July 14, 2020

Why farm?

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

Why farm?

It’s a great question.  Farming is a 24/7 avocation filled with back-breaking labor.  Entropy is your enemy.  There’s grave danger of bodily harm, whether from heavy equipment or livestock.  A thorough education in everything from veterinary medicine to engine rebuilding with all subjects in-between is required.  Mother Nature is just as apt to frown as smile.  Worse, financial rewards are slim to nonexistent.

Adding insult to injury, society ranks farmers on the bottom tier of social respect.  They’re way, way down below astronauts, doctors, nurses, engineers, lawyers and the rest of the social-achievement crowd.

Think about it.  If you’re any of those other professions, you can go home nights, kick back and relax.  Probably you wear good, clean clothing to work.  Very likely, you’re a licensed professional.

If you’re a farmer, you never know when you’ll be called out.  Kicking back and relaxing isn’t on the agenda.  When you’re not working, you’re sleeping.  If you have good, clean clothes, they’re in the closet, where they belong.  They won’t be needed unless your family opts for an open casket.  Your fingernails are broken and dirty.  Grease stains your hands.  Unspeakable filth cakes your boots.  Worse, you treasure the filth and spread it on your fields.  Barbwire tears your shirts and scratches your arms.  You receive annual tetanus shots instead of the recommended booster every ten years.  A rabies vaccine isn’t a bad idea, either.

So, given all of that, why farm?

Speaking personally, I enjoy eating.  But beyond the sustenance there’s another need.  On an elemental level of personal worth, I have to see the connections between what I do for a living and my survival.  I don’t want to stop, think and figure them out gradually, placing faceless entities in for the middlemen.  I want to feel the apple on the tree, see the beef on the hoof, hear the maple sap dripping and taste the hot syrup.  I want to smell the hay deep in my lungs and brush the chaff from my T-shirt.

I’m sure that makes me an oddity, but the question was, “Why farm?”

I’m answering as honestly as I can.

Because the links between who we are and what we eat have never been more obscure ― or more tenuous.  The pork chops on the Styrofoam tray at the supermarket were likely purchased by the store from their meat provider.  That would be the middleman enterprise making its money on the margins between the purchase prices they offer the corporate farms and co-ops and the guaranteed percentage increase they turn around and charge Shaw’s or Hannaford’s or any of their other food store customers.

That equation leaves out the small farmer.  Me.

But if you think that’s understandable, try figuring out how milk is priced, never mind where it comes from.  There, where milk is considered a vital foodstuff, an official Milk Commission has been set up.  That governs the prices at the supermarkets and those paid the middlemen.  It also removes the product one more step from the consumer.  All too often, it screws the farmer in the process.

If the milk is turned into ice cream, add yet another step, at least another middleman.

I love ice cream but I don’t indulge myself often.  Tell me again, where did this come from?  How many people handled it before it reached me?  If it’s strawberry ice cream with big chunks of real strawberries included, that further complicates the process.

Perhaps all this apprehension over the invisible sources of our food begins and ends with me.  But I don’t believe most Americans could answer the deceptively simple question, ‘Where does your food come from?’  Maybe they don’t care.  They’re content leaving those details to someone else.  Like using the telephone.  Who cares if you can’t explain it?  This is what it does.  That’s what matters.  Perhaps that’s where farmers differ.  If I can’t answer those questions, my discomfort levels increase dramatically.

It’s not that I intentionally limit my living standard to the extent of my mental capacity.  The point is more subtle than that:  If I cannot perceive the links between the life I lead and how I protect, love and feed myself and my family, my self-worth is diminished by those misconceptions.

To some extent, this is also why I write, communicating the importance of understanding.

That, in turn, leads to this essay.  It’s far from the first but it is a beginning of sorts.  Janine Pineo has kindly asked me to be a contributing columnist in her online paper Garden Maine.  I’m honored.  This piece is an introduction.  This is who I am.  It’s why I farm.  This is why this column has appeared.  Assuming someone is reading it, together, let’s make a difference.  That would be the best possible answer to the surprisingly complex question, ‘Why farm?’