November 21, 2017

Thank a Farmer

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

Farming is a world of extremes.  The temperatures are either way too hot or far too cold.  There’s always too much rain or too little.  There are plagues of starlings, infestations of weevils and multiple blights of differing varieties.  That’s what makes the profession so odd and so demanding.

I’ve never met a farmer who wants it this way.  We like the rain gentle, regular and predictable.  Not too much, not too little.  The same can be said of our desire for sun, temperature and wind.  On top of which, who needs starlings, bole weevils, pine weevils, blister rust, pear thrips or any of hundreds of other plagues, diseases and pestilence?

Let’s get rid of them all.

Alas!  There are difficulties with that dream.

It’s an hallucination.

Odds are that when we get rain, it’s a downpour, three inches in 18 hours.  That would describe today.  Before this storm, we were having the driest April on record.  Less than a quarter inch of precipitation in the first three weeks of the month.  We go from one extreme to the next, all the while praying for moderation.

Incredibly, it doesn’t look as though these wild swings are anything new.  Not for us.  The weather has been doing this to farmers ever since agriculture was invented thousands of years ago.  But what makes it so ironic, it’s agriculture that society relies on to pull us through, to average out our daily food requirements with storage for the non-harvest seasons.

“So?” is the most common response when this is pointed out.

Think about it.  Why are farmers the ones struggling to feed everyone in a regular, predictable fashion?  We’re the ones battling the extremes of climate, the ever-increasing costs of fuel, fertilizer, seed and labor all while beating the vicissitudes of the market for crops that won’t be harvested for another three months.

These factors make farming a lot harder than it looks.  And that’s before considering the physical demands of the job.  All of it together turns farming into a pitched battle, a fight for moderation, a contest of will against the severity of the climate.  While we slug it out on the ground, our forethought and intuition bet against the future.

Because farming is an all-in play holding a pair of twos.  Keep the desperation off your face while admitting that you’re not just betting money.  You’re staking your livelihood.  Meanwhile the general populace simply assumes that the food you grow will be there come winter.  In fact, society as a whole is largely unaware of your struggles.

If you doubt any of this, try growing hay.  Everything will fight you.  The weather, the equipment ― you’ll need a lot of it, more than is necessary for any other crop ― fuel, oil, grease, parts, twine, storage and associated costs before even considering labor.

Then try selling the hay for what it actually cost you to produce and deliver.  You’ll end up completely discounting your labor just to pay the taxes on your fields.

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?  But it’s all true and I haven’t exaggerated.  Not even a little.

It reminds me of a bumper sticker I read recently.  ‘If you enjoy freedom, thank a veteran’.  Please note that I am not disputing that.  I do thank our veterans.

I just want to make my own bumper sticker:

“IF YOU ENJOY EATING, THANK A FARMER.”