That’s Farming

I am not sure what’s the bigger bane of my existence, dead batteries or flat tires. Both have a way of taunting me that is entirely unbecoming of inanimate objects. Just yesterday a tractor battery went, “chug, chug, chug, chug, chug, click” which translated into English means, “You dimwit farmer, did you really think you were going to quickly crank up and go get a hay bale, then be back inside ten minutes later eating supper with your family? Think again, sucker.”

Ten minutes later, I not only had one dead tractor battery but two. I had now drained the battery in the other tractor by trying to jump off the first tractor. That meant I had to get my truck involved. Thankfully, my truck battery has proven more reliable than my tractor batteries, meaning it only dies bi-annually instead of annually. With the truck, I finally resuscitated the tractor and could now get a roll of hay for the cows. So twenty minutes fooling with batteries, ten minutes fooling with a hay tarp, five minutes opening and closing gates, ten minutes chasing a cow that snuck through a gate, and five minutes cutting strings off the hay bale equals thoroughly cold food when I finally made it back inside to eat supper. 

“What took so long?” my wife asked. 

“Dead battery,” I said. 

“You’ll probably want to stick that in the microwave,” she said. “and by the way, can you check the air in my tires. My light came on today when I was driving home from work.”

Alas, a poor dirt farmer like me basically spends six hours a day sleeping, eight hours at work to pay for my farming addiction, and my remaining hours trying to keep my farm from falling apart, which isn’t easy when unruly batteries and tires are involved. 

I take consolation in the fact some farmers have it worse than me. My neighbor keeps a battalion of broken-down tractors in the weeds just to keep a couple of tractors running and operational. How he remembers which parts he has already robbed off of which tractor is beyond me. He more or less mimics the frantic searching method of a bird dog, bobbing in and out of overgrown tractor thickets, to flush a needed part. On a good Saturday morning, he can bag his daily limit of parts and have them marinating in WD-40 by lunchtime. On a bad Saturday morning, he’ll have to go an actual tractor dealership to acquire his needed part, at which point someone will need to resuscitate him from sticker shock, but that’s farming.

Agriculturalists Anonymous: The New AA

Many have tried to quit farming. Many have relapsed a few weeks later by ogling a new tractor. If you ever see me riding around half-naked on a shiny new steed, you know I experienced a moment of weakness and lost the shirt off my back at a tractor dealership (and possibly my socks too if it was a John Deere dealership). In one of the great high points of my farming career, I once escaped a John Deere dealership only a $1.75 poorer. Still, the little washer was ten times overpriced, but previously I had never left there without the eerie feeling that I needed to sell a kidney.

If you ask me, tractor dealerships ought to own up to their moral responsibility and create a no-sale policy for customers showing signs of farming withdrawal. I know that’s probably wishful thinking, but if casinos set aside a portion of their proceeds to help those who eat, breathe, and play slot machines, then tractor companies ought to help those who eat, breathe, and play on heavy machines. Tractor companies don’t see it that way though. In fact, the manager of our local John Deere dealership once had the audacity to tell me his “primary responsibility was selling and not not-selling.” Talk about moral depravity.

To be honest, I’ve never been tempted much by shining new equipment (I’m more of a rust guy), but that doesn’t mean I don’t have other farming faults. For instance, at rock bottom, I once had more calves per acre than blades of grass, right out in the open for everyone to see. One of my neighbors made light of the situation, saying such insensitive stuff as, “Stephen, can I practice my short game at your place? Your pasture looks like a putting green.”

Any attempts at going cold turkey from calf buying were made difficult by the fact that I worked at a government agriculture office. Farmers would enter the office, manure wafting from their boots, and wax poetic about the beautiful weather, all while I was confined doing pointless government paperwork. At day’s end, I’d drive home despondent and then drown my woes in the bottle, that is until Natalie finally hid them all. Eventually I did find her hiding place and quickly started bottle feeding more calves.

The point, though, is farming addictive, which is probably a good thing—because if it wasn’t, I suspect we’d all be starving.

