Farm To Farm
by Spec MacQuayde, June 24, 2011
Here it is eight in the morning, and I'm actually seated at a desk in our farm house with a light bulb illuminating ink on paper. Lightning cracks across the dark sky. This is my first day off since I can remember. My employer, Grizzly, bothered to call at 7am to tell me not to show up until further notice.
“Thanks, man,” I said, as if I'd been on the verge of heading out the door.
Actually I was standing naked in the kitchen, having just been startled awake. I had gotten up before six, noted the approaching storm to the west, and returned to the sack, concluding that we'd be putting the brakes on Grizzly's Napoleonic charge to plant some four hundred acres of melons. Ever since the floodwaters receded way back when, all I've known from dawn to past dusk has been endless rows of watermelons, whether planting or cultivating, and the numerous reports I jotted down in the wee hours intended for the AVA were discarded and forgotten, probably for the better as they tended to be scathing indictments of Grizzly's farming methods.
It is true that we are mass producing watermelons for WalMart. While Grizzly certainly does not go out of his way to act PC towards the dozens of Mexican fellows he refers to as “boys” regardless of age, and it is true that this farm reminds me of a cotton plantation in the antibellum South, it must be remembered that Grizzly and Bambi put in more hours than the rest of us, and they are probably the most tragic victims of corporate agriculture's invasion of the land. Last night, for example, Grizzly and the crew were just getting started planting a late succession of cantaloupes on forty acres he is renting from Uncle Huck. Grizzly had spent the entire day laying plastic mulch eight miles away on another farm, while the migrant laborers had bent over rows of early cantaloupes for twelve hours, pulling weeds, but a massive storm cell had developed to our west that was supposed to hit at about dawn today, so Grizzly had decided to stay up all night with the crew, setting starts.
“Mah boss in Joh-Jah nevah made us wuk no mo den twelve, thuteen ows,” said a Latino fellow who spoke with the fluent, unmistakeable accent of a southern black man. He was Mexican but appeared black, covered with fertile dust after sitting on Grizzly's three row plastic mulch raised bed gizmo all day. “Twelve, thuteen ows, not one mo. Dis deal sucks. Heah dey take us up to town on Sunday fo groceries, Sunday! Cain't poichis no damn beer on Sunday in — wheah is we? Indiana?”
I had made friends with the new arrivals from Georgia earlier in the day by stopping at a gas station in the nearest town on their way to lay plastic, allowing them to purchase cigarettes, which they'd also done without for two grueling, mournful, fourteen hour days in the dust and scorching sun.
“Dis heah a raw deal. No drivah for pete's sakes. Wheah the devil can a man find a ho around heah? Strip club, even?”
“Wish I knew,” I said, honestly. “Nearest strip joints I know of are down on the Ohio.”
The field where the “boys” were getting set to start planting at dusk happens to lay between a major river and the adjacent field where Uncle Huck's cantaloupes are vining out dark green and setting fruit except for the rows next to what Grizzly is renting, where the plants are white, void of chlorophyll, thanks to the pre-emergent herbicide Grizzly thoughtfully sprayed when the wind was blowing. In the corner of that field is a small pond where my teenaged son sat in a lawn chair next to Uncle Huck's son, fishing. They'd spent the day cruising around their melon fields in a little 4-wheel drive Ranger, replanting any starts that had not taken the first time around, half a dozen teenaged boys and girls wearing scant duds and tanning, flirting, cavorting.
“I'd rather work for Uncle Huck for free than get paid to slave for Grizzly,” my son says. Now he and Huck's son were dining on hamburgers and soda pop, pulling bluegill from the pond and razzing me as I maneuvered a tractor and water wagon and the Mexican slaves dragged their feet, loading flats “plasticos” of cantaloupe starts freshly sprayed with fungicide onto the shelves of the transplanting rig, a three row mobile industrial farming wonder.
“No tierra no planta,” hollered Grizzly, like a drill sergeant.
One season, I tell myself. A tour of duty to get real, report on ag in corporate America which reminds me more and more of what I used to hear about ag in the Soviet Union before the walls came down, when nobody gave a fuck. Of the army, grunt soldiers worth less than the minimum wage they are grudgingly paid, no names remembered. My son has spent countless days shoulder to shoulder with the sweaty, doomed guys, riding in the backs of pick-up trucks and on wagons, actually drinking water from creeks and splashing it over his head to avoid “heat frustration,” as he calls it.
