Why do we farm, anyway?

What keeps farmers going, even when the jobs are dirty and the money's not there?

By Ward Sinclair


Warming the Soil: Ward and Casswith all that absolutely essential black plastic mulch that will make his life so miserable later in the year.
 
Farmer'sMarket: Ward selling interesting potato varieties in 1992.
EDITOR'S NOTE:

Ward Sinclair left his position as national correspondent at the Washington Post newspaper in 1989 in order to become a full-time farmer, along with his partner Cass Peterson. They had purchased Flickerville Mountain Farm & Groundhog Ranch in 1983—a rundown farm of 65 acres in Fulton County, Pennsylvania. For the next five years they gardened part-time while continuing to work full-time at the Washington Post. Then they started fulltime farming in 1989, selling to an organic wholesaler, to restaurants, to farmers' markets, and finally to customers in what they called a "subscription service." Later they learned that these weekly veggie deliveries were a variation on a marketing idea from overseas called Community Supported Agriculture. Their farm was one of the first working examples of a CSA in the United States. Ward wrote essays on farming for the Washington Post's food section from 1989 until 1992. The essay reprinted here is one of those, written on November 22, 1992. Ward farmed until his death in 1995.
 

 

It was a thoroughly miserable job on a thoroughly miserable fall day and the farmer, crawling on all fours in the dirt, thought he was entitled to ask why he had forsaken the warm comfort of the city for this kind of life.

The job was one that must be done every fall when the crops are in—removing the long strips of black plastic mulch that warms the soil, retains moisture, and stifles the weeds. The Truckpatch seems unable to operate without this plastic, yet it is the bane of the farm.

The edges of the plastic, imbedded in the dirt, shatter and tear. Muscles strain to break it loose. Dust or mud flies in all directions. The farmer's knees get bruised, his shoulders and arms ache, he is a human dirt ball. He wonders: Why bother?
Who needs this grief?

But by the time the plastic removal is finished, Thanksgiving has drawn nigh—meaning another year's cycle of planting, nurturing, and harvesting is complete—and the farmer can consider his lot with a better sense of perspective.

So inured has the farmer become to the challenge of making each year a success that he cannot conceive of himself ever again sitting behind a desk, being paid well to do a job that had simply become too easy.

Here in the Truckpatch there is not desk, the pay isn't great, and the job is never easy. But it offers something vital to every man—the freedom to succeed or fail on one's own. There is no one else to blame when things go wrong, no place to hide.
Yet over time, as friends and strangers have come by to look at what the farmer and his partner have wrought on this small acreage, they, too, question why one would voluntarily surrender the relative ease and affluence of a city job for this sort of martyrdom.

There are many answers, but the simplest—and this the farmer hopes all will consider as they vicariously celebrate the harvest—is that growing food is one of man's highest yet most basic callings. Now that may sound a bit highfalutin', but the farmer has come to know it is true.
Pulling that dreadful plastic, the farmer also has come to know, is one of the prices he must pay for admission to this most exclusive of circles. And in that sense, the task becomes less onerous.

Now, too much can be made of the presumed religiosity of a farmers life and often is, usually by denizens of the city who do not know about working on all fours. But in fact, there is something sacerdotal about life in the truckpatch.

Being here and having become part of a microscopic universe in which he is a key player, the farmer has come to know that some great power guides us all and fie on those who choose to work counter to this power. This knowledge is comforting and reassuring.

The farmer cannot describe the magical aroma of healthy soil, just turned in the spring. He is at a loss to articulate the emotion of watching the first germinating seeds pushing up through the earth's crust. Without sounding terribly saccharine, he would not try to limn the joy caused by abundance in the fields or the union he feels with Nature when the crops flourish.

Nor is there a way, really, to portray the pleasure he feels when utter strangers praise his tomatoes or his broccoli. Yet, such praise has come to be more meaningful and important than any accolades he might have received for news articles he crafted in another life.

Curiously, this all came to the farmer almost by accident. Years of traveling the country, meeting inspirational figures who by example were showing how man could work in harmony with great power and be the better for it, were moving influences.

Important, too, was the realization that the best and the brightest and the most successful more often than not were people who had come to agriculture as a second career. They were not fettered by the biases and bad habits of past farming
generations, which were perpetuated by large institutions or transmitted genetically. That realization gave weight to the works of Louis Bromfield, the novelist, who said that some are born farmers but shouldn't be; others are born farmers but don't realize it until they've done something else in life.

And so, with the help and encouragement of friends, we started to farm—and never looked back. Not even knee-deep in dirt on a cold fall day, grappling with a chunk of plastic.