June 06, 2010
Farming: The occupation of choice for dudes and chicks who want to raise their own food, work out in the sun, be their own boss and slave 18 hours a day so some mustached hipster at a farmer’s market with an iPad under his arm can bruise the shit out of the plums.
“On second thought, how are your peaches this year?”
I come from a long line of farmers myself, and I can tell you that not all farmers are grass stalk-chewing old cats who run makeshift booths with half-tan arms and 12 strapping youngins who speak with respect.
There are all kinds of farmers.
Christmas tree farmers.
That last one is exactly how it sounds.
There were alpaca farmers, but that pyramid scheme has pretty much gone belly up.
“My wool is worth gold and gems.”
And farmers nowadays can be the slick office-y types, like those who use special retina-scanning sunglasses from their Manhattan penthouses to run armies of thresher robots in Minnesotan fields.
But that could have been from a dream.
Farmers can also be the factory farm mogul types who buy 10 city blocks and go onto treat their cows, chickens and pigs like soccer balls and ashtrays.
There are hair farmers.
Sugar beet farmers.
Coffee bean farmers.
And there are the small family produce farmers, like my father and his father.
A dying breed.
Like the brown pelican battling a blanket of sweet Louisiana crude.
My father and his father (plus my uncles and cousins and other relatives) toiled away in the fields and barns from sun up to sun down. They drove tractors in one direction and sat feeding seeds and saplings into planters in the other. They shipped produce to Cleveland in beat up pickups and shiny semis. They could identify every leaf on every sapling on the horizon. They wore John Deer hats without irony.
If you had a question about strawberry season or how far apart to plant pumpkin seeds, my father could hook you up.
If you wanted to know which tomato varietal was best to grow on your half-shaded deck, he was your man.
He could trim 50 heads of lettuce in under 10 minutes.
Could tell you the national price average for corn, plus the going price in any of town’s supermarkets.
Could parallel park a forklift carrying a six-foot pallet of peppers without looking over his shoulder.
He was that kind of farmer.
And he didn’t boast.
A woman at a dinner party recently asked me about my family and I told her I grew up on a large produce farm in Northeast Ohio.
It’s one of the fun facts about myself I tend to throw out to people.
(Another one — and this is usually told while swimming — is that I used to pee in the pool with my trunks pulled down to my thighs like I was standing at a urinal until I was 10 years old and realized I could just pee right through them.)
“I didn’t know you were a farmer,” she said.
“Yup. I’m a farmer.”
“So you were a farmer?”
“Totally. I was a farmer,” I said, crossing my arms.
“How cool! You have cows?”
“Nah, just produce.”
“You have chickens?”
“We just grew fruits and vegetables. Yeah.”
“So no animals at all? Not, like, pigs?”
“Nope. We grew, oh, cabbage, corn, strawberries, all kinds of peppers and all kinds of squash, collard greens, kale, uh green beans, pumpkin, the occasional patch of kohlrabi. We used to have an apple orchard and a peach orchard, but that was a long time ago. It was a pretty big operation, actually. Twelve hundred acres. It was in the family for like 76 years or something. But we sold it all like 10 years ago. We had hundreds of migrant workers, too.”
“I can’t believe you’re a farmer.”
“Yup. That’s me.”
But holy shit, here’s the thing: I was no farmer.
I’ve been letting people all my life believe that I was a farmer, I do it all the time — Did I tell you I grew up on a farm? — but the truth is I was way more of a factory worker than a farmer.
My father, he was farmer.
My grandfather and uncles and aunts, they were farmers.
Laboring for a dozen years in a series of sweltering, interlocking barns did not make me a farmer.
“Don’t forget to punch in, ‘Farmer Greg.'”
I’ve never driven a tractor in my life.
Never hoed a field.
Never worried about the lack of rain.
Never put on a yellow slicker and grabbed my kale knife.
But no one ever needed me to do those things. With two older brothers, several older cousins, gritty year-round employees and a hundred or so migrant workers, I was kept out of the fields and delegated to the barns. To their loading docks. To their clanging machinery. To their mountains of ready-to-be constructed corn crates and wax boxes.
My jobs included walking around the corn wagon and heaving just-packed wooden crates onto my chest so I could toss them into the hydrocooler, standing at the end of a belt to pack thousands of peppers, zucchini and yellow squash into wax boxes, running up and down a conveyor belt slapping stickers on each piece of squash that bounced past, stacking boxes and crates of produce six feet high onto pallets, disposing rotten produce by the bucket load back into the fields, cleaning the equipment, constructing boxes and complaining, complaining, complaining, blah, blah, blah.
I could show you how to fold together a strawberry box in under five seconds.
Could tell you how many corn crates could fit horizontally or vertically on the freezing lip of the hydrocooler.
Could tell you the best spot and job at the rotating green bean table. (You want to be the last sorter before the first packer. Claim six-seven o’clock at the circular table and you should be golden.)
I was way more of a factory worker than a farmer.
But that’s not really that fun of a fact to tell people.
It’s depressing, to tell you the truth.
Makes everyone feel guilty.
Makes them confess that they spent their summers getting high at the lake house.
Or waking at noon to play video games in the air-conditioned basement.
I then defend my childhood, they say, “Oh, I’m sure it was a good experience,” and I agree that it was and then we both seem a little let down.
So for that reason, I continue on with the charade.
On Friday we checked out a roof-top organic garden growing on top of a favorite Chicago restaurant, and as we walked around the beds of saplings my friend pointed to a row and asked what they were.
I froze, knowing my farming history was once again going to be put to the test.
They could have been watermelon, for all I knew.
They could have been weeds.
Luckily her husband took one look at them and claimed they were peas.
“Yeah,” I jumped in. “Those are definitely peas. I grew up on a farm, you know.”
“Yeah, Greg,” my wife said. “We know.”