The hay harvest this season was too late and frantic thanks to the abundant rains. It caught me with my pants down, as they say. When I finally had a field raked and ready to bale, my four year-old son and I dusted off the baler and set in to grease all the zerks.
“Smells like something died; maybe a chicken,” I said.
“Look, Dad, there's eggs in there.”
“Oh, crap.” Sure enough some hen had laid about a dozen eggs sometime in December, from the looks of the putrified capsules deposited neatly in old straw, nestled out of reach beside a couple of sprockets. I vomited breakfast and the previous night's beer in the act of removing the eggs with a flat shovel. After a few minutes of puking and inadvertently cracking out the green ooze, I grew accustomed to the reek.
I'd noticed before how quickly one can adjust to a disagreeable stench. One New Year's Eve back in my senior year in high school my buddies and I ended up kidnapped, somewhat, by a few girls who were members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes who'd sworn off alcohol. They drove a minivan, and sometime after midnight parked next to the house of several 30-something guys who were actually police in a midwestern town the size of Ukiah.
We followed the girls into this rental pad and were bombarded by the thick atmosphere of dogshit while we watched our female companions recline their tight jeans on the laps of the overgrown cop boys who were watching movies while their dogs free-ranged among old pizza and donut boxes. These girls were trying to teach us some kind of lesson, I mused, and the only one I came away with was the observation that after about 20 minutes in that wretched bungalow I no longer noticed the gut-wrenching emanations. “I got used to the stink,” I said, later. “You can get used to anything.”
This hay baler is somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 years old, maybe a couple turns my younger. Since I purchased the contraption from the Stornettas in Manchester four years ago, I would estimate that it has squeezed out maybe 30,000 bales, give or take. Adding 30 years of service with the big dairy, this machine must have cranked out nearly half a million bales in its life, and it did about 500 more this season before a relatively insignificant little plastic guide wheel, about the size of a roller skate tire, broke off, instigating a chain reaction that shattered vital components. I spent a good ten days in the middle of June, when I should have been either making bales or cultivating rows of tomatoes and cabbages, attempting to reset the chains and timing on the machine, crawling around like an unwilling Charlie Chaplin with a Vermont American crescent wrench manufactured in China to no avail. Even though the timing marks on all the sprockets were reset according to the manual, every trial run only managed a few more bales before shattering more expensive parts until I finally gave up in disgust.
I resorted to cutting and raking the rest of the hay, letting the herd of cows eat the stuff from windrows out in the pastures.
The motif of quitting was reinforced by word in early June that the people who own the Boont Berry farm had never wanted me to keep cows on their land in the first place, that they never would have let me farm there had they known I was going to run livestock like that, and that after nine years they were giving me eviction papers. Maybe I should have gotten into goats instead. You'd be surprised how many people in the progressive food crowd think goats are good and cows are bad.
Fuck it, is about all I can think every morning when I awaken at around five and desperately try to pull enough blankets over my head to return to sleep and forget the farm. Nothing works. I lay there and sweat until six when it is time to start gathering the cows for milking. For eight years I pressed on, trying to restore the old farm to some reasonable level of production even though I knew in the back of my mind that the owners didn't really want some outsider from the midwest calling the shots out there. I deluding my body and intellect with the fiction that if only this or that were improved, if I took out a permit and built a pond to collect winter runoff to avoid to relying on the well. If—. If I just kept hoping I could prove that the work I was doing was valuable…
But just about the time I got the tomatoes in the ground before the last of the late spring rains, I got the news that me and my dogs and cows and boys and the whole enchilada had to be out of there in November. It was a good thing I'd built the pond to catch the winter rain because they said that was the only water I was allowed to use for irrigation.
“Why don't you just quit farming?” asked my second ex after she left me, two years ago. “Now two women have left you.
“Why don't you get it, and just quit?” asked my first ex after she heard that my second ex had left me.
“Spec, I just don't get why you come out here to our farm and work with us,” said an elderly farmer one summer day when I was 18. “Why on earth don't you go get a better job?”
I never knew what to tell people all those years, but on Sunday afternoon it hit me. I realized why I got into farming in the first place. The epiphany occurred while the whole world was watching the World Cup final match between the Spaniards and the Dutch.
There in the heat of the day I was hiding out in a friend's house, trying to forget the farm and the last decade, when we realized that we were out of beer. The Redwood Drive-In was packed, standing room only, the soccer game on the big screen. Gawking there with our brown bags, we saw the contest was in overtime, tied at zero.
“Wow,” we said, and rather than returning to my friend's place, we walked down the highway to a yard where some amigos had pulled the television set into the yard and were brandishing cervesas. They invited us to climb over the chainlink fence, advising us to watch out for our “waybles.”
No sooner had we sat down with the afternoon sun glaring off the screen, revealing our reflections more clearly than the green playing field, and the fellows asked who we were rooting for.
“I don't really care,” I said, shrugging.
“Uh, Spain?” ventured my friend awkwardly. You could tell he only said “Spain” because he naturally assumed his Mexican buddies would be rooting for the Spaniards.
“Fuck Spain!” said the amigos, but their oaths were cut short when a midfielder from Spain sent the ball in the net as overtime was ending. In disbelief, the stunned fellows narrowed their eyes at my friend as if his tentative mention of “Spain” had been responsible for the goal.
We saw one replay after another, and as I watched the Dutch goalie lunge for the ball, impotently deflecting it with the side of his outstretched, desperate hand, I realized why I got into farming. I was 13 and they were just introducing “soccer” to us backward kids in Indiana. I was playing goalie, and two kids from the opposite team came roaring past our defenders, passing the ball back and forth in front of me before aiming the fatal blow.
I sprung. One thing I had in those days was an exceptional leaping ability with legs like a frog. Arms outstretched in pursuit of the ball, sailing like superman without a cape, my forehead rung solid against the steel post of the goal and I dropped, limp to the ground like a bluejay crashing into a big picture window. The ball sailed out of bounds, a fact I learned later. It was quite a while before I came to and saw my classmates standing in a ring of faces fading in and out.
From that day forth I've been obsessed with farming.