How Do They Do It?

February 11, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Brad Moldofsky

For a few days after they popped their heads above soil in January, I mercilessly thinned out spinach and mesclun lettuce sprouts in my repurposed plastic water cube/window garden. I’m completely in charge and I’m loving it. Savoring my role as cruel overlord, I slaughtered the weaker ones and stacked them in militarily straight rows like Confederate extras in an all-Irish cast of Gone with the Wind. Centralized stacks of spindly white limbless bodies with green clover heads now serve as a Mesclun-Spinach line, separating the opposing surviving members of each species.

Clearly I don’t have enough to do with my time.

Sad to say, an unplanned three-day absence left the young-uns waterless and it’s only now, a week later, that some of them are returning to the green of health. My temporary loss of control shattered my fragile ego right around the time when the snow disappeared from the backyard (thanks to a freakish day of 60-degree weather). So it helps that I can now see the patch of lawn that I plan to kill to make way for a new square-foot garden this spring. Is it odd that my desire for control often involves terminating members of the plant kingdom?

All Illinois farmers are doubtlessly preparing now to make the most of the growing season. As a member of Angelic Organic’s Farmer Training Initiative, I get e-mails about farmland for sale or local farms looking for help. Recently, the job openings have been arriving furiously, and as I read each one, I shake my head in wonder at the economics of it all.

It’s less of a mystery to me that small family farms are struggling nationwide than that we manage to grow food at all, let alone enough to keep a majority of us overweight. The American economy has always baffled me in general, and the agra-economy in particular. Like the notion that people who trade the option to buy a food commodity, like corn, can earn substantially more than the folks growing that commodity. Certainly traders can lose lots of money, but there’s a chance they’ll strike it rich, where as the farmer almost certainly won’t.

I’ve been following Vera V.’s ripping yarns with interest, as well as those of other small farm bloggers as they recount their daily lives in each season. For a while last year, I had wistfully imagined that a farm life, though difficult, would be more rewarding than a sterile office job. I’m aware that a majority of kids who grow up on farms nowadays move into other careers. But I did a lot of research and I’ll share my opinions in some future post. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a flippant observation.

My wife and I have a tongue-in-cheek explanation for every store that seems perpetually empty yet improbably stays open year after year. We shrug and explain that the owners are dealing drugs. It’s a reasoning that, whether true or not, explains so much in simple and elegant terms. Is it the same with farmers who manage to stay in business year after year? Are they all growing narcotics? Certainly the Afghan farmers we recently democratized are unable to make an unsubsidized living growing food and have reverted to growing opium.

How can anyone run a business that requires such enormous labor and/or petroleum-powered machinery to run, face the annual threat of flooding and drought, pests and nutrient depletion, plus the unpredictability of a distant marketplace that tells you how much your crops will be worth? Let alone do it in northern Illinois where your fields are snow-covered for a good chunk of the year.

For me, I’m just raising a salad-full of lettuce right now and enjoying the illusion of control. Grow faster, you damn mesclun!