Saturday, March 29, 2014

An Ode to Farming

For those of you who were lucky enough to attend this year's Band of Farmers talent show, you surely can't forget Joe's performance -- an official ode to farming. We know all you fellow farmers out there in the audience could relate to our humble Three Plaid experience, and we really couldn't feel prouder to be a part of a larger farming community that loves their work as much as we do, despite how hard it can be. Due to popular demand, we are posting Joe's Ode. 

An Ode to Farming

We're not really performers. I mean, there were times in our lives when we were both performers of one sort or another. I played some guitar in a band during the heady, long-gone days after high school. Care did a little dancing in her youth and later stretched canvasses and coated them with paint and did all kinds of art stuff involving saws and paint thinner and other shit I don't really understand. But that's in the past (aside from the karaoke dreams of my farm partner over here), and lately we've been all-consumed by farming and activities related to surviving. Which is why I'm reading this to you instead of bumbling around off the top of my head trying to conjure some well-rehearsed story of our crazy lives farming.

Farming isn't a performance art, we all know this. It's an act of dedicated dedication—the majority of which happens behind the scenes, which you will only view and understand if you're one of those types who likes to watch all the special features on the DVD like a crazy person. But, mostly, people aren't watching. I mean, sure, as a CSA farm we have an audience of members who really care that we know what we're doing, and they expect we have certain skills that allow us to grow plants. We actually prefer our members to be informed. But the secret truth behind it all is that the plants grow of their own accord. And the weather ultimately destroys them one way or another. We simply plant the seeds, perform some upkeep, and then steal the fruits. Plants want to live and reproduce. The wilder the plant, the better a survivor it is. We like our plants wild.

Sounds beautiful, right? Maybe a little Zen? Maybe you're picturing an idyllic farm setting: A red barn. A cute henhouse. Animals grazing on lush pasture. An outhouse with a half-moon and star on it. Plants growing large and vibrant in the field. Weather-worn farm tools leaning casually against the slabs of a rustic looking outbuilding. I know that feeling. I like it too.

Hen house at Mint Creek, 2013

But let's get real for a second: The barn has broken windows and doors. Electricity sometimes works; and when it does, a random shock might greet you as you touch some metal in the building. The tools are laying willy-nilly in various places, maybe even buried under some weeds on the edge of the field, which you'll undoubtedly run over and rediscover when plowing next year. The outhouse is a bucket filled with sawdust that stinks like satan's ass crack. The plants you planted in the field are surrounded by other plants you don't want, and some look like they're about to commit suicide because they hate you personally for your failures as a farmer. The animals have gotten out of their paddock and are destroying something you don't want destroyed—or they're simply walking down the road like a bunch of assholes. And then there's the weather. We farmers like talking about the weather because it affects so much of our lives. Whether you're tending vegetables or animals, the weather directs your day like the evil dictator it is.

Storm coming for our sunflowers, 2012

So, basically, our lives are chaos. It's only through sheer determination and getting our asses kicked for most of the year that we even begin to make sense of it all. Plants grow. Animals grow. We do our best to make sure they grow the best they can by subjecting ourselves to all kinds of calamities and working our way toward knee replacement surgery. In the end, all the punishment adds up to us doing something we feel is worthwhile in general— it has a positive impact on our community and is personally rewarding in several ways. 

It's an adventure; that's really the best way to put it. And part of our adventure is extreme poverty. Thank god we grow much of our own food, right? 

We sort of started this whole thing on a whim after spending many years individually farming at other places. We happened to meet up at one farm, had lots of ideas in common, and well, here we are. And it's been a crazy two-plus years.

We thought our first year as a farm was tough, having to deal with a pretty severe drought and high temperatures. I'm sure all of you farmers did, too. But last year was something else. Floods inundated our field (as many others experienced as well), sometimes wiping out whole crops in the process. It turns out that farming on land that used to be part of the Grand Kankakee Marsh means that the water table was super high. Hindsight. What a bitch. So we just had to let that water drain. And wait. And worry. And finally we got back into the field, this time planting into raised beds. And then it flooded again. And again. The raised beds offered some protection (they probably saved our year), but the water was deep and persistent. However, it was a good year, with heavy CSA shares, but we probably aged three additional years in the process.

Flooded field, pre-raised beds, 2013. Seedlings are getting anxious, as are the farmers

Last year ended in a fury as we closed up shop and had to get the hell out of Dodge. Flooding is just too stressful. With the way the weather is these days, it could happen any year, especially at a place that used to be part of a swamp.

Needless to say, we are on our third piece of land in three years. And moving: shit, no one likes moving. Try moving a whole farm every year, along with all your personal belongings. Moving farm stuff brings added challenges.

Consider our first year moving fiasco. When moving time came, we loaded personal items and the few pieces of farm stuff we had acquired into a smallish box truck (loaned to us by our friends at Peasants' Plot) along with about 40 or so trays of seedlings. Turns out, not everything fit, and we had to be creative with the space available. By creative, I mean putting trays on top of shit in a precarious manner. Well, part of our journey took us through the city, where we negotiated tight turns and many potholes. You can guess how this story ends.

