Sunday, May 6, 2012

The farmer and the rancher

How many posts have I begun with the words, "I'm on the Palouse"? I can't count.
But again I say it--I'm on the Palouse, which is, for those of you who don't know, a rich swath of Washington State, rich in wheat, stretching into Idaho on the east and almost to Spokane on the North, and to the Blue Mountains of Oregon on the south. It's where, in the hundreds of years before Lewis and Clark marched their Corpes of Discovery across it, Joseph and the Nez Perce rode Appalousa horses over the deep clefts and rises of this beautiful terrain.

 It's spring here now, a cool, wet spring, where farm work is so late that the farmers have been grumpy and antsy for weeks because they're staring at the weather channel and sitting around in their shops rather than riding on tractors out on this hills. Yesterday as we drove out here from town, my sister (who was driving)said to her husband, "Turn your face away!" All because a tractor was inching its way through still-soggy ground. "That's a sure way to get stuck, dig too deeply, and leave the ground hard next fall," my brother-in-law said, shaking his head. He went back to watching the sky, hoping the wind that had been whipping cold and fierce around their house perched on the side of a hill, would do the job God made it to do--dry the fields so the land can be tilled and the seeds planted.

I spent my childhood surrounded by these fields, knew children whose families' lives were dependent on the fruits of such labor as I couldn't imagine.  But it wasn't until my sister married a farmer that I began to understand what the world of agriculture really means.

Last night, after the dishes had been finished and the last guest from the last party after their last child's college graduation had said their goodbyes, E sat down at the table with her farmer uncle and his wife (my sister) to have a conversation about farming. And I sat down with them eavesdropping listening. E's writing an article about the political issues most important in this coming election to the agricultural community on the eastern side of this state. She went to the sources she knows the best--her uncle, my cousin's husband, her cousin's father-in-law--all wheat farmers (though B is also a rancher).  E and I are shirt-tail relatives to all these farmers now.

They are  people with dirt they proudly wear beneath their fingernails and the blood of the land running through their body. My brother-in-law is the 5th generation to farm his family's land, the fifth generation of men who can't imagine doing anything else, the fifth generation of farmers who have watched the weather, grumped about their crops, worried about the weeds, and bent over to check harvest's readiness. The fifth generation of people who look around the world and can't see that there's any other place that would give them what they have in these fields. Also--the fifth generation of folk who have herds of cattle grazing on steep pastures above the Snake river. Many used to do both, B and his brother are the only ones who continue, the only ones who have right combination of pasture land unfit for grain, as well as the rich loamy fields that makes wheat and other crops so profitable on the Palouse.. "I've thought about it a lot, and just can't imagine that there's anything out there that I'd rather do."  Or anything he'd rather be, I reckon. Because it's about being, a farmer is. It's more than just what he does, it's what he is, through and through. Deep to the marrow to his bones. When the air is cold and the land frozen solid, B and his partner-brother and their crew are ranchers, spend their days down at the river caring for their herd of cattle. Once the ground begins to thaw, they spend whole days loading up the herd in semis and moving them east to the mountain pastures that are the western foothills of the Rockies. Then they hit the ground running...or plowing, I should say.

 Ranching is B's winter gig, I suppose, but, as he said last night, he can't choose which he likes best--farming or ranching. He likes ranching when it's time then gets anxious to be out in the fields, farming when the fields get ready and the seasons change. Sure, they have less time to get their equipment ready for the fields, and don't have time off to go fishing or hunting in the fall. But they get to be out doing what they do--every day of the year. But they wouldn't do anything differently. Because this life gives B life.

And I learn something from them. B told us last night that "Farming is a great way to live, but not a very good way to make a living." What he's chosen he has not done to make money. It's only the very select few for whom that is a possibility. There are too many strikes against the average farmer to make a profit in agriculture these days. Too much gets in the way. I am humbled by B's passion for his life. Humbled by his drive and energy and deep, old knowledge that this is his place in the world. He doesn't remember the first time he helped on the farm--he's been working longer than his oldest memory. But as far back as those oldest memories has sat the sense that "I was made for this, and there is good in it." There is good in what he does. Purposeful, necessary, and right. He has gained much. His children have gained much as a result.  Sure, there has been a price (a large one at times. Harvests don't hold their breaths for family events. When it's time to cut, it's it better be life or death to keep a farmer out of a field). But what's been gained is immeasurable.

As I said, I was humbled. Felt awed at the passion and power of his words and his devotion. So many people work their whole lives without ever feeling for a moment such things. What B and his brother feel--why they do what they do--is because they are called to it. As clearly and truly as any preacher is called to any pulpit, these farmers are called to make the land produce the grain (and livestock) that will feed the world. It's a high calling. One that we cannot do without. One that we never think of once when we buy our pasta at the store, or pop our bread in the toaster. But it's because of their unending, sometimes-body-breaking work that we are free not to to think about such things. Because they never quit. They never quit thinking about those crops (and by those crops, I include their cattle), and, by extension, the food that will come from those crops, and the people who will benefit from them. We are beholden to our men and women of agriculture.

So, if I haven't said it before (as I suspect few of us have), I would like to say to all of those involved in agriculture,
Thank you.

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