Thursday, May 07, 2009


Farmers in Pennsylvania

Long time readers will remember that I had tremendous difficulty adjusting to life in NYC last summer after losing my father and spending time at our farm during harvest. My husband has grown accustomed to my "enthusiasms," but there were a few evenings where he had to convince me that, no, we were not going to leave New York City to raise gourmet tomatoes like Tim Stark.

Through the wonder that is GoogleEarth, I was able to spend some time looking at the farm where Eric lives. Eric harvests our wheat.

For the uninitiated, let me explain. Eric lives in Pennsylvania. Our wheat farm is in Nebraska (and Colorado).

Eric, like some ship's captain of yore, gets his crew together each spring, then begins to follow the ripening wheat belt across the US. Here is a map in his office, with push pins stuck in at each of the farms he visits.

I generally love maps; this one was fun because it was 3 dimensional. Our farm is marked here with a yellow push pin. I asked Eric why our farm got a yellow pin, and he said: "Yellow means special," then confessed that he had simply run out of red pins. Seeing the country like this, with all its mountains, deserts and plains made me nostalgic for the many road trips I took as a child, and I began plotting how, for example, I could drive to Santa Fe to see my friend, the poet Orlando, over the summer. Then it occurred to me that it would probably be 105 in Santa Fe and my husband might not like it if I started driving around from place to place for weeks on end.

Eric and his wife Emily took my mother and me to see a number of things in the area where they live, including this Case dealership, which provides the combines Eric uses to cut wheat. I liked this photo because the golf cart gives you a sense of just how large the equipment is that farmers use.

Eric also had a great deal of fun telling people that he was entertaining one of his "farmers," then producing yours truly for introduction; I am, of course, not at all what anyone envisions when thinking about farmers. But I also love it when things aren't what they seem, and it was a very fun game to play.

We visited the large Brubaker dairy farm, which is powered from methane gas converted from cow dung. This is, apparently, one of the many ways in which science and agriculture are working together to find "green" ways to power industry. I had many questions--most notably how cost effective all of this is. Still, it's an interesting experiment and I'll be curious to see how something like this develops and expands.

I have a hard time remembering that livestock are also "farmed." I have this bias, I suppose, that agriculture is farming, but suspect that's mostly due to my upbringing. But cows, chickens and hogs are all farmed, and I will have to spend some time thinking about how I feel about this. We visited a few dairy farms. I would say that the happiest cows I saw were definitely the three pictured above at Hershey's Chocolate World, where I ate a very nice chocolate bar. Seriously, though, one of the reasons that there are so many dairies in Lancaster County, is because of the Hershey's Chocolate factory--and M&M and Mars too.

I did not realize just how powerful Hershey is. There is the town of Hershey, with chocolate kiss shaped streetlights. There is a hospital. And there is also the Milton Hershey School, founded in 1909, initially for orphans, but which now functions as a series of group homes and a school for children whose parents cannot care for them.

According to Wikipedia:

A married houseparent couple with child care experience provides full-time supervision for each residence, caring for 9 to 13 children of the same gender, and about the same age. A student will share his (or her) bedrooms with one or two other students.

That's some job.

We also had fun visiting Darren, who was on Eric's combine crew last year, and kept a blog of his adventures which my mother and I followed religiously after Eric left Nebraska for Idaho.

Darren grew up in Lancaster County, on a farm. Here he is wearing his CIA shirt, which means "Christ is Alive," and posing next to a tomato seeder. The trays are put into a greenhouse, where they sprout . . .

. . . and then the seedlings are planted via this intricate looking machine. I thought of my father, and how he enjoyed seeing and understanding how things work, and how he would have appreciated this planter. Tomatoes, unlike wheat, take an enormous amount of handwork. We certainly don't raise wheat seedlings, for example. This would be one reason why tomatoes are such a pain to farm--and why they are so expensive.

Darren's brother is a licensed helicopter pilot, and will take out this little flyer to spray fields. My mother said: "Oh! He must make a good date for girls!" Me, I was thinking about Luke targeting womprats back in Beggar's Canyon.

