Vallonia, Indiana, Labor Day, 2019 — "Do you believe in that there 'global warming’?" asked the lady whose husband dropped off a port-o-pottie at our Hoosier homestead back in early June when I still entertained the idea of farming with employees this season.
"Think it is safe to say we are witnessing drastic climate change," I replied. "Hence the two feet of water covering our septic leach field. Sure glad you guys could bring this thing out here. Probably going to need it for a while."
Now it is Labor Day weekend, and the people who planned on working at "Driftwood Organics" have taken other jobs such as scrubbing asses in a nursing home or wrapping burritos at Taco Bell in a city half an hour from here, so I no longer need a port-a-pottie. Between the beginning of April and the middle of July a few of our fields dried up only long enough to tease us into planting sweetcorn, green beans, winter squash, &c., before another two to six inches soaked the sand dunes of our river valley. These rolling hills are known to be immune to flooding or even saturation, slightly elevated and highly sought for their guarantee of a crop in the worst of rainy years, but this spring the higher ground absorbed so much moisture that it oozed and filled the lower fields, waves lapping beaches on our best soil when the wind blew. For three months a lake extended from the septic field in the shady grove south of our bathroom a full quarter mile, with a constant stream running across the road between us and our neighbors — also produce farmers.
Unable to ford their driveway, the neighbors parked a john boat and two kayaks on the banks of the water body that stretched from their sweetcorn field, through the rows of tomatoes, across their yard, and into their watermelon patch. Fred Peters of "Peters' Melons," now 87 years old, told me he'd never seen the water so high, and it had never lingered for more than a few hours after a deluge. "My family's worked this ground since 1813, and we've planted these fields every year," he told me in June, as farmers in our region enjoyed plenty of time to converse. "Nothing like this has ever happened."
"Not since Indiana became a state, anyhow," I said. "Of course this valley was formed by the giant glaciers that leveled the prairies 10,000 years ago, during the Ice Ages. Most of this place was a swamp before the white settlers drained it."
Several hundred acres surrounding our farm were never planted to GMO corn or soybeans, meaning also that they were never doused with glyphosphate or dosed with chemical fertilizers, so our well water is probably cleaner than it has been since the days prior to the so-called Green Revolution. Our crew managed to grow about half an acre of potatoes on a sand dune that resembled a tropical island; also four rows of watermelons about two hundred feet in length. Those crops thrived. The remaining land sat under water until late July. Now that the floods have receded I am planting fall turnips, carrots, and lettuce in portions and running a bush hog mower over the weeds everywhere else.
My basement has dried out finally. During the extended monsoon — no doubt a direct result of melting polar ice caps, I gaged the water levels downstairs by whether they reached the first, second, or third step. We had two sump pumps running 24/7, and millions of tadpoles swimming across the floors, under the pool table. Both electric water heaters shorted out, and the washing machine floated. I had to pull my shorts up to the style of 1970's NBA basketball uniforms just to wade to the breaker box every time our well pump in the cylindrical pit outside went under water, and flip the switch AFTER using one of the sumps to dry out the pressure regulator and motor.
"You have to do something about the basement!" guests to the farm would say. "I can get you a trash pump, drain it in a couple hours."
"Right," I must have uttered a hundred times, trying to explain the situation. "I actually have a gas-powered trash pump, but where is the water going to go? We are surrounded by a lake. Suck it out, it runs right back in. It'd be full again the next day."
"You could seal off all the cracks."
"Not possible — but even if it was, the house would become a boat and float away."
Some say every cloud harbors a silver lining; others claim that every silver lining has a touch of gray. Thanks to the rain washing out most of our farming efforts for 2019, what remains of the Driftwood Organics crew is blessed with the time to focus on fixing up the concrete block building on scenic State Road 135, the first highway built by the white man in Indiana, which runs from the initial capitol of Corydon on the banks of the Ohio river all the way up to Indianapolis.
This spring the previous owners, who had operated "Vallonia Gas & Grocery" since the mid 1980's — supporters of organic farming and my friends since high school when I would stop in for five dollars' worth of fuel, coffee, and a egg & sausage breakfast sandwich, sold us the property for a nominal fee in a privately-negotiated deal. It comes with a half acre asphalt parking lot, three points of entry — two from the highway, one from the village, and an immense steel awning. The location and design are perfect for displaying tables stacked with watermelons and other produce out front where the gas pumps once stood. With the assistance of the Jackson County health department we are restoring the commercial kitchen, from which we soon hope to serve pulled pork and hot dogs from the dozen hogs we had butchered this spring at a USDA-inspected facility — also salads and baked, mashed, or fried potatoes, as a farm-to-table deli.
The business is modeled somewhat after the Boont Berry Farm store on Highway 128 in Anderson Valley, Mendocino county, California, where for almost 10 years I grew salad mix, tomatoes, carrots, &c., and supplied eggs. Indiana State Road 135 is almost identical to California 128, both leading to tourist destinations in a river valley surrounded by forested hills, both narrow with dangerous curves. Even though we are not yet officially open, travelers stop and ask to use our restroom and are perhaps compelled to purchase a watermelon, sack of potatoes, carton of eggs, frozen bacon or pork chops.
Were it not for all the storms cancelling out the growing season, I don't know how we would have juggled farming with renovating the building, painting the concrete floors a flat gray, the walls white with raspberry trim, arranging the various sinks, freezers, and display cases in compliance with the health department guidlines. We hope to open within a couple weeks under the name, "Driftwood Trading Post," somewhat in honor of Vallonia's original occupation by the Shawnee nation who allowed the French to set up a fur trading post here and name the place, "Vallonia." The pioneer festival, "Ft. Vallonia Days," takes place every year the third weekend in October, and draws more than 15,000 people if the weather is fair. In the past we have sold truckloads of turnips at this event. This year we will be vending sandwiches and salads.
I find that after more than two decades of attempting to employ people in the sweaty, dusty, and itchy jobs accompanied with cultivating produce, asking them to sweep floors or wash dishes is a much more realistic demand. The so-called "unskilled labor" performed mostly by Latinos on farms in this country is too complicated for people raised in air conditioning on fast food and video games, but for former employees of McDonalds and Taco Bell the restaurant work is second nature.
"If we succeed," I tell my friends, "we are guaranteed minimum wage for the rest of our lives. But at least we won't be slaving away on assembly lines for the Man. There's always a silver lining. Happy Labor Day weekend."