Updated: Aug 17
Carlsbad Caverns Spring Getaway 2023
There's nothing like a drive in the countryside with a farmer! I'm mesmerized by old farm houses and gardens, and he comments on the fields that might otherwise blur past me with little notice. We see the landscape from very different lenses. I might comment on a mansard roof or tidy outbuildings, but Bill comments on crops.
He points out things I might not even notice. In one case a farmer has baled hay, but didn't move the bales off the field. Instead, he left the new crop to grow up around the mounds. William points out the problems with this: the farmer will need to drive over the growing crop to move the bales, and lost all the hay that would have grown where the big round bales sit. That's not a good farming practice according to my farmer. I also learn about hay cut then left in the field to get rained on. The more bleached out, the more times it's been wet. For hay to maintain it's nutrition, it's best to avoid rain. We know that's not always possible. I also learn about hay baled wet when William points out squishy mushroom looking bales. This farmer didn't let it dry long enough and now it has begun to ferment. This hay will rot well before the intended winter feeding time. Not good, according to Sweet William.
We wonder what happened to these guys that they didn't have the opportunity to get it just right? Life happens. Weather happens. Family happens. Health happens. We know, but it sure brings to mind the question - What exactly constitutes A Good Farmer, anyway? "Bill," I say, "How do you define what it means to be a good farmer?"
What followed was a very interesting conversation. Here's the gist of it.
First off, we discussed the idea of who gets to be called a farmer in the first place. We agreed that farmers are people who live from the sale of that which they grow. We acknowledge that many farmers have off-farm jobs, but believe that the best farmers are those who are truly self-sufficient economically due to their farm enterprise. The best farmers work primarily at the work of farming although may bring in extra money from off-farm side jobs.
Then we discussed skills and the knowledge of farming. Good farmers have a deep knowledge of the land, soil, fertility, germination, machinery and its repair, animals, health, building, carpentry, plumbing, electrical systems, welding, cooking, preserving, economics, accounting, foraging, crop rotation, lumbering, etc. It is a very long list that comprises what a guy like Bill knows. If we could translate his years of experience to university degrees, he's likely got PhDs in Botany, Agronomy, Physics, Economics, Electrical, Mechanical and Chemical Engineering, could be an honorary chef and is certainly qualified to work as a mechanic anywhere.
A good farmer knows how to work. In fact, they must be willing to work all the time. A good farmer does not live by the laws of after work, weekends or Spring Break. Somebody who lives self-sufficiently is committed to the lifestyle. Now, the important thing to know about this lifestyle choice is that, although it is a lot of work, Good Farmers PACE themselves throughout the day. They move unhurried, calm and patient from task to task. They take leisurely meal breaks, enjoy the scenery and work in healthy increments. "Keep pecking away at it" is the advice I hear from William when I scramble to get work done by 5:00 each day. I'm a city girl in so many ways, and like it when the work is "done!" Bill, assures me, "done" is never possible on the farm. So, take it in stride, do it when you can and rest when you need.
Then we talked about environmental impact and how all of these farmers running a "conventional" corn/soybean operation will face political persecution in the coming years. As Americans realize a need to change the way of farming in the face of climate change (decrease fossil fuel use, discontinue the mass application of chemicals, and sequester carbon by growing soil), what constitutes "Good Farming" will certainly change. Presently, all the good farmers out there, are poised to be the focal point of the next great political debate. How can someone who knowingly poisons the earth be a good farmer? I wonder. It's what they know and do right now, but it seems change is coming. Good farmers of the future will know how to manage perennial crops, use regenerative agriculture practices and remember that cows have feet - they can walk to their own durned food in this model and leave fertilizer in their wake!
"Isn't it shocking how quickly we destroyed our soils?" I comment. Since the first tractor was introduced in 1892, only 130 years ago, we’ve watched farming change dramatically. The tractor replaced the horse-drawn plow and the workload for the farmer diminished drastically. Fast forward to the middle of the 20th century, The Green Revolution ushered in high-yielding varieties of wheat and other grains that could “feed the world” but would require massive amounts of chemical herbicides and fertilizers. With machines making farming a lot easier, large farms grew and small farms went belly up, unable to compete with those holding the economic advantage - namely enough land to leverage the purchase of more land and more machinery. All that machinery running over all that land has effectively removed all of its "biology" as the regenerative ag guys call it. The soil in average American farm fields is depleted were it not for that jolt of juice fertilizer it gets each year. Seems like that's not good farming.
After that part of the conversation, we decide, big farming might have its place eventually, but right now, it might just be the small diversified farm that will be in a better position in the coming years. If a family can run a diversified farm operation successfully, we consider them to be good farmers.
Good Farmers of a diversified operation understand that success depends on the farmer's ability to cultivate that symbiotic relationship between the land, crops and animals. Each contribute to the health of the other. Good farmers have to prepare for uncertainty by diversifying, and therefore, building tolerance for risk. In farmer speak, we know not to put all of our eggs in one basket. Farmers who can weather the storm plant a wide crop selection, have learned to work with Mother Nature and not against her, have expanded their farm enterprise to include animals, crops, veggies, fruit, and use a variety of sale platforms. They sell through the grain markets, direct to consumers, at small markets, or farm direct. These farmers are able to experiment and learn in small plots as a failure in one isn't a failure on the entire farm.
Finally, we talked about farm economics and a farmer's ability to manage the budget. Good farmers are the most sophisticated accountants and the best of them think in numbers. Farming as a lifestyle does not provide for excessive leisure, but if diverse and managed well, it is very rich in that each day is ours. Yes, it's a lot of work, but it's our work. Paychecks don't come biweekly, in fact, for many farms, payday happens only during harvest. Skilled farmers know how to reinvest in the farm business and run lean. Farmers have a deep understanding of how to keep things that might one day be useful, how to stock up when there is a sale, and how to keep the larder filled for later.
Taking all of these things into consideration, ultimately, a good farmer has to be pretty gutsy. There are a million unknowns so having the cojones and temperament to weather the storms - the good times and bad is pretty durned helpful. They need to have above average intelligence, a bottomless pit of kindness and empathy, and of course, in my estimation, a good sense of humor helps everything!
Four years ago I married my good farmer. I still battle culture shock as I shed city understandings and expectations, wish for a day where we could plan for "after work," and struggle with the unending TO DO list, but with Sweet William cracking jokes and teaching me the ways of good farming, I will never go back. I am very lucky to be where I am in this world. Some people practice yoga, I practice farming... it's very humbling.
Happy Anniversary, Sweet William!
Sending love from the farm to all of you,