall is on the way. October, the do-everything month: harvesting on the one hand, planting on the other. The perpetual guessing game of the date of the first frost and whether it will be just a topping frost, a moderate one or a killing frost. In the old days, I used to mourn the change, the loss of flowers, the turning to tan and brown, but now I am more celebratory, as in, What a relief. Every farmer carries his or her own personal almanac around in the brain. Each morning the angle of the sun tells you what the day’s task is to be.
But farming is not just about the land and the sun and the wind and the rain. It’s also about the market. And as market gardeners, we’re like restaurateurs, like musical and theatrical performers. Our weekends do not belong to us; they belong to our customers. Height of the season, we’re up at four a.m., leave the farm at five, arrive at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market at six, set up by seven for the early-bird customers who come to get our produce while it’s still fresh and to beat the crowds.
At times, the complexity, and even the arc of this experience, becomes exhausting, demoralizing, particularly when expenses seem grossly to exceed income. But at the same time, in a deep sense, by farming you know at all times exactly where you are in time and place, which are your guides and teachers. The trick may be to remember that in those moments of pain and disappointment, there will still be long hours in which your plantings and fields reward you in countless ways.
In these times of rapid and often disconcerting change and disruption, there comes the thought that though RoseMary and I no longer live like peasants, we could resume doing so without having to learn anything new.
Stanley Crawford has written and farmed in the Embudo Valley for over 40 years.
story by Stanley Crawford
photo by Kate Russell