On Saturday morning the boys made a beeline for the Boonville Farmers' Market once they'd stuffed their guts on blueberry pancakes at the General Store. For unsocial parents like me who never seem to feel like making play dates the Farmers Market is a convenient and safe way to distract the kids. Sometimes, though, our mere presence at the market necessitates exchanging greetings with what is primarily the huggie-smoochie crowd. This particular Saturday Bill Seekins had set up his antique but still operating, manually cranked seed cleaner, and the boys gravitated around to help while Rob Goodell unveiled a tarp load of wheat they'd grown on a small plot up Lambert Lane. He'd cut the wheat but not threshed it.
For the record I'm not accusing Rob or Bill of being the huggie-smoochie types.
“This is just a seed cleaner,” said Bill. “You got to thresh it first.”
So the boys joined Rob in rubbing the wheat heads between their hands, and I watched with the sense of satisfaction a parent gets when their children are occupied. After a minute I couldn't help commenting they ought to get baseball bats and start whacking the pile of straw that way. “That's what they did back in the day,” I said. “The tarp will hold the grain. I got a bunch of bats back at the farm.”
“Well, you want me to drive over and get them?”
“Naw,” I said. I wouldn't have the same smug feeling of stress free parenting watching the boys swing baseball bats around with a crowd of eager onlookers snapping pictures with their cell phones. “You know, I bet if you all just jumped on it…”
The boys and Rob started hopping on the pile of loose straw like it was a trampoline. I would have joined them but I was wearing flip-flops, which gave me an idea. “You know we could strap bricks to the bottom of their shoes. Shit, if the wheat was tied in shocks it'd be a lot easier to thrash because you could focus on the one end.”
“Yeah,” said Rob, always philosophical, who was also wearing flip-flops and taking a break from stomping the straw, “Feel like I already got bricks on my feet. I'm still at the level of a monkey when it comes to this stuff. I know if I look in a tree and see red or green fruit, pick red. But this processing, you can see that at every step it really pays to know all the tricks.”
All the same, when we raked the straw back there was a fair amount of wheat and chaff to dump into the seed cleaner. The boys took turns cranking the mechanism while I stood back and watched the trickle of wheat berries drop into a five gallon bucket. It really was a trickle, and a good thing Rob had a sense of humor about the whole deal. Maybe half an hour of sifting, stomping, and rattling in a cloud of chaff and dust produced about as much wheat as the boys had scarfed down earlier in the form of pancakes. After the wheat, they cleaned about three gallons of oats from Tom Brewer's little test plot, a few gallons of black turtle beans that Seekins had grown, then maybe ten pounds of canola seeds. This ate up the rest of the morning, as the sun burned the fog away and I peeled flannels off, arms folded in front of my chest, growing gradually more and more impatient, thinking Christ — I wonder if anybody would mind if I ran over to Pic 'n' Pay to grab a 32oz of beer?
People were hugging and smooching and congratulating one another all around and I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide from that stuff. My mood was darkened because everybody was talking about the big Local Foods dinner planned for the Toll House on Sunday afternoon, and they were telling me how I should go and get to know the Rubensteins who had bought the property and were maybe looking for a real farmer to sort of manage the place as a “farm school.”
The Rubensteins were really nice people, they said. The problem was I knew there was no way I'd be able to keep my cool around the cheerful Local Foods crowd for a whole afternoon. There are very few actual farmers (people making a living by WORKING DAILY with tools, livestock, row crops or what have you) involved in the Local Foods movement, and of that number I doubted many of them would feel any different from how I do about attending a celebration of all the great shit we've done or grown or butchered. Too much back patting and stroking, too many happy people in close proximity for too long.
“Dude, you ain't goin up there, are ya?” asked a friend who was planning to help me haul the International tractor over to his place. “That ain't your scene.”
So on Sunday afternoon I declined what might have been an invitation to mingle with everybody who was anybody in the local foods movement, and my friends showed up with a flatbed trailer. She was driving her rig, and he had a twelve pack of beer as well as one of the batteries from his diesel truck. He brought the battery because I thought the one in the tractor might be bad. I wasn't sure. Ironically just about the time in July I finally said to hell with all the crops and let the cows and sheep eat them down, the tractor mysteriously wouldn't start one day when I'd been planning to hill up the potatoes. It was a mystery. The battery wasn't dead. I thought it must be a bad connection somewhere, cleaned the terminals, clamped those babies on, and nothing. So I said to hell with everything. Then a month later, on a 100° afternoon, on a hunch I tried turning the key for shits and giggles, as they say, and wouldn't you know she cranked over? Then a week later, nothing. Now with the new battery and even new terminal clamps, nothing. My friend took a screwdriver across the positive and negative on the solenoid, got a shower of sparks but still nothing.
“Might be the starter,” he said.
So we hitched a chain from the back of the trailer behind her truck to the rear end of the tractor, and I climbed on her, throwing her in reverse. With a beer in one hand it was a little difficult to turn the ignition switch to the left and activate the glow plugs while holding the manual steering wheel with the other while she pulled the truck forward and I pressed on the clutch, but that was mostly because the can was too full. Once we were rolling, I let go of the key and clutched the squirrelly steering wheel, letting off the clutch. It turned over once or twice. She sped up the next try, and we got some smoke out of the muffler. The third time we got her humming, unchained the deal, and my friends hustled a pair of ramps out the back of her truck, setting them up on the rear of the flatbed trailer.
“This tractor's got a light front end,” I said. “Maybe I better back it up the ramps. Don't think I can do that with a beer in my hand.”
“This is better than the movies,” said my friend's lady, having a seat on a concrete slab next to the empty diesel-dispensing tank. “You guys are slapstick.”
We were just getting started with the latter. It turned out the ramps they'd brought were constructed for things like ATV four wheelers, and when the weighted rear tires of the tractor started grabbing the ramps they bent like banana peels, so my friend had me pull forward so he could flip them over and have me back over them again, more or less returning them straight. I said I had a few sturdy steel ramps lying around, and they might as well take them anyway since I'm basically moving everything off the farm. The only problem was these were shorter, and the angle was too improbably steep, so we took a few wooden blocks and put them under the bottom end of the ramps before I tried backing the rig up on the trailer. Somehow it all worked. We decided to leave the tractor running and just cinch the chains down as well as possible so they'd be able to drive it off the trailer at their farm and park it somewhere handy. I guess they made the destination safely. ¥¥