I wanted to kill Grizzly when I discovered he'd given my son clearance to drink from creek water, rather than providing fresh drinking water for the crew, one article I'm glad I never submitted. Of course I was in an oblivious, air-conditioned tractor cab that day.
The teenagers had more than a little reason to ridicule our operation. Grizzly was in such a fervent zeal to stay up all night and get the cantaloupe plants in before the rain because he'd screwed up royally in working the ground, letting the abundant moisture dry into a forty acre brick of sand and clay that busted up into arid clods the size of angry, biblical softballs. In his haste, Grizzly had commenced to shape the dry clods like sharp kidney stones into raised beds that had remained bone dry even after a subsequent two inch rain had nearly flooded the field, ironically dry even, given that between the plastic raised beds the soil was too wet to pass with a tractor.
“If he tries to plant tomorrow he'll have some uncomfortable lead in his head. He has no respect for the land, itself,” is how Uncle Huck had put it, watching from the vantage of his front porch several nights before as we'd shared beers and looked out across the two vastly different cantaloupe fields. “I told him that stretch along the river was heavier, more like clay, not good for transplants unless you work it just right. He'd a done fine with sweetcorn or pumpkins there, but he didn't listen. He don't think about soil. All he thinks about is WalMart.”
It turns out Grizzly is somewhat infamous in these parts, especially after admitting in the newspapers that he aspires to turn our little microclimate of hot sand into a serious competitor with California, Texas, and Florida. His reasons are not all invalid, as we are much closer to New England, Chicago, and even Atlanta than the other major produce-growing regions, but the old German farmers in these parts have seen enough of ambition and its effects on land stewardship. The general consensus is that Spec MacQuayde went out to California to learn about big-time produce techniques, and now is in cahoots with Grizzly, which in some ways might be true but in other ways is a joke. They can't fathom the difference between Anderson Valley and Fresno, Bakersfield.
I have to wonder why Uncle Huck bothers dealing with Grizzly, but then I am also fully employed by the Wal-mart maniac, thanks to Uncle Huck, who had been dead on a year ago when he'd called me up at the old Boont Berry Farm to encourage me to come home, that “Grizzly needs help.” Now I drive a company truck and get paid to think for the first time in my life, so it is a little hypocritical to complain, though I look forward to the day when my son and I can do our own farming and not have to answer, ultimately, to Wal-Mart like some smiling God the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit, Three in One, up in the sky.
The first day of planting out there on Huck's rented land had been disastrous, like the French or Germans trying to invade the Russian plains except the opposite, more like if they'd attempted to conquer the Sahara, the starts wilting immediately in the 98 degree heat that turns into well over a hundred on our sandy microclimate. Grizzly'd had me pulling a water wagon desperately over the dying starts all afternoon, which was why I'd ended up drinking beer on Uncle Huck's porch that night, discussing Grizzly's shitty farming methods.
For example, in nearly one hundred acres of melons that Uncle Huck and his kids and their friends have planted, nobody's pulled a damned weed, yet, whereas Grizzly's had dozens of chain gang Mexican guys laboring from dawn to dusk, tediously untangling weeds from the tiny holes where the melon starts went into the plastic on his fields, because he doesn't rotate his crops. He has weeds that they warned about in Genesis. That, and he's turning our famous sands into brick by not cover-cropping in the winter, and by relying too much on the plastic mulch that creates erosion similar to blacktop in the cities preventing water from being absorbed. I cringe when I work his fields. Now, with nearly a 100% chance of rain the next morning, Grizzly had no choice but to try to encourage the bedraggled Mexican dudes to stay up all night cold sober and repeat the same mundane task they'd been at for more than a month.
He finally gave me clearance to go home at about 9:30 pm, as I waved goodbye to the Mexican amigos who were doomed to see the madness through. Back at our own farm (which is supposed to be on hold for this season, though in the more frustrating moments at Grizzly's I do start considering planting a crop of organic lettuce and carrots, etc., for late fall harvest), my son and I went down to the fish cleaning station in our basement and skinned the bluegill, then fried them in cornmeal batter, finally eating dinner at eleven, which was one reason Grizzly needn't really have bothered calling me at seven this morning to save me the trouble of showing up for work. I'm not that crazy about growing melons or making money.