First farm move, moments before seedlings tumble in the back, 2012

At some point during our trip out to the farm, we stopped the truck to check on everything in the back. We opened the door, and lo and behold, on the floor lay several trays that toppled over. It looked like a plant massacre. Baby leeks were everywhere. Tomato seedlings were all mixed up. Other plants lay soilless and limp. Plant labels had popped out of their trays and threw themselves to the cutting room floor like some deranged, ghoul-authored William Burroughs novel. It was awful. I wanted to forfeit. All those weeks of raising those plants, and there they were, on the floor of the truck, on their way to some terrible plant afterlife.

But, thankfully, Care was coolheaded about the whole thing. She pushed those little plants back into their little cells of soil. And once we got to the farm, we watered them well and put them into the newly finished greenhouse so they could recuperate. Most survived, thankfully. In the end, we had a great leek and tomato year. It really couldn't have turned out better for those crops.

Leeks, leekin' it up, despite taking a tumble as seedlings, 2012

The real moral of this particular story, and, really, most of the crazy farm shit that happens, is that cool-headedness usually pays off. And when it comes to things going wrong on the farm, Care is usually the cool-headed one. And when I say cool-headed, I mean she has laughing fits when things go wrong. Which does the complete opposite of make me feel better about said catastrophe. On the other hand, I have not been all that great when it comes to handling the unexpected random difficulties of farming, which, let's be honest, makes me a complete lunatic for making this my career. But, I know and admit some of my issues, and hopefully that is half the battle. But my inability to handle these difficulties is often quite the show for the neighbors and my fellow farmers. And it's a sort of creative outlet for me, in that I've probably invented at least a half dozen swear words—trademarks pending. If something goes wrong on our farm and you are within shouting distance, you might hear beauts like: son of a cock, cockbitch, and the grandest of them all: mothercock. There's a lot to swear about on the small veggie farm, believe me.

But, really, there's much more to swear about on the small animal farm. We've both been lucky enough to work at Mint Creek Farm for the last year and some months, both to supplement our piddly new farmer incomes and to learn the ropes of a diversified animal operation so we can raise some animals on our own land one day. And learn we have. Animals are much more demanding than vegetables, and you need to be much more on top of your game to make sure they stay healthy and happy. I mean, they need food and water every single day, 365 days a year. There ain't no break. You can't just say fuck it. Well, you can, but then you ultimately realize you need to go do it.

Feeding cows organic hay, polar vortex, 2014

For instance, if it snows six inches, and the wind blows the snow into two-foot drifts that block your way to the cows, you need to go out there and plow for 5 hours so that you can get the water tank in there and give the cows a drink. Otherwise they get pissed, break out of their area and do whatever the hell they want, including destroying things. And when that snow blows back the next day, you need to plow again. Or, in another case, if it's later in the summer, and the alfalfa is lush, and it has recently rained, you can't move the sheep like you normally move the sheep on pasture. You need to give them less space and move them more often so they don't gorge themselves on the legumes and die a horrible death from bloat.

Keeping those sheep happy, healthy, and bloat-free, 2013

These were common considerations during the past year, but the animal farm is a constant challenge and it requires extreme creativity, mechanical aptitude, and a willingness to adapt on the fly. Machines that make your life easier, such as trucks and tractors, break all the time. So, you have to figure out how to do those things that you've been doing with these machines in other, often more backbreaking ways. Or you have to fix the machine, which is sometimes impossible, like when it becomes engulfed in flames (true story) or becomes completely useless due to some structural failure (which is more common than you might think). Either way, your time is precious, and there are not enough hours in the day.

Other times, crazy shit happens that you've never experienced, and you just have to figure it out. And so it goes. We've been out chasing animals for hours on end, and we've had days on the veggie farm that start before sunup and end well after sundown. All the other farmers here have been there. It comes with the territory. And besides the physical and emotional commitment, all forms of small-scale farming take immense problem solving effort and a steady dedication to observation and planning. It taxes the brain as much as the body. But when all is said and done, we love it. Why otherwise would we do these things to ourselves? It's really an unconditional love. We do crazy things over and over again. To grow veggies. Or raise animals. And make poverty-level income in many cases.

But, you know what, at the literal end of the day, we sit there and look at the land and the work we accomplished, and take account of the veggies we've raised that are feeding the people in our community—our family, our friends—and we can't help but feel satisfied. These tiny little seeds we planted turned into giant nutritional beasts. No petrochemicals needed. No poisons necessary. We just let those plants grow, in a way.

Eggplant and pepper plants lookin' all beautiful, 2013

And at that literal end of the day we can go out to that field and grab whatever veggies we want. And if we're not too bushed we can conjure those ingredients into a witch's stew of a meal as the stars begin to come out, and a fading light casts blue and green-hued shadows over the varied topography of the farm field. A hard day's work often ends with a crash into a pillow, knowing that our labor was self-directed and good.

Some Three Plaid crops (&Greenhouse B&B fruit) that sustained us and our members, 2013

Farming is a gratifying line of work in many ways. And we hope it brings the rest of you joy in one way or another. Thanks for coming out and supporting all the farmers here tonight.


  1. This is such a fascinating and beautiful story. I've always said you had a way with words.

  2. Nicely written farmer joe! :)

  3. That was a mothercockin' great read.So glad we can support local farming this year.

  4. Thanks, y'all. Thanks for spending time to read it.

  5. Great story Joe! I anticipate hearing some of those trademarked curse words next time I see you. Might add a little flavor to the veggies!

  6. Thanks Mark. Looking forward to seeing you soon.