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New Rules on the Farm

Unusually balmy weather haunted Anderson Valley at least through the end of November, a phenomenon I witnessed first hand touring the gardens of friends who still had tomatoes and peppers blooming and fruiting after Thanksgiving.

In the eight seasons that I endeavored to grow vegetables at the old Boont Berry Farm (now known as the Anderson Valley Community Farm), our tomatoes and other frost-sensitive crops rarely survived more than a week beyond the Apple Fair in late September. One season turned so frigid so soon that on the 15th of September when I staggered across barren dirt to let the chickens out the coop prior to the morning milking, the water troughs were frozen solid. The only frost-free month we experienced in what was supposed to be the hottest decade in history (globally) turned out to be August.

“It's definitely a frost pocket,” the owners warned when my second Ex and I showed up full of youthful idealism the spring of 2002.

For this reason I reluctantly suspended my lifelong dream of growing watermelons as a career, and focused first on frost-friendly crops like carrots and baby lettuce, later on pastures and livestock, finding that grass and clover fared better through the wet winter months. By “grass” I mean ryegrass or harding grass or wild oats, not the crop Anderson Valley is most noted for. We always struggled to pump enough water for crops in the brief summer months. Not much has changed in either of those respects. Tim, the fellow who took over the reigns of the farm four years ago, commented that he may not even try to grow vegetables next year. “If it wasn't for the government programs paying us to make compost, I couldn't go on,” he said, noting that several “woofers” stay on most of the summer.

“They actually pay you to make compost?” I couldn't believe it. “I'm always paranoid to sign up for those programs, like soon as I do they're gonna tell you what you can and can't plant, and when and how.”

“No, it's pretty easy.”

He was actually busy loading manufactured compost that the government had also paid for, through this drought-relief program — loading it into the old green Oliver manure spreader that I purchased in 2008 from a Philo landowner who didn't know what it was. So I left Tim alone and just kind of mused around the old farm, sipping beer and reminiscing at every fence post, every fruit tree I'd pruned back when my kids were young and love and hope blossomed each spring. The whole farm seemed to be singing with memories, and I had to check near a corner post I'd set the week before my second son was born in the spring of 2002, searching for the Oatmeal Stout bottle I'd nestled at its base. I was a little bummed that somebody'd cleaned that one up, the same with the Boont Amber bottles under a bay tree at the base of the hills where a valley girl used to wait for me to take a break from picking tomatoes.

Satisfied with the walk down memory lane, the bottle of Poleeko Gold going empty in my hand, I meandered back past the field where Tim was spreading that government manure. I crossed the makeshift concrete bridge over a ditch, and followed our old loading chute to the barn which is sort of the farm's epicenter.

Part of the inside I sectioned off in the fall of 2008 for human habitation, and I found my remaining beer next to the futon in front of the 70's style round & open-faced woodstove donated by friends up the road. Staring at the same corrugated steel wall I'd meditated on so many winter evenings, I rolled a joint. I'd built that wall to create a space for pouring milk and a makeshift kitchen the autumn after my second Ex and I had split up and I'd been forced by economic necessity to abandon our rental house in town and move to the farm. The main reason I sectioned off part of the barn was to get a little privacy because people were always stopping by for milk, eggs, and vegetables.

They'd find me eerilly sitting at a computer donated by the AVA, wrapped in a blanket, a madman in utter darkness save for the glow of the word processor screen on my face. I was working on my masterpiece, a memoir, foolishly titling the 400 + pages of bullshit, 101 Ways to Strike Out. In the memoir I pretended to have played catcher in minor league baseball's farm system. The book didn't have much to do with farming. More to do with sex, which I wasn't getting much of in those dark winter months.

“The technical descriptions of sex are scientifically accurate,” offered my attorney, Mary Jane, upon reading an early draft. The title for this gem had been her idea in the first place, years earlier. “But it just goes on and on, one scene after another. No plot.”

“Well I was just going for 101 ways to strike out, you know. It was your idea.”

She had given me the idea, probably joking, back in the late 1990's, after hearing some of my botched attempts at love. “You should write one of those How-To books, like they got that whole series, 101 Ways to do this or that, except yours will be how to fuck up relationships: 101 Ways to Strike Out.”

Not only did I section off part of the barn to get privacy from all the folks who showed up at the farm for produce. Sex was going on all around — the bull and cows, the roosters and hens. My blue heeler went into heat the first time that dark winter during one of those five day monsoons, and the neighbors' uncastrated chihuahua tried vainly and obscenely to service her there in the shelter of the barn, rain pounding the corrugated roof. I could not escape the crude spectacle. In the name of human dignity I constructed the wall and ceiling to get away from the canine carnival.

Tossing the roach in the fireplace, I sipped beer and stared at the wall, memories flooding through. . .watching Three Stooges and Gilligans Island reruns with my young boys, maybe age 3 and 5 at the time snuggled beside me on the futon, ribs roasting over apple wood in that open fireplace. Housewives dropping off dinner or bringing a pint of whiskey and chatting about their frantic families and homelives.

AVA court reporter Bruce McEwen showed up with a twelver of Natty Ice, my blue heeler bitch biting his calf, shredding his pants leg. A couple more beers went down, a flood of happy memories, laughter, tears, crazy monologues like a street dweller in San Fran, and the next thing I knew Tim, the guy who runs the farm now, was shaking me, waking me up.

“Spec, we have to talk.”

At first I was worried he'd noticed I'd eaten half the jar of sauer-reuben (fermented turnips) that he'd proudly showed me earlier, but it turned out he didn't know about that, yet. “Okay, I don't want to be an asshole, but like I'm trying to run a serious business here. We have a few policies, like no smoking weed in this space, and no drinking before 5 o'clock. And nobody passed out at noon.”

In my younger days I might have protested that it was after one o'clock and therefore close to five at my home in Indiana, but I've grown up a bunch since moving back home.

Dripping in his rain slicker, face somewhat dusted with the flung particles of compost, Tim continued. “Spec, I have to confess I was super pissed at you the whole first year. You left PILES of beer cans, bottles — wine bottles — all over the place.”

“Well, I hear ya. I mean, I have to admit I left all those piles on purpose. For one thing you got the California Cash refund, so they were actually like oversized piles of nickels. And I left them next to my favorite spots — like next to that pond in the back. I think you probably found a lawn chair next to that pile. I'm gonna need a beer if we're gonna talk.”

Tim said it was okay if we stepped outside to the remaining portion of a greenhouse to continue our conversation out of the rain and possible customers' earshot. “I didn't mean to come off like an asshole,” he said. “It's just I'm trying to run this farm like a business, and we have certain protocol.”

He went on to describe how the financial situation had never worked for them in four years, and he was taking a job up near Willits. It turned out we both shared a lot of intimate knowledge both about the farm and the sometimes eccentric customers who show up randomly throughout the week, many of them the same that I served. Farmers who care get to know the land like one would the habits and physicalities of a lover, and I could personally walk all of that farm blindfolded, knowing exactly where I was with every step, which would be easier than following a small herd of cows through pitch black night wearing knee deep wader boots in the rain and muck with a bottle of zinfandel in one hand, a frequent winter evening stroll back in the day. I could hear the cows' hooves in the muck but could barely make out their dark forms, and hung back with the blue heeler at my side. There were times I had to use the wine bottle for ballast — to keep balance, because the shit got so deep.

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