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Farm To Farm

Some gardening friends have been enjoying sugarsnap peas for several weeks, they say. They planted the peas in October. I planted peas in April and the plants are still only six inches tall.

On Saturday my 13-year-old son helped out on a farm in Yorkville, weeding their potatoes that are nearly a foot high already, mulched with straw. The afternoon before, we had finally dropped spuds in the furrows a month late. I don't like to take chances with potatoes when the ground is close to saturated because seven years ago I lost an entire crop, maybe a $100 investment, to late April rains. The seed tubers rotted in their furrows, that year.

This season I am breaking from tradition and planting the potatoes in rows spaced six feet apart instead of three. My plan is to do a better job of hill­ing the rows — moving soil from the furrows between as the potatoes grow, covering as much leaf and stalk as possible, because the tubers form along the stems when they are buried. A frequent frustration at har­vest time has been those green spots on the sunny side of the spuds that make them impossible to market, so I figure on burying the crop to protect from the solar rays. After years of trial and error I still can't claim to have mastered the art of growing potatoes on the Anderson Valley floor, though I have high hopes this season. Once the potatoes had been dropped about a foot apart in the furrows by our crew of merry work­ers, we let go with covering them, and a day or so later I finally got around to spreading some well aged and composted manure over the field so it filled the fur­rows and covered the spuds. They say not to use fresh manure with potatoes because it encourages scab, so I figure to leave this stuff out in the open air, the sun and the rain for a month or so to be sterilized before we start hilling. This isn't the first time that I've been convinced I had a winner of a crop started, though.

I would be desperately scrambling around were it not for the unusually persistent late rains that make jobs like cutting hay impossible. It's a crap shoot when the weather is involved. The weather has always been biblical or epic to me. You never have a normal season. I don't remember one that I could say was like another. They all have character like different milk cows, dogs, or people. This year's characteristic of dis­tinction seems to be that it rains every Monday, which works out well for me because I have the four year-old on Mondays and we watch wildlife videos while the storms pelt the corrugated steel roof and I contemplate what the next move will be when the ground dries up on Wednesday, when I am once again with the four year-old all day, when I will be thinking about what to do on Thursday.

I meet up with the four year-old and my ex at around 8:30 on Wednesday morning, just after I've had enough coffee that I couldn't draw a straight line with a ruler for an edge. This time of year we go back to the farm if it's a sunny day, and I sit on an upside down five gallon bucket while the little guy tells me one thing after another for several hours. We have too much catching up to do, thanks to the single parent­ing deal.

“This arrowhead could kill a jackrabbit,” he tells me, holding up a blunted fragment that we discovered in the fields after the rains had washed the soil off the surface stones. “An elephant could knock down our barn.”

“Oh,” I say about a hundred times. “Oh? Oh.”

By 11 o'clock I'd cracked a can of beer and was try­ing to think about what to make for lunch, though I was really thinking that I should be out there running the disk because here it was the middle of May and the potatoes weren't planted, yet. The tomatoes were still in the greenhouse, and before you know it we'd be cutting hay and everything was going to hell simul­taneously and where was Grandma and Grandpa or Aunt Who to be chilling out with the children while working-age men plowed the fields, women tended to gardens and laundry and whatnot. I mean May in Indiana when I was a teenager, the men were all working and planting the fields all day and the women brought lunch in the trunks of old four door gas guz­zlers. We enjoyed picnics in the shade of poplar trees on the edges of fields. The planting work was heroic, a sacred annual ritual.

“Having a beer first thing in the morning,” said my 13 year-old when he finally emerged from his cage.

“First thing in the morning to you,” I said. “I've been up for five hours, already accomplished some­thing.”

“Look at you. Depressed. What a way to start the day.”

“I'm not — goddammit, I've been saying 'Oh' over and over again to _____ for several hours, now, ever since he quit crying because he forgot to leave his kite with his mom. He was afraid the dogs would tear it to shreds. The tractor wouldn't start and PG&E turned off the power in this whole part of Boonville so I can't even plug in the charger unless I want to fire up the generator. Even if the tractor would start, I don't know what I would do except maybe dig furrows so we could plant potatoes this afternoon, like we'd actually get to that with all the kids running around. How am I supposed to accomplish anything?”

“Jeez, Dad.”

I decided to walk into Boonville with the four year-old and give the teenager some space. On the way to Boont Berry we stopped in at a friend's house because I saw her and her sweetie having coffee or something out on the porch. Trudging along at the four year old pace, I lolligag every chance. It's a tedi­ous adventure just to walk from the edge of the high­way up the driveway about forty feet to somebody's front porch just to say hello. I try to take deep breaths.

“You wouldn't believe what I brought back from Arizona,” said the guy.

I said I probably wouldn't.

It turned out to be a grebe. A grebe is a little smaller than a duck with a long, needle-like beak and red eyes with feet that stick out behind its ass.

“It was on the side of the road — get this — in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I pulled over to take a leak and there it was in the gravel.”

“Is it hurt?”

“Well, it can't walk or fly, apparently.”

The bird floundered in the grass next to their chicken yard.

“Looking at its legs, I'd have to say this bird could­n't walk if it was healthy. It's a swimmer,” I said. “You ought to bring it to the farm, stick it in the pond.”

Well, we had something to do for the afternoon once the older kids got off the bus at 3:05. A crew of children, dogs, and single parents migrated to the lit­tle pump pond, I call it, that is nearest our barn. I had to shut off the electric fence charger because it caused too much anxiety to have so many youngsters darting around at just the right height to be clothes lined by a powerful jolt from the strand of wire about neck high for a kindergartner.

Hollering at the numerous dogs to get back, we helped the grebe into the water where it instantly started swimming as if nothing was wrong. The next thing you knew it was diving under water for ten sec­onds at a time, swimming around like a beaver with those legs behind its tail, coming up with a squirming tadpole in its beak, those red eyes almost glowing under the punk rock black hair standing on end like it had been massaged with egg whites.

“Wonder why the heck that bird ended up in the middle of the desert?” I said.

“The wind was awful strong. I could barely open the door of my truck. Maybe it got blown off course and ran out of energy.”

“It could have been fleeing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“No,” I said. “The poor bird was flying over the desert and it saw a mirage. It tried to land.”

Nobody took that theory seriously. “Maybe some­body dumped it,” said one.

“But what were they doing with a grebe in the first place?”

I maintain that the grebe injured itself trying to land on a mirage. For two days I went to check on the bird when it was time to go out and retrieve the cows, and the grebe was swimming around like it owned the pond. On Saturday, I think it was, the grebe was floating, dead, in the reeds at the water's edge. I think it must have suffered internal injuries when it landed on the desert. Either that or it contracted some avian flu, in which case the thing to do is bury it before our hens start dropping like flies.

One Comment

  1. Mort June 4, 2010

    Mr. Spec,

    What a surprise to read such a wonderful piece of writing! I hope all is well! I ran into Hackman earlier today at a farm auction in Indianapolis and he told me that you were writing articles for this publication. Sorry to hear about you & your ex-wife. Please reply if you get this.

    Mort Rieckers

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