The ritual begins during a fading Texas evening. I open the rear hatch of my van, and pull two picnic-worn coolers out onto the chapped pavement. I clear the beads of sweat from my forehead before opening the big white cooler and pick out a healthy specimen of cantaloupe. Behind me stands a small gathering: two newlywed couples, a gurgling baby in a baby carrier, a father and daughter, and a doting grandmother perched over the infant. Their task in this ritual is to watch.
“These were picked this morning,” I say, carefully handing my charges to the first couple in line. The husband flips the fruit around in his hand, inspecting the tiny ridges, and nestles his nose into the plant’s navel. He sniffs in the aromatic perfume with pleasure and satisfactorily deposits the fruit in his wife’s handbag.
I move onto the blue cooler, pulling out a crinkling store-labeled grocery sack stuffed with purple pea snaps, bell peppers, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers, banana peppers, basil, and oregano.
“Eighteen dollars and fifty-eight cents.” I recite from the yellow receipt, and the husband hands me a crisp twenty.
“I hope you have change,” he states, subtly reminding me of my lack of change the previous week.
“Yeah, I do,” I say, quickly shuffling through the stuffed envelope of coins and cash until I find the right amount. After he is done, the couple stands there and admires their food while I move onto the next couple’s order. The wife occasionally glances back to her mother-in-law and infant and smiles.
“My baby girl just loves the squash you gave us last week. I mashed it up, and she just took it right down.” I turn my head far enough so she can see me smile, and reply, “I’m not sure if anymore will come this season.”
“But I’ll check to see if any will be here by next week.” My brother, Gerred, owns and runs the farm, I just run the business side of the operation. I often find myself telling customers that I must check, since he keeps a constant check on the farm's pulse.
“Thank you! I like using it as her baby food.” I listen as she describes how long the produce has been lasting in their fridge, longer than any produce they could purchase in a store. I listen on as her mother-in-law, a woman whose eyes light up at the red beefsteak tomatoes, describes just how good the cucumbers were last week.
“Best cucumbers I’ve tasted in my life,” she states and goes on to describe the thin skins and moving down to the rich, succulent meat of the vegetable. Having eaten some earlier that day, my own mouth revisits the textures and flavors. One by one, I finish the orders, finally passing off cantaloupes to the father and daughter; the former sniffs the fruit without saying a word, while the latter chuckles, “I think he’s really going to enjoy himself tonight.” Everyone trickles off except for the newlywed couple with the infant, who now sleeps soundly in the growing dusk.
“You know, this coming growing season we’d love it if you would grow some acorn squash,” the husband requests, “I can eat that all day! Oh, and we love spaghetti squash.”
“Do you think you could give me an estimate of how much you’d eat in a month?” I ask. They provide me an answer and I mentally log the numbers for my brother to consider.
“We’ve enjoyed your produce,” are their parting words, “I don’t think I could ever find better produce at the store.” They scurry to their car, and the ritual ends, and I watch my charge, my food, become another item in someone's fridge. As I drive home, my mind wanders to the farm work, keeping communication with our various buyers, trying to determine what they will want next growing season, and all the feedback I need to get back to my brother. It’s that time of year, a transition from summer to fall, zucchinis and cucumbers will dissipate to allow in cabbages, lettuces, pumpkins, and squash; as I calculate the figures of how much we can make on our small plot of land, I consider the grand scheme that has brought me to this most basic of professions.
* * * * *
Why farm? Why choose a profession and lifestyle that runs against a cultural tide of sharply dressed, well groomed talking heads, who preach the advantages offered by fancier, cleaner, and more lucrative careers? American culture may claim to romanticize agrarian life, but the love is less than legitimate. USDA statistics show small farms and their farmers have been declining in size since the 1940s, even though number of large farms producing single crops have grown. Yes, the dirt and grime attend to the farmer as an occupational certainty, but any college management class will inform you that “employees” are more motivated more by “intrinsic rewards” than “extrinsic rewards,” or, more simply, workers want to feel as if their work has lasting value. What greater reward could be given than the foreknowledge that one is satisfying the hunger of humanity and your community? The answer lies with the changing idea of American food philosophy, what I would call a purpose-driven understanding of the role of food and American food suppliers in culture.
In an age when food has cheapened with advances in science and technology, we have allowed the doctrines of food and food production to shift, even from my grandfathers’ time to my own, when he grew apples in Washington state during the 1960s. He lived under the philosophy touted by the US Department of Agriculture, which made the US farmer out to be a national hero. He says to have grown food to supplement his teacher’s salary, but the country also saw a national icon and international competitor for American interests, and the American farmer had an built in intrinsic value that extended beyond profits.
My grandfather’s generation of men sat in darkened movie theaters and watched Frank Capra's classic series, “Why We Fight!,” which taught them why the nation’s role in World War II was necessitated. My grandfather went on to rivet B-17 wings for the war effort, and when he was done, he found that his country needed him in a new capacity. The Government had gifted my grandfather and all American farmers with a new vision: The farmer could forget about the people and the land, and see only a machine, carefully oiled, static, and prosperous for the faithful user. For farmers like my grandfather, any affects that the land experienced were of no concern to him. The system made him more money as long as he kept improving the “machine,” and the food appeared unchanged. If the soil was affected, he could believe that a fix would be over the horizon. The miracle workers of World War II had made a new miracle.
