Almost all the pragmatic agricultural wisdom that my grandparents taught me has long ago been superseded by technology. I don’t anymore calibrate, as I once did when farming in the 1980s, the trajectory of an incoming late summer storm by watching the patterns of nesting birds, or the shifting directions and feel of the wind, or the calendar date or the phases of the moon. Instead, I go online and consult radar photos of storms far out at sea. Meteorology is mostly an exact science now.
Even the agrarian’s socio-scientific arts of observation that I learned from my family are seldom employed in my farming anymore. Back in the day, when a local farmer’s wife died, I was told things like, “Elmer will go pretty soon, too. His color isn’t good and he’s not used to living without her”—and tragically the neighbor usually died within months. Now I guess I would ask Elmer whether his blood tests came back OK, and the sort of blood pressure medicine he takes. I don’t think we believe that superficial facial color supersedes lab work. Farmers did because in an age of limited technology they saw people as plants, and knew that the look and color of a tree or vine—in comparison to others in the orchard or vineyard—was a sign of their viability.
I grew up with an entire local network of clubs and get-togethers, and ferried my grandparents to periodic meetings of the Walnut Improvement Club, Eastern Star, the Odd Fellows, Masons, the Grange, and Sun-Maid growers. They exchanged gossip, of course, but also vital folk and empirical information on irrigation, fertilizers, and machines.
The point was to remind us that “we” (i.e., the vanishing rural classes) needed to stick together—especially given glimpses of what the country would be like in the 21st century. When one of us died or got sick, people showed up with flowers, food, and offered help—whether the use of a tractor, or truck or hired man to “get you through this.”
I don’t know any of my neighbors. Most are recent immigrants from south of the border, many here illegally. The land is almost all leased out to or has been purchased by large corporations. The old farmhouses are also rented and often poorly maintained: a sort of rural skeleton, with the flesh gone and the bones flaking apart. I hear from our coastal elites all about diversity, community, and caring. But out here, no one believes there is much diversity. Community does not exist. And as for caring, it is about making sure you get home at night without a drunk driver forcing you off the road—or worse.
So Much for Diversity or Community
I don’t know where exactly all my Armenian, Greek, Japanese, Mexican, Portuguese, Scandinavian agrarian friends of my childhood went, but they and their offspring are all long gone. And it is mostly rich versus poor left now, with little in between in California. I’m not sure massive illegal immigration is going to lead to the sort of communities that legal immigration and family farming once built. I once remember locals saying things like, “We can’t find the damn key to our house. Never had a need for it,” and, “Say, did you see that stranger two weeks ago prowling around the ditch bank?”—as if such a rare occurrence demanded neighborhood consultation.
Now? Rural houses have walls, fences, barbed wire, cameras, and fierce pit bulls. I feel like it is North Africa circa AD 430, and the world is retreating into rural makeshift fortifications. And the occupants—few of them farmers—are armed to the teeth. The local sheriffs by needs appear in raids against the Norteños and Sureños gangs, equipped like the 82nd Airborne.
[Hiatus: I was just interrupted writing this by a loud noise outside the front door at 6 a.m. A drunk driver swerved off the road—as is an almost a monthly occurrence—tore out an almond tree in our orchard, and tried to keep driving for a bit before his car conked and law enforcement appeared. A kind and professional highway patrolman, speaking Spanish, is now booking him in the front of the house. The driver seems quite drunk (in the early morning no less), doesn’t speak English, and, along with his passengers, gave me a nice frown when I walked out, in apparent recognition that he destroyed my property and has not a bit of contrition, much less any intention of paying me anything.]
The science and culture of family farming are about gone. I used to worry when my grandfather got the flu: who will run the farm? And how without him, given his stored wisdom that was never written down? He himself used to lecture about the bankruptcy of a neighbor, “He was a good enough farmer, but no one counted on his son getting killed in that accident and a cancer in his lung.” I learned that often just health and constitution meant success while fragility and illness failure. Continuance was always in the balance.
The Solid Constitution of the Farmer
To extend the farming logic, one ingredient in Donald Trump’s success appears to be his underappreciated constitution that somehow defies the logic of septuagenarian preventive medicine.
I had a Swedish grandfather like that whose lungs and esophagus were scarred and shriveled from gassing in World War I, who made a hardscrabble living by raising what he ate and breaking horses, and yet his constitution made it to 80—before the ancient scar tissues and cysts in his gassed mouth finally went malignant. We pried him off his 40-acre pasture and took him to an oncologist in 1968, the first doctor he had visited in 30 years.
Agribusiness wisely does not depend on the health of a paterfamilias, much less the regimens it once took to keep him going. Protocol is on the internet and managers are university trained in the sciences of hydrology, genetics, and plant chemistry. I can often spot a rare vestigial family-owned and operated 100-acre almond orchard by its less impressive, less tidy look, in comparison to the garden-like corporate-operated tesserae of the same size as part of huge 10,000-acre mosaics.
