Farming aint easy. Between raising a few vegetables in a window planter, a single flower in a pot, or a few thousand acres of soybeans, the heartbreaks come fast, furious, and often. Disease. Bad weather. Bunk seed. Invasive weeds. Collapsing markets. Critters. Government agents. The list of possible calamities is virtually endless and still, we plant, we pull weeds, we talk to vegetables, the sky, and even the weatherman on television, as if they might actually be listening.
We dream of bounty, of course, barrels of fresh produce spilling over on the picnic table, and we have our reasons. Some believe it brings them closer to the earth, which is a vile and overused phrase, particularly in the age of gridlock, spanx, oxygen bars, and the Islamic State, but nevertheless harbors a whisp of truth, and is perhaps therefore just accurate enough to forgive its use. Still, it might even be better than that; the etymology works itself back to latin–to fix, settle, confirm, strengthen, a cousin to firmare, meaning firm. There is something in that I like very much; if the word itself must mean something, let it suggest strength and resolution. And let’s be clear: if you raise a plant for food, you are a farmer. Gardening is for dilettantes–think Jefferson nancing around Monticello in his nightshirt–or snotty millenials with neck tattoos and Patagonia pastels, making the world more dangerous between their community garden plot and Subaru Outback bristling with mountain bikes. Farming implies backbone, an embrace of hazard and chance, missing thumbs, frayed denim, teutonic sword fighting scars, tobacco juice, fiddles, and old trucks full of happy dogs.
The Rullman clan arrived from Hesse-Darmstadt as farmers. Like every other German migrant they settled in Missouri where they drank beer, farmed, and invented useful things. The county registers recognized them as “Master Farmers”, which is a sadly disappearing term. They bought more land in Iowa and Nebraska, and they farmed more crops, which is what farmers do because they are addicted to the alchemy of earth and seed, of water and sunlight. The last of the genuine large scale Rullman farmers was Larvin, my grand uncle, who lived in Iowa, and died there, still a farmer, one eye made of glass, the barnyard a museum of shrapnel—outdated implements and dangerous tractors wrecked by the weather—leaving a wife named Maddy who resembled, precisely, Winston Churchill. So I farm too. I can’t help myself.
Until recently we enjoyed the luxuries and perfection of weather in the Santa Ynez Valley, California. Sunny and 75 today, tomorrow, and forever. We grew luscious tomatoes for salads, salsa, and tomato sauce, green beans and peas, garlic and carrots, and they were abundant. In the long run the ease of growing in that climate was a curse, creating false expectations (though we might have known better), and therefore compounding the grief attending this summer’s crop.
You see, we have arrived and planted ourselves on the east slope of the Cascades, deep in the trees where the soil is acidic, the season regrettably short, and the forest itself decidedly hostile to strange plantings. The deer are assassins. The birds cutthroats. The Golden Mantles thieves disguised as clowns. The weather is always bad. It is either too hot or too cold, too windy or not windy enough to blow out the smoke from wildfires. There are three perfect days a year, which is not reflected in the literature. And last week, while I stumbled around in ignorant euphoria, having beaten back my forest full of bad things, when the tomatoes were large and healthy and full, the sky broke open at the command of an angry, old testament God, and dumped 45 minutes worth of hail on top of us. Twice.
The death of a single tomato is a tragedy, to be sure, and every farmer feels it. It is by no means the loss of a child, which we have also endured, but the death of a tomato causes its own full spiral of grief. The death of dozens of tomato plants, an entire crop, and the dreams that crop represents, is crushing. When the temperature dropped 25 degrees in five minutes, and the sky cleaved open and thrashed our little farm, stripping the tomatoes, crushing the peas, obliterating the pole beans, I stood in the window like some idiotic penitent, watching the carnage and slipping into a somnambulant fugue. It is, after all, merely August. When it was over, when the porch was covered with enough ice to build a four foot snowman, and a flash flood torrent was finished ripping through our yard, my recovery was long and shuddering. I could not bear the short walk through the gate and down to the farm to survey the damage. I steeled myself then, as farmers must, with bourbon and bluegrass from an iTunes account that just keeps refusing to sync with any devices–another kind of pain altogether.
And alas, it is happening again today. Lightning spiders through the trees as I write, thunder rubs up against the windowpanes, the dogs do laps around my feet, nervous and shifty. The bourbon sweats in its glass on my desk. We are, none of us, feeling decidedly firm. And so I rage against the weather, the disorganized sky, and at the merest thought of losing even one more tomato.