The dogwood tree outside my bedroom window is exploding with white flowers, in contrast to the redbud in the backyard. The forest edges are painted white, purple, and green, as mustards bloom in all the fields, and the domestic tulip magnolia in our front yard flaunts pink like skin flicks with amorous white people. Bees buzz on dandelions so you got to watch out walking barefoot. The pollen count on sunny, warm days turns my nights into a living hell, gasping for air with lungs so filled with mucous I barely have the air capacity to cough, my nose running like a faucet left on. This time of year I am grateful not to have a girlfriend. Ever since I was a kid, I avoided romance with the first blooms of spring when everyone else was totally horny and nature sang out like Led Zeppelin mating with Lady Gaga, because my over-reactive sinuses made it impossible to be suave.
Rain pelts the puddles on a Sunday afternoon, slanted from the North. My son and his rednecked buddies mill about the hardwood floors of our house, brainstorming for something to do. Their trucks are all missing windows, like mine, and they're short on gas money.
My beat-up Ford Ranger is parked in the barn, out of the rain, with more than 200 pounds of potassium sulfate, 0-0-60, in the bed.
"What you gonna do with this stuff?" asked the fellow who bagged it at the Verona feed mill, clearly a little annoyed to have to shovel the white and orange granules into the feed bag as I held it open. Normally they use tractors with front-end loaders to dump the fertilizer into steel spreaders. "I thought you all was organic."
"Actually we're allowed to use potash [potassium sulfate]."
"I don't see how that's any different from our other fertilizers. That feel like 50 pounds?"
With both hands, I hefted the bag. It felt more like 100 pounds, but I'm still out of shape after last winter. "At least," I said, a little embarrassed. Normally those guys pull the spreaders over their truck scales to determine the weight--another reason it annoyed him to scoop the potash. Imagine norcal pot growers weighing weed without a scale, estimating pounds. "You know it sure would be handier if I just rented one of your spreaders, but I guarantee the organic standards wouldn't allow you to use a spreader that had hauled chemical fertilizer."
"I still don't see the fucking difference between this and our other fertilizers," he said as he tied the bags.
Standing there, observing the mound of orange pellets in that bin, and the similar one of white nitrogen pellets in the next, I could see his point. "Maybe 'cause potash is mined from the earth?" I offered.
"So is our rock phosphate."
"Well I reckon I could use that too, then. But you know the sand in Verona don't need phosphorus."
"That sand's practically MADE of phosphorus," he said. Not an employee, actually more like a millionaire and the largest, if not only, employer remaining in Verona, his family has provided milling services for local farmers for a century, since the railroad days. They naturally expanded into fertilizers and pesticides as time wore on, and all the family members work there and know intimately most all the fields in our river valley. They have managed to hold out against the multinational Farm Bureau "Co-op" and its associates, mostly through reputation alone. Now they supply small farmers with ground corn and soybean feed mixes, sending their delivery trucks all through the hills of southern Indiana.
I'm still on the fence about whether to be certified "organic". The economic advantages are undeniable. Actual "Co-op" grocery stores will purchase my melons and cucumbers, but they have to market them as "conventional" unless I cough up the money and do the paperwork to be officially certified, only paying half as much. At the farmers' market, or with a CSA, though, the customers know me well enough to know why I'm growing organically. Driving past the yellow fields of wild mustard in the river bottoms on the way home from town, I was still debating whether to go as certified organic this year. The potash I'd purchased was intended for about half an acre of potatoes I plan on sowing on a small sand hill that is partially covered with Johnson grass, a cane that sends forth ten foot stalks from perennial rhizomes, impossible to combat with cultivators and hoes. For three years I've just farmed around the stuff, now sort of wishing I'd gone ahead and bought a little Round-up and sprayed it back then, rather than being such a fucking idealist. Ideally, I could fence some cows, pigs, sheep, or chickens in the area with the Johnson grass, and due to its exceptionally sweet nature (a close relative of sugarcane), the livestock would kill it off within a year. Multiple old farmers have told me that. But the seven acre piece my friends and I were lucky enough to purchase came with rules laid down by a neighborhood association, and livestock are prohibited. Besides, I don't have any electricity or reliable water installed at that place.
Naturally, Johnson grass dominates in the best of soils. It likes warm weather, and is yet to emerge. I decided to go ahead and plant potatoes in that ground, and either I will find a way to fence a couple steers in the potato field--they won't eat the spud leaves, but will just walk between the rows and devour the grass--or I will just say to hell with it and go out there and do a spot application of the evil chemical, Round-up. I was still tossing those options back and forth in my noggin upon returning to the farm to notice that a giant Apache self-propelled spray rig was applying Round-up to the healthy stand of alfalfa I'd planted in the "buffer zone" I'd been renting, that surrounded our homestead.
"Shit," I said, checking the time on my cell phone. It was barely noon. All through the sunny days of the week my alter-ego, Farmer John, had been enforcing a strict regimen--no beer until 5:00, trying to make hay while the sun shone. This was Saturday, though, the last sunny day before the cool wet returned. I decided maybe it was a good time to have a beer, after all.
I'd been sub-renting the buffer zone from the farmers who lease the ground around us, and everything had been cool until the previous year when the old guy who owns all the ground had passed on, leaving the farm in the care of his son who naturally got paranoid about liability when we used one acre of the zone for a parking lot the weekend of our music festival. We are on friendly terms, but the son is an extremely shy individual when it comes to large groups of people and liability and all that, and last fall he told the farmers not to sublet to me for that reason. Lately I've been working with some folks in Nashville to put together a special event insurance policy that covers me and my neighbors, and was just on the verge of telling my friendly neighbor that I had his ass covered, in case he saw fit to let us keep renting the ground around our farm. Watching the Apache spread its dinosaur-like wings and douse the surrounding hills with Round-up, I decided to run "Old Squawky"-- our David Brown 990 tractor, over to the other farm with a disk and work the sand hill where I planned on planting potatoes, chopping up last year's Johnson grass stalks, rather than gloomily sit around and watch that spray rig roar.
Now cold rain pelts the north windows of the house, and my son's buddies are searching for something to do. One of them encountered a snapping turtle on the gravel road along the river earlier in the week, and it's been chilling out in our old salad mix washing tank for several days. "Go ahead and shoot the turtle," I say. "It's a good day to clean it." If you've never cleaned a snapping turtle, you might want to watch a YouTube video, first. That's what I did, also looking up recipes for turtle stew, though no sooner do I tell the boys to shoot the turtle, and my old friend, Brick, shows up to pretty much take charge of the enterprise, and once again I find myself standing around watching the proceedings, which sometimes seems to be my purpose in life.