Farmers: Tied to the Land

It seems less like summer as I write this, but the rain reminds me that our farmers need the rain as well as the sun to be successful. So those of us who work with them are careful not to complain about a rainy day in June, or July or August for that matter.

It has been quite an eye-opening experience, though I am not that far removed from farming in my own lineage, to hear on a daily basis sometimes about the challenges the small farmer faces. Even access — through ownership or rental agreement — to the most modern equipment is not enough to guarantee an easier row to hoe down on the farm.

Last week I heard about berries and other low-lying crops being eaten by an unknown predator. Max Tyson was up all night watching for deer, groundhogs, and anything else that moved and ate produce, listening for ground-level disturbances and watching for moving shapes in the dark. And boy was he surprised around dawn to see a flock of Canadian geese descend on the garden and begin to decimate it once again. Luckily for Max and us, the geese moved on, but now he has to worry about geese!

Mike Burner is farming land that has not been farmed in many years, if ever, and his is more of a watch and wait and worry situation. He heard from neighbors that the potato beetles were voracious this year, so Mike was prepared to do whatever it took as a sustainable farmer to protect his many hundreds of seed potatoes that he had just planted. He found none over several days of alert observation and realized that because this land had not been farmed, there were probably no beetle eggs in the ground to hatch and create a threat.

Many of our farmers were also concerned about the stick bugs this year — some had seen some serious devastation last year and were expecting it to be worse this year. Now they are thinking that maybe the bugs are heading south to a climate more like the one that supports them in China — and everyone is keeping their fingers crossed, because as I am sure most of you learned last year, there is nothing that gets rid of stink bugs other than a rigorous capture-to-flush strategy. I figure that only works in my house or your house, not on a farm.

As Roseanne Roseannadanna would say, “It’s always something!” Hearing these and many other accounts year after year reminds me that a farmer never rests during the growing season and can’t afford to. They do not take summer vacations; they do not go anywhere that takes them away from that morning and evening check on the farm, even if they are not working it all day. For nine months of every year, they are tied to the land, which is no doubt where they want to be. And it’s where we want them to be and where we hope they will stay for many generations to come.

That’s why those of us who create and manage markets work as hard as we do to provide places for those small farmers to sell the fruits and vegetables of their labors at retail prices. The average farm in Virginia is about 40 acres. Forty acres of produce at wholesale prices would barely keep the farm family alive. They need these retail outlets to recoup their investment, and we need the farmers to provide alternatives to commercially- and foreign-grown produce.

We can keep them on the farm; we just have to commit to that weekly visit to the farmers’ market. Compared to what the farmers do to make the market possible, our job looks pretty easy.