Tractor Tire Technicians Without Borders

I was contemplating deep thoughts the other day when it dawned on me that nothing good and pure and wholesome in this world ever hisses. Can you imagine a fair young maiden hissing? No, I don’t think so: hissing is what wicked witches do, as well as rattlesnakes and possums and rapidly deflating rear tractor tires. In fact, if you ever want to ponder the mysteries of the universe, I suggest you skip the Tibetan meditation music and greatest hits of Enya and instead add “Sounds of Hissing Tractor Tires” to your playlist. With the cost of tires now, you’ll be in an existential crisis in no time. 

And rear tractor tires are more than just a financial encumbrance–they’re a half-ton encumbrance. If while changing them, they happen to fall over on you, someone will need to scrape you off the ground with a spatula. In bygone days, this problem was easily solved by requesting the services of a professional tire man with a boom truck and good liability insurance. Apparently, however, most professional tire men these days have determined it’s not worth the possibility of getting crushed to death by another man’s tractor tire to make money. Even Dan the Tire Man has gone soft and given up tractor tire calls. Dan said, “Ain’t got the staff to do farm calls no more–nobody wants to work.”

And that got me thinking: where are all the altruistic millennials when you need them? It appears they’re so busy creating pie-in-the-sky nonprofits that they can’t be bothered to help farmers with real nonprofitable endeavors, like manhandling a rear tractor tire. I was at a conference this past weekend, and there was actually a young “aspiring” farmer walking around the conference barefoot (the conference was in Asheville)–I kid you not, he was shunning footwear in public to help save the world somehow. When Bilbo Baggins came up to my booth, he bandied about all the common alternative agriculture catchphrases like “regenerative methods” and “food sovereignty” and “ecological production” and I just tried my best to keep a straight face and not make eye contact with his feet. In hindsight, I should have invited him to help me change my rear tractor tire, at which point he would have learned an important lesson: aspiring farmers should own a pair of steel-toe boots. 

That said, if you know of any millennials out there who are still searching for their life’s purpose and are thinking about starting a nonprofit, may I suggest: “Tractor Tire Technicians without Borders.” It would truly be a worthy cause.

Never Walk Behind Pepper

For those who’d like to donate to a worthy charity, may I suggest the MFTTF, the Misfit Farmer’s Tractor Tire Fund. All contributions go directly to my bank account, which has been depleted this summer by the disintegrating structural integrity of rubber on my farm. It’s got to the point that I now look at the Amish’s horse-drawn implements with envy, and I have a lifelong fear of horses. 

Of course, my wife dismisses equinophobia. Years ago, when we purchased her old family farmstead, she was actually excited that Ringo, a Missouri Foxtrotter, was thrown in for free and ridiculed my general life philosophy that “All horses should be feared, and free horses should be feared always.” 

Haunting me were childhood memories of my cousins’ lunatic steeds: Red, Pepper, and the pony (I forget the pony’s name, though its memories are largely the most traumatic). But I do remember the pony rearing and galloping full speed toward a barbed wire fence with my wailing cousin atop. She looked like a miniature Annie Oakley. At one point, her cowboy hat, attached by chinstraps, fully deployed like a parachute and was the only thing slowing the runaway pony. Soon thereafter, my cousin toppled off the side, and the pony skidded to halt in front of the fence, which at that point was the best possible outcome.

I’m not sure whatever happened to that pony—I lost touch with it after it nearly killed my cousin, but I suspect it was probably donated to another family who needed a good free pony.

Unlike the pony, Big Red and Pepper occasionally proved trustworthy enough for excursions outside their pasture. Though I have no particular horror stories of Pepper, the frequent warning “Never walk behind Pepper” still reverberates in my mind. So much so, the pepper shaker stays hidden in a cabinet, lest I walk past the kitchen table and flinch. 

Once, my family took Pepper and Big Red on a horseback-riding trip to Sugar Loaf Mountain. Sugar Loaf was really more mound than mountain, but being in the coastal plain where everything was flat, the abnormal increase in elevation achieved mountain status. I viewed much of the surrounding countryside while performing a full split atop Big Red who was intent on wandering wherever he pleased, his jockey experiencing too much paralysis to control the reins. To continue his journey unencumbered, Red eventually reared up and dropped me off on a pine tree. 

I’ve never been on a horse since, but at this point horse shoes seem a lot cheaper than tractor tires.  

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.