The Grapes of Wrath Is Mostly Farming Gripes–Hardly Any Grapes

The Grapes of Wrath is not the viticulture guide you’d expect. It certainly has nothing to do with grape culture in Cape Wrath, Scotland. Furthermore, the few mentions of grapes leave the reader wondering whether Mr. Steinbeck means bunch grapes, wine grapes, muscadines, scuppernongs, or some other minor Vitis species. This is a somewhat baffling oversight considering that, in all other respects, the author describes scenes and dialog in marvelous detail, producing a tome of over 550 pages. 

Though the title is a misnomer, the book itself isn’t without agricultural merit and  provides a practical method to make farmland profitable. The steps are as follow: 1) work as a higher-up in a big bank 2) provide loans to farmers for basic farming supplies and equipment, with farms put up as collateral 3) wait for a farm crisis, like the Dust Bowl, to cause farmers to default on loans 4) foreclose on farms, forcing small farmers off the land 5) sell bank-owned farmland to bigger farmers 6) reap the profit and wait for the next farm crisis to repeat. 

Succeed at separating enough families from the land, and you can cause a mass migration of desperate, displaced people who can be further exploited for cheap labor in other locales (at least if they don’t starve to death first). Though this book was first published in 1939, the scheme is pretty much still doable, hence the large population of migrant workers used to harvest fruit crops today, most of whom are exempt from minimum wage laws because they’re paid piecewise for the backbreaking opportunity to pick America’s fruit.

Admittedly, to get to the juicy parts about farming philosophy, you’ll have to wade through a lot of fluff about the Joad family, many of whom–spoiler alert!– die pitiful deaths. In fact, the book paints a pretty dismal picture for your average displaced farm laborer and small family farmer. Thus, for a more upbeat and optimistic farming read, I suggest Snail Farming for Profit by Anton Smithers. 

How To Be A Virtuous Farmer

Nobody ever said an ill word against Hal Stone, at least initially. Hal was just a meager produce farmer trying to survive. Of course, the whole community knew he was slinging pea stone with his fertilizer spreader to mimic the damage of a hail storm. What really led to the downfall of Hal’s reputation in the farming community was his honesty. Once caught by the insurance adjuster, Hal spilled the beans on all the other farmers doing the same, at which point everybody realized Hal was the worst kind of farmer, an honest one. 

Though still considered a virtue in some professions, honesty was long ago abandoned by farmers as a vestige from nomadic days. Today being an honest farmer is about as useless as being an honest fisherman. Farming and fishing stories inherently need some stretching of the truth, or else they would just be factual reports about crops growing slowly and fish not biting (for some funny fishing stories and just plain funny stories, check out Earl the Miscreant’s blog. He writes some of the funniest around). 

Certainly, honesty isn’t conducive to proper agricultural exaggeration, which was once taught through rote memorization of tables. Take, for instance, a farmer who grew 120 bushels of corn per acre. He could simply remember his corn exaggeration table and safely inflate the number to 140 bushels per acre in casual conversation, with no worry of a double-take. The other participants in the conversation were likely also educated in exaggeration and knew to mentally deflate the number back to 120 bushels, with no need to openly acknowledge the embellishment. Indeed, everybody understood the etiquette of conservational exaggeration. 

Of course, farmers had to memorize many exaggeration tables–for farm size, head of cattle, rain gauge readings, tractor horsepower, truck towing capacity, hay bales put up, just to name a few. Occasionally careless errors occurred when a farmer mixed up tables and uttered something slightly embarrassing like, “I got a full inch of rain under the hood.”

Though honesty is no longer needed, other virtues are still required to farm, including patience, perseverance, resourcefulness, and a good work ethic. Though merely lacking in most of these, I’m completely deficient in the most important virtue, a big bank account, which means I’m a wretched farmer at best. Wendell Berry sums it up  nicely, “You have to be too rich to farm before you can afford to farm in my county.”

Don’t get wrong, I have tried to increase my moral capacity to farm by thoughtfully bribing the loan agent (I wanted a cab tractor). Unfortunately, when I saw the pile of watermelons and cantaloupes on the floor behind the loan agent’s desk, I knew immediately I miscalculated by relying on old agricultural bribe tables. Apparently, the going bribe rate has increased with inflation and is now substantially more than a brown bag of homegrown tomatoes. Needless to say, I’m still riding around morally depraved in ambient atmospheric conditions–no cab, no air condition, no canopy, not a single luxury. 

Crows, the Old Field General, and Garden Warfare

A small garden, ha! What a punchline! I laugh every time I hear it, and I’ve heard it a lot. My wife’s poppaw Lowry is quite fond of the joke that precedes this punchline.

To do the joke justice, he starts out by pronouncing the fact that he’s downsizing his garden. In early spring, he may only plant a few rows of potatoes to really sell the setup. But by mid- June he’s wielding a hoe on a much larger battlefield, a certain glint in his eye as he fights once again with his mortal enemy, crabgrass. At this point, he says, “I’m getting too old for this” and then proclaims, “Next year I’m just planting a small garden.”

And it’s at this point where I laugh and say, “A small garden, ha!” Though I’ve heard that joke many times before–in fact, I hear it every year–I laugh, knowing next year his garden will be even larger. 

Older and Wiser

Lowry and Me

Lowry is now eighty-four. He has an old lawn chair that he sits in and looks out over his “small garden” like a field general. Field is an appropriate term because every year his garden grows in square-footage, to the point that his garden now encompasses a small field. The term general is also fitting because lately he’s been sitting in his chair with a shotgun.

His old foe, the crow, has been pillaging his rows of freshly-sowed purple hull peas, unearthing pea seed with precision beak strikes. But so far he’s been unsuccessful in repelling the crows. Over the years the crows around here have evolved and adapted their garden warfare tactics. The crows post lookouts in the trees near the garden and are long gone by the time Lowry shows up with his anti-aerial shotgun.

To be honest, I’ve started to worry about Lowry. Despite his big garden, he seems to have lost his fighting spirit. In years gone by, he would have concocted some elaborate crow-hunting blind to hide in and ambush his enemy. But now he’s just sitting around in the open for all the crows to see. I suspect the crows are probably ridiculing him in caws. Yesterday, I even walked up on him asleep in the lawn chair–shotgun across his lap. Not wanting to suddenly startle him while he was armed and dreaming, I just walked away and let him slumber. 

About thirty-minutes later, however, I heard a shotgun blast from the general direction of the garden. To be honest, I feared the worst: What if he had been having a nightmare, woke up confused, and blasted a watermelon? But when I got back to the garden, Lowry was grinning from ear to ear, a shotgun in one hand and crow in another. “I thought you were asleep,” I said.

His response: “And so did the crow.”

For another post on Lowry’s propensity for shooting, check out There’s a New Sheriff in Town. Also, here’s a funny story from the Small Farmer’s Journal on Lowry and my other farming neighbor called The Crowder Pea Peace Process.