Farm Journal: what does it really mean to be a farmer?

The Cayuga Pure Organics team: Steven, Amy, Anne Riordan (the author, center), Deb, and Erick. Photo: Mariah Rose Dahl

The Cayuga Pure Organics team: Steven, Amy, Anne Riordan (the author, center), Deb, and Erick. Photo: Mariah Rose Dahl

This is part of a series of Farm Journals, farmers writing regularly about life on the farm, week to week, through the season. Anne Riordan is field manager at Cayuga Pure Organics outside of Ithaca. Read all her journal entries here.

August 24th.

What does it mean to be a farmer?

Well, there is the obvious.    There is a lot of work. There are very long hours. There are constant hours.  There is dirty work, smelly work, greasy, heavy, tedious work.  It's very solitary.  And it is beautiful.  Even at the least romantic of times.

You get a grand view of the bigger picture, starting with the tiny and moving to the huge.

Through my journey as a grain farmer, I have met many people who (and there are less of these in Ithaca where I live because Ithaca is a remarkably green, sustainable, and food-security-conscious town) don't know where their food comes from. That whole wheat flour was a berry before it became flour.  Those rolled oats don't come off a rolled oat plant.

We as farmers take these tiny seeds, place them in these grand fields, marginally shove them in the direction we want them to go through fertilization, weeding, and praying for rain, and voila!  After four days you come back and see a tiny sprout.  After two weeks the whole field is green in neat, perfect rows. And they grow and grow and you watch and wait and cross your fingers, and curse the hail storms and shake your fist at your broken machinery and yell at the clouds, and put voodoo hexes on things like Fusarium Blight.  It's like having a giant number of tiny children all growing up at the same time. I'm sure this is not at all accurate because for as far as children go, I only have a dog and he's been wonderfully adept and intelligent growing up. But at the same time, it certainly feels like they are my children, and I take their fate very seriously.

And after they are cut and dried and cleaned and packaged, they hop on a bus to be bought and cooked and further processed, ground into flour, which turns into cookies and muffins and bread and salad toppings. Along with that is a hefty dose of delicious, fresh flavor, bonding with the local farmer who gave you such delicious food, and an education as well (we at CPO believe that part of supplying locally is an education about where your food comes from).

How lucky am I?!

The other beauty in farm work is consistency.

I know. People think I'm crazy for saying this, but it is so true.

No matter what is going on in your life, once you step into that field and gaze across it, you enter another state. Tractor work can certainly be monotonous, but it's a constant.

Say you had a huge fight with your significant other, your mom, your child, and your truck is broken, your dog is sick, your house is falling apart, you're sick of being a day late and a dollar short in life.  You come into work and you're pissed off.

But, you've gotten to your field – let's say it's a field full of corn – and it needs to be cultivated.  The sky is gorgeous aqua blue, there's nothing but the heat, breezing across your skin, nothing but the sound of field creatures, buzzing and whirring and calling to their potential mates.  The tractor's in a corner – you get that crunch under your feet as you walk to it, there's a fluffy cloud or two passing by, and it's hot but not too hot.  Your state of mind alters.

Of course, sometimes this doesn't happen. Sometimes it is that romantic, but sometimes this happens: you turn the key on the tractor, and the battery is dead.  Or, a shank broke on the cultivator. Maybe you notice an ominous pool under the tractor, or the smell of coolant. Maybe the field doesn't quite look like you want it to, or maybe, gosh darn it, you have to do this before getting in some hay and that little fluffy cloud just looks a little too dark for comfort.

In that case, your mood might not improve. But it doesn't stay the same.  Something has to shift – you're in this field. These plants need you; they're calling your name. They're always there. They never demand, but you cave to their unspeaking presence anyway. Even though they never make a peep, somehow they cause you to miss dates, blow off phone calls, skip meals, neglect your friends.  So one thing is for certain – when you are at work, you are AT. WORK.

If you a farmer, reader, why do YOU farm?

From my friend Kat:  "To farm is to be in union – with natural cycles under all conditions beyond our understanding or control.  We do the raw, tangible work and trust that the plants grow. To farm is to be a steward of the land and water that sustain life. Yes, we grow food to share with people but I'm a farmer because it's in my bones. Nothing else feels as worthwhile."

I can consider adding to my farming repertoire. I'd like to learn more. I'd like to learn to farm with draft horses, to raise pigs, to milk a cow and how to can and preserve my own food. I'm a mere novice at most of farming and homesteading. I went through a lot of indecision career-wise.  Before becoming a farmer I tried on a lot of hats.  Then I started to farm without a thought in the world and I am happier than most every one else I know (except perhaps the other farmers I know).  There should be a required class in college entitled "how to figure out where you really belong by following gut impulses". (There could be an advanced one entitled "…and how to break the news to your significant other/parents/etc").  It would cut down on many a sense of duty that has led into terrible job satisfaction, expectation and obligation.

OK, some news from the farm: grain harvest is in full swing. The weather appears to be cooperating these days; a couple of nice days with a rainy bit thrown in once in a while. This is much easier to work with. Except for the minor inconvenience of the brake pads falling OUT of my truck (does this normally happen?) this has led to very successful (albeit extraordinarily long) days of itchy, sticky, but ultimately satisfactory oat harvesting.

It's officially "I hate ragweed" season.  If I could find a market for ragweed (there must be some type of drug to make out of it), CPO would be rich. We'd have to change the name to Cayuga Pure Ragweed though (CPR??!) because it's in every single one of my fields. Ridiculous.  Ragweed and combines do not mix well. I have a relatively large combine, a Gleaner L2.  I plugged it up 7 (SEVEN!) times harvesting my last field of rye.  Those little green buds are so sneaky. Everything looks dry, but behold! The middle of the pile goes through the combine with a giant poof of green smoke. And then, you hear that engine roar drop, that slip clutch go, that rattle that means everything needs to be shut down.

It's so tempting to just let everything keep running when you unplug combines. Whatever, right?  After you've unplugged it six or so times, it's the last thing you want to do…sometimes even that extra bit of work just seems exhausting. If you turn it all off, you have to turn it all ON again. But I learned the hard way to shut things all down.

I tried to clean out the bin of the combine last season while harvesting beans. It was roughly 11 PM and I was too tired to keep going but I had to empty the bin. In a moment of pure stupidity, I jumped into the bin and kicked the last bit of chaff through the unloading auger. Guess what went with it? The boot straight off my foot. That auger just took the boot right off and almost all the way through the auger.  Since then, I always turn everything off. God forbid there be an electrical fault in the wiring for the separator and head and, while you're standing on that auger leading into the body of the combine something go whacky, and the whole thing turns on. It has been known to happen, and I can't think of a more horrible death.

Well, on that cheery note, I'm off to bed. Til next time…:)

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  1. Ok so I would still like to be a farmer but I am too old and can't do it by myself. I used to spend time at my cousins' parent's farm and I have very find memories!!

  2. I'm glad you learned your lesson with a boot, and not with a foot!
    For me, the joy of farming is that there is always a new technique to try, a new pest to outsmart, a new crop to grow that people want. I'm fascinated by the world that microbes live in and the drama that goes on among insects. The pool of knowledge that belongs to farming is much deeper than I will ever have the chance to get to the bottom of.