There is a reason, after all, why only a fraction of the population farms, and it is not just because of the growth of corporation agriculture, huge acreage, and multimillion-dollar harvesting machines making the old “family farmer” now obsolete. Farming — defined by the actual physical labor of agriculture, the responsibility to balance the farm books to ensure another year of operation, and the general isolation from suburban culture — is not easy. It is a sort of penance to try to convince yourself that the boredom of spending 10 hours pruning 200 vines is not wasted monotony, but a noble monotony given the fresh air, the mastery of an art, the harmony of the mind, body, and nature. The fraud is sometimes believable when it is 70 degrees on a late February California afternoon and you are working down a row side-by-side a brother, son, or friend, but not most often when alone amid the cold and fog. (In 1983, I once spent 40 days without going into town, just two miles away, and finally for a week straight drove in there every morning and drove right back to avoid going stir crazy.)
I felt happiest when farming full-time and the unhappiest when trying my best to escape it. In the former life, nothing is certain — given the hail that destroys the peach crop, the worker’s compensation premium hike that takes away the profit on an entire 10 acres, and the commodity price that stays the same one year, climbs ten percent the next, and then to ensure the end of all optimism, crashes 50 percent in the third. As a tenured professor — to go to the other extreme without stopping in between — everything is certain: pay, pension, benefits, and absence of danger at work. So certain is such modern life that the psychodrama of a rude look, a supposedly provocative stare, or an inadvertent unkindness consumes the workplace for weeks of acrimony and litigation in the manner a chopped off finger is an unheralded “stuff happens” on the farm for a day or two. How odd in the morning to hear that the ditch tender blew his brains out in the orchard, and in the afternoon hear a shouting match between faculty over who had to take the 8 a.m. teaching slots.
Farming is in a boom right now. For forty years my parents saved the land for the promise that “some day” prices would allow their offspring to live on the 140-acre farm while making a profit. That some day never came in their life, or for most of mine — until now. Maybe it is the new 400 million consumers of India and China who can afford Western produce; maybe it is the amazing ability of American agriculture to produce more per acre each year at less cost; maybe it is the shared psychology that the disastrous diversion of land to biofuels, ever more global consumers, ever more land lost to suburbanization, ever more social fragility have all in perfect0storm fashion created a farm boom — or at least the assumption of looming food shortages.
I am happy for farmers who have the acreage to capitalize on the prices. I rent my 45 acres out now, the last tiny bit of a larger family farm whose other fifth-generation stewards looked a lot like those in the Paul Harvey Super Bowl commercial and went broke or sold out or retired exhausted. I almost thought I recognized a lost-track-of sibling or cousin among the still shots.
Ave atque vale!
As my neighbor, the Bus Barzagus in my 1997 book Fields Without Dreams, reminded me once of family farming: “a family saves its farm by not farming it.” And as I replied in sad agreement, but just as honestly, “It was not the saving, but the farming that was everything.”
Also read: 5 Common Accusations Leveled at Christianity