I’ve been rereading a book lately that I hadn’t picked up in a few years. It’s called Fields Without Dreams, by Victor Davis Hanson. This 20-year-old book is worth a read. It makes you think—perhaps especially if you’re living and working on a family farm—about why it is we care about the deeply revered and celebrated American institution of agriculture.
Why is it that so many are called to work the land, listening and learning from its rhythms? Why do we choose to live a life of hard physical labor when we could be hanging out in the air conditioning? Why do we pour money into something that might not be there for us the next day?
Now, Hanson is a Greek classicist and orchardist whose family lives and works the annual grape-to-raisin harvest in central California. I’m not the biggest fan of the writer’s politics, as he can be an apologist for conservative economics and a worldview that lashes out at “the other.” He’s not up there on the pantheon of greats exploring the agrarian tradition, like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, or Gene Logsdon.
Still, Hanson has a lot to offer. He is not a happy-pants romantic about farming. (That’s a good thing.) He understands the sacrifices and struggles we go through in coaxing income and such from the sometimes-fickle notions of plants and photosynthesis. His family’s greatest challenge is that of water management—irrigation, mostly, since they are in a very dry climate, although they’re also in a region and an industry that can be destroyed at harvest time due to rain.
Raisins, you see, are harvested grapes that are dried by the sun on paper trays, right out in vineyard, in the spaces between the grapevines. It’s a very traditional and non-industrial process. So the annual harvest’s quality and value is dependent upon this narrow little window of sun, rain, and temperature that occurs during drying time. If grapes are on the ground and the rains come, they’re soaked and ruined. If grapes are on the ground and the temperature is too high for too long, they’re burnt up and ruined.
In other words, what has taken 365 days of work (plus decades of time beforehand) to create and generate the family’s livelihood can be gone in a single day.
This fact is something I deal with every day here on the farm. Take last week, when the family herd of cows trampled and munched through my two-acre vegetable patch, destroying much of my summer harvest potential. I had been working since February to coax fruit from the tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers and eggplant. My new crop of salad greens and chard and kale was ready for harvest. And it was all gone in a morning. Ironic, isn’t it, that my Dad and I were out in the cow pasture, trying to get some fence fixed up so they could be moved to an area of better pasture later that day?
Like Hanson, and the rest of the members of the Oates Clan out here in West Missouri, we deal with all of this by living a double life. We live on the farm, but we also work off the farm to pay bills and “pay for the farm.” We are a duality, and it’s confusing to most people. Why do we work so hard with our non-work time and partial incomes to try and grow food? Why do we care about keeping, maintaining, and improving the homeplace?
I only can riff about this from the perspective I bring to the table. I was away for 17 years, going off and being “successful” in the eyes of most. I got a college education and worked as a professional. Victor Davis Hanson would contribute my success, if you can call it that, to the work ethic I developed on the farm and at my family’s small-town meat processing plant (another story for another day). But then everything changed. The sensation of missing the farm grew too large to bear. I had always wanted to get back home to help out and live a more agrarian life with my family and kin. That great gnawing became too much to ignore.
So here I am, out here: on the edge of the oak-hickory forest to the east and on the edge of the Great Plains to the west. Here I am, living a double life, trying to work off the farm as few hours as possible to pay the bills, trying to figure out how my brothers and I can contribute to the great legacy our father and his father are leaving us all.
Because, going back to Fields Without Dreams, we’re watching the slow, grinding demise of the family-farm system of agriculture. But we’re still here. We’re living a double life that society doesn’t understand. And while we might be wasting our time and effort according to some, while we might not have taken on the mantle of “professional farmers,” we’re still here. We’re not going to sell out and cash in to retire in Florida. We’re going to keep working and making this place our home.
I don’t see this as the tragedy that some might. I see it as a great gift—yes, maybe only to myself and my personal sanity—to be improving the soil through the combined wonders of science and magic. I get to see my grandparents age in their shack of a house just up the hill, right where they want to be. I get to sweat and cuss with my dad, sometimes only by text message as we coordinate daily chores. I get to grow plants nourished by the manure and urine of those destructive but wealth-creating cows.
We live in a funny world, for sure. There is food on the grocery store shelf, despite what happens on my family’s farm. The great agribusiness exploitation machine keeps rolling, but so do families like ours.
The only reason I keep returning to is that we need the land to keep us honest. We need the plants and animals that share this space with us to keep us sane. I don’t pretend to think that the land needs us, though. The sun will shine, the rain will fall, and something will grow. Something will eat the something that grows, and something will eat the something that eats the something that grows. And it will all go on, with or without me and my family.
For those of us with land and agriculture in our blood, or maybe just in our corrupted minds, we’ll still be here, watching and participating in this great process we hope to someday understand. We’re here to witness the annual cycle of growth and decay and living and dying. We’ll still be here, meditating with footsteps and shovels and hoes, hoping for rain or sunshine as we need it.
Bryce is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.
PHOTOS: (RAISINS DRYING) ROB W, COURTESY OF FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS; (BRYCE) COURTESY OF BRYCE