Lancaster County is also Amish country. Eric had arranged for us to meet with a lovely tour guide, Jim, and his wife, Effie, who took us to meet some Amish farmers. I told my mother she could spot an Amish farm because it would generally not have an electrical line running to the house. I think it was easier to pick out the houses by the kind of laundry hanging on the line outside--it was easily 95 degrees that day and everyone had something out to dry.

I had a long conversation with Samuel (who I could not photograph) and we spoke about the differences and similarities in our farming techniques. Samuel has about 40 acres, which is pretty much what his mules can handle. We have, um, much more than that. But Samuel believes firmly in no till farming, which we also practice. With no till, basically, farmers do not till the land, but kill weeds with herbicides, then plant seed directly into the ground. Believe it or not, this has been found to be a more environmentally friendly way to farm and Scientific American has made it the subject of their cover story this month.

It's interesting. Here's an Amish farmer with his 19th century tactics and mules, and we with our $250K combines, all farming the same way. Note, though, that the Amish farmer has steel wheels on his "tractor." This is because air tires would be "too easy." I pushed a little bit and asked Samuel where he got his chemicals, and it did eventually come out that he had to purchase them from an "Englisher," (ie anyone who is not Amish, even me).

Here, by contrast, is Eric's brother and yours truly sitting in a tractor with air conditioning, rubber tires and no mules, planting corn via no till farming (the earth has not been tilled).

The corn is pre-treated with some kind of pesticide (I think). I did not realize that most corn here is raised as "silage" ie fermented feed used to fatten up cows. Because the only farm I have really ever known is in Nebraska, and because we really don't have animals out there--just cash crops--I was unaccustomed to thinking in this Pennsylvania way where animals, crops and industry all work together. In Nebraska, our wheat gets hauled into the Coop bins by the train tracks, and then is sold and dumped into a train car and swept off to Chicago (or somewhere). No one is making chocolate or tomatoes in western Nebraska.

After planting, Eric dug around in the ground to make sure that the corn seed was properly spaced. Sooner or later, every farmer can be photographed in this position (scroll down if you click).

The Amish can't use rubber tires, and they also can't ride bicycles. This would be "too fast" and "too modern." They use scooters, and learning this was the point at which my mother sort of lost her patience with the Amish thing. She understands the value of a strict culture. "But," she said, "Japan is contributing to world and global advancement." The Amish are allowed to get some Englisher to take them in a mini-van across the country. They are allowed to let others drive them to the hospital. But they themselves do not drive (once they are accepted into the church, ie young and unbaptized men may drive) and my mother thought that this was cheating. If you are going to be hard core, she said, then be hard core. You can't have it both ways.

She also said—and I love this quote—"The world is more alive than you are. What makes you think it is okay to limit yourself?" I like this notion that it is false pride which keeps us from trying to learn about others. For my mother, true humility demands that we challenge ourselves to learn more, not less.

She wondered how happy the Amish really were. Eric assured her that they are very happy. "They have a lot of holidays," he said. And indeed, here is a sign outside an Amish bakery listing dates that the store will be closed, including Ascension day.

This particular store had a number of "star decorations" for sale; the star seems to be a popular motif in Lancaster County. Look, for example, at the star hanging on the side of Eric's barn in the photo above.

Among the things I always love about farm country: hand made goods. Women here know how to bake and sew and, in Amish country, how to quilt. Everywhere we went, there were quilts for sale. I thought to myself that if I lived here, I would probably add quilting to my hand-craft obsessions, and then I thought of Jane Smiley and how she learned to quilt when she lived in upstate New York. (I think it was upstate New York).

People do knit out here, but quilting seems to be the high art to which women aspire.

At night, each window of each house is lit up with a candle--electric now, but wax originally. It all made for an inviting atmosphere. The clean air, the stars on the houses and barns, the animals, the candles. We had a wonderful time, and look forward to visiting in the fall, once Eric and Emily have returned home from their travels. But for now, I will look forward to seeing them at harvest time, now a mere two months away.

Safe travels to everyone.

Absolutely wonderful, Marie.
Thanks, Scott! Hope you are surviving wherever you are, and that an XBox will soon deliver you from boredom.
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