Farming in the Cold Light of Spring
Spring used to be the season I hated. It always felt cold, damp, muddy, the sun never seemed to shine much. Worst of all it meant it was time for Dad to get ready for spring planting, getting the equipment out of the sheds, tuned up, greased up, plowing the fields, getting stuck in the mud if it was too wet, or breathing in topsoil that blew in the wind if it was too dry. To this day I can vividly recall the smell of cold wet machinery, machine grease, black dirt, seed corn covered in nasty purple insecticide, burlap bags full of soybean seed, and all the good stuff mixed in and spread on the fields to make everything grow, from dusty, nose-burning fertilizer to breath-stopping anhydrous ammonia.
The spring work season was always so frantic–hurry here, hurry there, plow this, disc that, plant this, spray that, rotary hoe this, cultivate that one, two, even a third time if necessary. There was always something needed from far away–machinery parts, chemicals, food, coffee, gasoline, exchanging wrong machinery parts, etc. After school and on weekends I usually rode with my mother on these errands while Dad kept on working. Hour after hour after hour, and going on for weeks and months, racing against rain and fast-growing weeds until the weather suddenly went from cool and damp into steamy miserable hot. But by the first day of summer, the crops were too big to fuss with, and everything was pretty much left to the gods of weather, insects, and fungus. I was always so glad to see the last of the spring machinery cleaned off and put away. Crisis mode was over.
Back in the fields of my childhood I was not impressed with the greening up of the world and the return of birds and bees. Nasty things returned as well, like poison ivy, sand burrs, mosquitoes, and ticks. And Jimson weed, horrible, smelly Jimson weed. As it got warmer there would be more and more insects, necessitating being sprayed liberally with Off! and hoping the stuff would dry before Dad made another pass by with the cultivator, otherwise the dust he stirred up would stick to the insecticide on my body and render me both literally and figuratively a gray study. My mother loved spring and seemed to know the names of every insect, weed, and tree that came alive. She grew up in Chicago and thought the country air to be sweet and fresh, even when it was actually reeking with dust, chemicals, and motor fumes. I, bored and stubborn child, was having none of it.
At home the maintenance meant painting sheds, cleaning out rotting soybeans and mildew from the grain bins, slapping creosote on timbers, and cleaning off excess grease from tools and machine parts with gasoline. The two-acre lawn around the house would get a liberal sprinkling of fertilizer and nitrogen to green it up and assure that it needed weekly shaving with the tractor mower. I have no idea how much fertilizer seeped into the well water. There were also ditches to be kept clean, poison ivy and other weeds pulled out of the ditchbanks and sprayed with herbicides, gravel to be raked, trees to be trimmed, groundhogs and sparrows to be shot. And of course there was the chemically-enhanced vegetable garden. Even when I didn’t help out (and I was sickly and useless a great deal of this time) this was my childhood environment.
You need to understand that this was life on a small family grain farm back from the mid-50’s through the mid-70’s. It was never a connected-to-nature, “natural-paced” life. It might have taken place in the great outdoors, but it was never really working with nature. Nature was the enemy, with its insects, fungi, erosion, decay and genetic inclination to unhybridize itself. Nature’s natural processes were not paced with an American farmer’s economic necessities.
Now of course I am left to wonder just what affect that range of chemical soup had on our health, from those days when everything new and improved was seized upon by any farmer worth his salt. Dad subscribed to Prairie Farmer and Successful Farming magazines, and kept his tractors washed and waxed. He always had picture-perfect crops and impressive yields from his somewhat less than ideal soil. It couldn’t have happened without the combination of chemicals and nonstop spring work. In fact it couldn’t have happened with an almost manic level of work, a tempo that belies the common myth that life on the farm was gentler, kinder, and healthier. It certainly couldn’t have happened without an appalling amount of gasoline. But it was certainly picture-perfect.
When the various warriors of the Food Movement push for the end of factory farms and for organic, local food production, I think what they want is a good thing. However, the state of most American farmland–and of American farming economics–makes it difficult to work differently. Changing the soil from chemical soup to certifiably organic would take at least three years without contamination by synthetic fertilizers and genetically modified plants. This is quite a bit of investment in the form of lower yields and profits while still having production costs and property taxes to pay. Even then the organic farmer would have to insure against anything that would nullify certification, such as overspray from nonorganic farm practices, and cross-pollination with unapproved species.
To make organic farming the new normal, the government would have to provide subsidies for transitioning farms, just as it used to pay farmers to let some of their fields lie fallow in order to rebuild the soil and prevent dust bowls. It’s possible, providing there is enough popular demand to overcome the forces which are invested in keeping farmers working in the old chemical way. Nonetheless, I do not think it would change the pace of American farming–there will remain that frantic drive against anything that threatens yield and profit. And it will still take an appalling amount of gasoline.