So the health of a single middle-aged male farmer used to determine whether the farm thrived or failed. The males I grew up with used all sorts of creams, balms, ointments, folk remedies, and embraced strange regimens about eating, when to go to bed, and when to get up. These habits were felt essential to ensuring trees were pruned or grapes picked. I never could figure out why locals wore either railroad engineer overalls, or matching khaki pants and shirt, or blue shirts and jeans that variously reflected their own idiosyncratic theories about how to endure the scorching summer heat, or frosty winter mornings, or to protect from wasp stings or sand burrs.
I don’t particularly miss the endemic grouchiness of agrarians, reflective I suppose of the tragic nature of family farmers. Even when a neighbor produced three tons of raisins per acre and in a rare year of good prices no less, he would sigh when complimented, “Well, I did alright, at least good enough.” And when the rain took his crop and the market prices dropped even in the midst of shortages, you would hear, “I’m done for and about had it with this farming business.”
In other words, much of the natural and human knowledge I picked up on a five-generation small farm in Central California is no longer applicable to the 21st century in the age of social media, the internet, huge wealth, globalization, open borders, and the transformations of the arts of farming into the sciences of agribusiness.
Or is that assessment entirely true? Aren’t there occasional vestigial insights?
Vestigial Insights of a 20th-Century Farmer
Call them philosophical reflections or perhaps reminders of the tragic view of human existence of the last 2,500 years in the agrarian West since Hesiod that still remain invaluable in our rich and faceless society.
One is the idea of hubris incurring nemesis. Farmers taught me to save in good times, because they would not, could not last. If religious—and most were—they assumed an omniscient God watches over us and tempers the good with the bad. A healthy son, a banner plum year, a new shed meant “watch out!” Such good luck could not last, especially if one took such good times as a referendum on one’s own talent or brilliance—which, human nature being what it is, one usually and catastrophically did.
Nemesis then followed haughtiness. The wise instead sought balance (to hide from the jealous roaming pagan goddess Nemesis): to remain cautious and humble when things were good, and defiant and resolute when they turned awful.
I still remember their wisdom of unintended consequences, irony, and paradox. Sometimes farmers who never smoked, drank, or ate too much dropped dead of strange cancers or wasting diseases. Model peach orchards of hardy stock on occasion were sickened by bacterial gummosis. Beautiful two-story Victorian farmhouses of the 19th century burned down right after expensive restorations. That edged legacy still haunts me. I’m as afraid of good times as of bad, as if the two faced off on some baleful teeter totter, each having a commensurate turn, raising us higher and then taking us down.
I still cannot shake agrarian wisdom even in our suburbanized world. Watch out for fast-talkers and know-it-alls whose speech substitutes for real accomplishment, a lore that I guess evolved from the solitary nature of farming when people worked days alone, had few with whom to talk, and failed or succeeded by how much they got done—all and only visible to the naked eye. Not talking to a single person for an entire day while pruning or tractor driving or irrigating is no longer a normal experience.
Sometimes agrarian genes are outright curses. Why cannot a person lodge a legitimate excuse? Aren’t there extenuating circumstances?
Excess of Independence as Corrective to Today’s Acedia
Most of my near own disasters over the last 60 years were needless and self-inflicted and came from foolishly “pressing on” in order that I didn’t “let someone down”—as if one always had to finish pruning the entire vine row with the flu, or disc the entire 20 acres with pink eye.
I would hear in my farming brain “You gave your word.” “You said you’d do it.” “What if everyone did that?” Or rather I heard what had been instilled by others.
And so when I had a dull ache in my groin, I went to fulfill a speaking engagement for an educational consortium touring in Muammar Gadaffi’s nightmare of a country and ended up in shock with a ruptured appendix in Libya, in a desperate search for a surgeon. (I found one 26 hrs. later).
A reluctance long ago in Greece to tell the archaeological director of an excavation that my urine was turning pink soon led to a staghorn calculus, a severed ureter, and an iffy flight back to the United States for an emergency operation.
Getting Middle East malaria or dysentery was usually because I didn’t want to seem to “house up” as they said on the farm. Farmers believe, apparently, that there is some natural force in the universe that rewards continuance when in fact they often make their own plight worse by not taking simple precautions. I remember a 70-year-old farmer showing me a “small” bruise on his back from falling out of his cab: his entire back from neck to belt was bright purple.
I once begged my 66-year old father not to patch old telephone wire (the remnants of a shared rural country line) on a 25-foot high, 70-year-old shoddy extension ladder. He badly broke his foot. When one does that in his sixties, and is a bit too heavy, it can devolve into all sorts of other imbalances. But he did fix the wire and the phone.
By the early 5th-century AD, “Rome”—already a crumbling Mediterranean hegemony—was a world away from the Italian agrarian state of the 3rd-century BC, in customs, values, and outlook: richer and more cosmopolitan, but unsustainable in its excesses, disunity, and rootlessness.
In our own late imperial days, honor the independent truck driver, the farmer, the guy who runs the 24-hour 7-Eleven store, and the owner-welder in a fabrication shop. We need to pause sometimes and remember who these dinosaurs were and what they have contributed. For a while longer, a few are still with us, a sort of collective keyhole through which we can look back into a now unremembered American past, whose codes and mores we simply abandoned—and to our great and present loss.