Out on the wide unused highways north of Watertown, where the big power poles slingshot across the prairie, there are signs for Titan Machinery and “Your Ag Chemical Superstore.”
I look out at the brown fields stretching along the interstate corridor–scalped beanfields and drying-down corn, and I wonder if we’ve forgotten a place for people in the landscape. The towns that are left up there huddle into themselves around their doomed-to-be-consolidated school–circling their wagons against their seemingly inevitable fate.
Those who are still farming in the northeast corridor, and in most of the rest of the state, have followed the get-big-or-get-out dictates of the Earl Butz era, and most of them chose the latter.
Meanwhile, young people like myself (and I don’t kid myself that I’m that young anymore) try to carve out a niche and lay claim to the title of “farmer” for ourselves–to improve our communities and find new ways to keep an old way going.
I’m told that I’m pretty lucky to have such a nice parcel of land to farm, and that because I don’t own it, it’s not my problem when the taxes are due or when the building starts leaning. I guess that’s true, but it’s also true that not taking on those burdens leads to other frustrations.
Late this morning I was out working in the gardens, checking on whether last night’s patchy frost had put an end to anything else. It hadn’t, and I stayed to do some late-season weeding in the strawberry patch and to harvest a meager selection of tomatoes, peppers, and a few more tiny cukes for the crock.
That strawberry patch had gotten a bit overgrown in the later part of the season, so I brought along a bucket to remove what roots I could pull as well as the seedheads of a variety of grasses–to keep at least a few of their seeds from dropping and creating more of a mess next year.
I’ve managed to get most of the lamb’s quarter, pigweed, and nettles out of that garden in the last few years by dedicated pulling and hoeing throughout the seasons. The thing is, many of the current weeds have come from the perimeter vegetation getting out of control–due to a lack of functioning equipment, or when well-meaning helpers have mowed without watching which way the vegetation flew.
This is what H and I go ’round about on occasion–the lack of functioning equipment and good help. While he tries very hard to keep the mowers going and the tillers functioning, there always comes that point in the season when nothing seems to work–or when what does work has a special way of starting that I either can’t do or don’t know about.
It’s hard for me to complain when the equipment maintenance isn’t my job, but it does make me feel powerless and frustrated to know that something, somewhere on the farm might work, but I don’t know which machine it is, or if maybe the ones I think aren’t working do–I’m just not sure what funky little dance I have to do to propitiate this particular deus ex machina.
Too, the main lawns are always an issue out there–there’s a guy who is supposed to come and mow, but he often doesn’t until the seed heads are forming or the dandelions are blowing. I’ve tried to minimize the risk to the gardens from these problems by push-mowing perimeters (and H helps with this when he can), but it doesn’t always work.
There is also the problem that when the grass gets especially tall, it provides a haven for grasshoppers that tend to migrate into the gardens when their brome-home is finally mown down. There is a decided plague in the main gardens since the waist-high grass was cut–there’s just more good cover in the garden than in the grass now.
I kept the newest garden up on the hill across the farm mown around the perimeter as the grass grew taller a few feet beyond. It might’ve been two months since the guy last mowed, and when he finally did last week, he sprayed all those grass seedheads beyond my neatly mown perimeter directly into the patch.
There’s really nothing you could do to make my life more difficult on the farm than to seed my garden with brome grass–at least nothing worse you could do that I couldn’t sue you for doing. All that seed promises to be a pain for years to come.
It’s times like this that virtually all I can think about is how much easier it’d be to have my own farm, my own land. I know that my own equipment would be no less likely to break down than anyone else’s when (or even before) the shine is off the paint (if any of the equipment I’d buy, beg, or borrow was shiny to begin with).
But I also think that the frustrations of dealing with the equipment and the landscape of my own land might not leave me feeling quite so powerless–seemingly doomed to repeat the same cycle every year of thinking I might be finally getting on top of at least one thing, and having that hope dashed by something out of my control.
I know that farming is, by definition, dealing with many things beyond my control, but successful farming is partly good management of the things within the farmer’s control. To a farmer without their own land, sometimes it feels like there is so little I am able to manage or control that it’s almost not worth it to try.
At the end of the season, with beds full of weeds and a plague of grasshoppers eating everything but, it can feel so overwhelmingly impossible that I just want to hang it up–sell my tools and maybe next year see what this “summer vacation” thing is about for once.
But, the thing about farming is that it gets in your blood, and you know that you can’t not do it, even if it sometimes feels like it’s going to completely break you.
You walk in the house, mud-shod, cold, exhausted and achey and feeling absolutely defeated and just done, and the next thing you know, you’re figuring out how you’re going to get that next load of manure spread and when you’re going to get on staking up those raspberries and where you’re going to burn that diseased foliage.
I was talking to an older lady on Friday night at the Dakota Rural Action Annual Meeting, one whose family has been farming corn and beans for generations. She said to another woman who was standing there with us that she still had a hard time wrapping her head around me being a “farmer,” but then she smiled and turned back to me and said, “but you are one. I know.”
We have to make a place in this state for young farmers–farmers who want to try a different way, a way we know can work if we can get a fair break, a shot at a little land and some support and respect.
One of the reasons I’ve devoted a lot of my time and resources to DRA is that there is that respect throughout the membership, and that hope for a future in our rural communities that is grounded in some pretty hardcore traditional values, while at the same time realizing that it might be done in a different way than they did it.
That hope for a better future for my family and my community keeps me going too–past the broken-down mowers and the grasshoppers and the weed-seed invasions and the sometimes-overwhelming amount of work that I can never seem to get on top of.
It makes me get back out there and do what I can to salvage the mistakes of this year and to plan for the next. And it also sends me back to the papers, still looking for that farm to call my own.