December 14, 2019



Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

When I was a kid, I didn’t understand the reluctance with which the older generations faced their birthdays.  I listened to my grandfather, grandmother, aunts and uncles say, “I’m not having a birthday this year,” and wonder.

Birthdays were great.  You got presents.  Cake.  Ice cream.  Plus, the best thing, you got older.  What wasn’t to love?

Now I understand.  Now I, like them, have simply stopped having birthdays.  That’s because I, like them, farm.  And farmers, in particular, have a lot to worry about with increasing age.

I remember when I was 30.  (Yes, that was a long time ago.)  It was nothing to fire up the chainsaw, work through one tank of gas, fuel up again and get back at it.  That’s simply not the case anymore.  For one thing, my saw feels heavier.  It isn’t.  I checked.  My old Partner, S55 weighs more than the Jonsereds that replaced it.  That, in turn, is heavier than the next-generation Jonsereds which replaced that.  All of which are heavier than the Dolmar I just bought.  None of them feel that way.  I checked and rechecked on the scale in the garage.  I even drained the fuel from each to level the competition.

My newest saw is the lightest.  I shook my head in amazement and stared.

Finally, I sat in the rocking chair by the woodstove and faced the truth.

They’re all heavy.  My back kills me after a single tank full.

That has real implications.  We heat with wood.

Worse, it’s not just saws that are heavy.  Not today.  Toolboxes are ridiculous.  Open them to carry the tools separately and even 3-pound hammers are heavy.  Who would have guessed that?   Did the laws of physics change and somebody forget to tell me?  What’s going on?  Do you know how many trips it’ll take to carry tools to a jobsite individually?  Why is so much more time required for every job on the farm the more birthdays you accumulate?

I assure myself that the implications of all these questions can’t be true.  All those birthdays can’t be affecting me.  Not yet.  It’s the farm, I tell myself.  It’s larger.

It is.  Quite a lot larger.  When my wife and I married all those years ago it was 28 acres.  It’s over 200 now.  Sure, that’s a small farm as these things are measured, but I’m still just one person.  There’s more to do.  There’s less time to do it.  And less of me on a per acre basis to get it done.

All true.

So why does that nagging voice deep inside keep telling me that’s not the only reason the work is taking longer to do?

Farming is such a physical endeavor.  Sure, tractors are wonderful but they have to be maintained.  In fact, every labor-saving device ever imagined still has to be operated.  While you’re doing that, the analogies of the crops we raise are all around us.  They’re seeded, grown, harvested and finally the ground that supported them is put to bed for the next generation.  That never lets us drift far from the truth.

The seasons themselves are reminders.  What farmer can forget the calendar?

But happily, if I can’t ignore that, perhaps I can stop having birthdays instead.
In fact, I stopped having mine years ago, just the way my grandparents did.

That way the physical demands of farming can be independent of age.

Perhaps no occupation more than farming shows us that the truth is what we want to believe.