* * * * *
The USDA produced films that showed the miracle of modern food production: thousands of individual farms brought together in a large corporate system to supply supermarkets with a cornucopia of produce, meat, dairy, and canned goods from disjointed regions of the US; the laboratory extending into the field, making larger, more nutritious, and better tasting crops; and the consumer, offered the convenience of this food, enjoyed the prosperity of American ingenuity. The purpose for growing food was simple: Be a part of a new miracle and make more food with less land using whatever means suited that end. It was a system that begat success, so long as the system’s management was carefully regulated. Our food philosophy had shifted, and despite this growth, one factor from previous generations of farmers remained: The community knew the farmer, and the farmer had a social accountability to that community which the government could not override. Even as farms began to cannibalize each other to remain in the system, the farmers were still “independent agents," able to still create life-filled nutritious food, instead of merely "safe food."
The USDA first began to preach this system during World War II, praising farmers for working alongside the government to slowly bring this massive food supply system to being, accepting the government’s aid, and producing what they needed for the war quotas. In one film titled, “Henry Browne, Farmer,” the farmer was described as a “soldier of production” who must produce the right amount of "oil and fats" to combat the Japanese agricultural production. Government had a reason for centralizing farming, out command the marketplace. The farmer’s duty would not be divided between field and national duty.
The national audience grew accustomed to this changing view of farming. Originally, our former food doctrines allowed for a collection of decentralized family farms that occupied the 1910s and 20s, and these businesses had not satisfied the nation's stomach during the depression. Food had lost its plentifulness in the land of plenty, and the government was determined to make ordinary food into something it could have never been on its own, and for a broader use in the world stage. The farmer still had his local connection, he still provided food for his neighbors, but the marketplace was making a way for him in the world, a way that my grandfather would fill, and now, a way my brother and I could fill: the way of mass production, yielding a greater world, filled with complacency toward the simplest action of our humanity.
The modern world driving home I see different farms as I drive home from my delivery run. These farms are still run by grandfathers, with some migrant workers that drift through. Some have families who work together, but most do not. The crops I see are one of three: Corn, Sorghum, or soybeans, grown to fill the stomachs of cows and humans as cheaply as possible, while the farmer remains accountable to state regulations only. And what a world those regulations have built. The fields are still alive with food, but the food is empty, plastered together with an assortment of chemicals, pesticides, and other toxins that render the life still imagined in the soil a hopeless corpse; at least they can say our food is safe, free from the bacteria that harms us. The plants grow as they are supposed to, guided by their genetic modification, but they remain merely signposts set against the sky of what this world has become. Vastly rich, but hollow-shelled, flavorless, and impotent. The modern farmer can assert he has the same reason for growing food as his predecessors, for although he still feeds that masses, his food has no heart left to give to the table. That's why we don't farm anymore. The life that was found in the fields, is no longer life to us. It doesn't provide substance to our bodies, it doesn't even provide a bottom line for the farmer, it just replicates mindlessly, without thought.
* * * * *
I return to the farm after the delivery run and help my brother plant the fall crops. I think about the series "Why We Fight!," and wonder, if I made a documentary entitled, "Why We Farm!" what would it try and communicate to an audience. The answer slowly comes to me among the rows of peppers and tomatoes. I mentioned in the beginning of this piece that I consider my work a ritual. This ritual is the familiar way to be a farmer, or the way I have found familiar. For far too long, farmers have become familiar with growing food better, but I want to be familiar with growing food right.
In "Why We Farm," I would say I grow food because I imagine myself being a part of the world that takes longer to mature, to achieve success, but remains a work in progress. I grow food so it becomes rich again, full of life, and containing the DNA it was supposed to contain. I grow food because I imagine one day, when I have kids, I will want them to grow as they were intended to grow, at a slow, steady pace, ready at the right season to accomplish what they are supposed to accomplish. I grow because a mother sees her child starting that journey, and believes the food I am growing will yield an abundance for the body. I hope that people will see the value in the food, the richness of nutrition, the communities that knew the seminal work that made any table look like a feast. The joy of the God-given command to, “Be fruitful.” I grow food, and the reasons why sprout up to say hello without fail every season.
Now, I am hoping you will ask yourself a similar question to mine, “Why am I not farming, or at least growing food in a pot?” I think the answer is easily found. You only need to look in a mirror, and see a face that is packed full of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, and rub it until you know it’s real. Then, stand at the edge of your child’s room or find them in the yard and watch them play, see their muscles attached to tendons attached to bones moving back and forth; lastly, I go to the fridge, and take a stock of what is contained inside. Consider the value of that food, whether it was made to give you strength, or whether it was made just to fool an eater. I believe the answer to your question will come easily.