Academic journal article Policy Review

Tall Tales from the Family Farm

Academic journal article Policy Review

Tall Tales from the Family Farm

Article excerpt

He sees not that sea of trouble, of labour, and expense which have been lavished on this farm. He forgets the fortitude, and the regrets.

J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America

ALL THIS HAPPENED On a single day one week. I opened the mailbox and flipped to a random page of an advance copy of a book on farming to find: "The natural serenity of the farm ...." The phone rang and a kind voice said: "You farmers are the nicest bunch of people in this country." An acquaintance from the campus greeted me: "You're so lucky to live out there where everything is so simple." On the television blared an empathetic head: "Will we still have food once our family farms are gone?" In a magazine a sensitive writer expounded: "Farming, the oldest and most timeless of man's activities...."

Contrary to my inclination, but by necessity, I must define farmers as less admirable than the fantasies of nonfarmers listed above. Let me refute these five commonly held myths by suggesting how the image of a kind, simple, and gentle agriculturist is simply untrue.

Myth 1: Farming is "serene"

IN SO ME SENSE farming is peaceful -- out here there are never traffic jams, few people, and not much noise in comparison to the city. Murder and rape are less frequent than in the country. And there is no X-rated theater, crack house, or all-night hotel outside my window. We hear the sirens from town, not vice-versa. Many of the greatest philosophers in the West have noted that rustic morality stems from the simple absence of temptation.

Yet Pax Agraria is a myth. The farm as a tranquil abode is the dividend of our romantic and pastoral traditions that date back to third-century B.C. Alexandria, where sophisticated and citified Greeklings dreamed that they were shepherds in Arcadia. Trapped in concrete, asphalt, and stucco, urban man idealizes -- the academics would say "constructs" -- what he does not know but wishes to be true, as either hope or penance for his own sometimes unsatisfying existence. So farms become "serene" and "peaceful" for those dreamers, who under no circumstances would live there. The idea of the calm north 40 is part of the same romance that explains why city folks buy enormous and awkward four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicles for rush hour traffic, or wear heavy, uncomfortable, and treaded high-top work boots just to navigate over carpet and tile. Equipped with such appurtenances, they can travel anywhere and so go nowhere. I suppose Plato would say that their reason and appetites are not rural, but their suppresse d spirit is -- the third great portion of our existence that longs for something primordial.

In reality, agriculture is frantic. It has cacophony and a frenzy as breakneck as any I have seen in town. Consider, for example, not the busy harvest or preharvest, but the month of February, Virgil's purported dormant "off-season." Then, farmers should be in by the fire, waiting idly for their vines to reawaken, quietly whittling to the hushed rhythm of a somnolent nature.

More likely the following is the winter vineyard scenario.

Pruning is now almost finished. But you can't just tie the selected vine canes back on the wire. Why? Because the wire has been cut, the stake staples torn out, a few stakes crushed, even a few end posts (which anchor the wire) at row's end broken through 365 days of use. Indeed, sometimes the wire of the whole row is on the ground. Pruners are paid by the vine, and so they do cut the wire in their haste to surpass the minimum wage. And they do pull grape stakes down as they yank recklessly on stubborn canes. For the prior 11 months tractors have hit posts, stakes, and vines -- you now discover all this flotsam when the vine leaves and brush are gone and the year's detritus of the vineyard becomes clear at last -- and for a moment.

This wreckage has to be cleaned up before buds break out in a few weeks. …

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