Robert’s Farm (III)

Posted: 21 August 2010 in Robert's Farm
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Riding out to the farm yesterday I passed a tomato field just starting to undergo an “industrial harvest”.  That is probably not the term for it but the scale of the operation, and the size and number of heavy pieces of equipment involved seem to make it an apt description of what I saw.  It is tomato harvest time in the valley (a bit late due to chilly weather of late and a showery spring).  It is the time of year when large open bed “hopper” trucks (again, probably not the correct term), each towing another hopper, roll along the county roads day and night loaded with what will become our tomato sauce and paste.

Every intersection and freeway on-ramp is littered with the fruit that could not cling to the top of the pile as the trucks took the corner.  One could manage a fair harvest of usable tomatoes just by biking up and down the county.  The machines that do the harvesting are truly amazing, swallowing plant and fruit in a conveyor system that leaves nothing behind but dirt.  Tractors bring the hoppers to the edge of the field where they are hooked to the trucks and off they go.

Up at Robert’s we harvested… tomatoes.  We worked our way down the rows: Robert, his daughter, a hired hand and yours truly.  We talked. We listened. We watched hawks circle.

“Get two boxes of mixed (yellow and orange) for the fair.”  Robert says to his daughter.  “Make sure they are the big ones.”  He explains that they donate two boxes during the county fair and that they are sliced to put on hamburgers and such.  The rest of the harvest today goes to farmer’s market up in the foothills on Saturday.  The tomatoes are beautiful and I always snag a few that birds have pecked or that are “cosmetically challenged” (as Robert says) to take home.  Sweet and shiny, I don’t mind sharing them with the birds and ugly means very little as a slice lands on my tongue.

Just about when we are finished picking a man pulls up in a farm-sized twin-cab.  He and Robert talk and it seems like a nice neighborly conversation (and it is).  Turns out the tomatoes in the field across the road (a huge field that seems almost a mile square) are not quite ready to be harvested (industrially) and have a fungus they need to spray for right away.  Since Robert’s is a certified organic farm the spraying operator wants to make sure Robert is aware of what’s going on and knows that the wind is not going to send the fungicide onto his farm.  Robert appreciates that and in a few minutes a bright yellow plane is diving towards the adjacent field.  It feels like an impromptu airshow–I can almost imagine someone strapped to the wings as it does loop-the-loops–but this is serious business.

The tomatoes we just picked and the ones across and down the road are about as different as two things can get and still be called the same thing: tomato.  On my way back home the field I had passed earlier is empty.  The harvester, tractors and “hopper” trucks all gone–moving on to the next field as the process continues without let-up for over a month. 

I wonder what all of this is going to look like when my grandson gets to my age.  When he pedals out from town what will he see?  There are lots of disagreements about things like peak oil, our “oil-based” economy and our lubricated industrial ag system.  Will we “run out”?  Not sure that is the right question but can we (should we) continue the industrial form of food production that is so in evidence around Robert’s farm?  The facile answer is that we must… After all, we “feed the world” this way and the world isn’t getting any less populated.  The harder answer is that we can’t, and so we need to begin imagining how we are going to change things.  I would say we are not yet ready to have that conversation–to start that imagining.

So what will my grandson see?  Maybe he will see his workplace; a field in which he and others pick tomatoes by hand.  We don’t want to let our minds go there do we?  After all, this implies that we will have “regressed” 100 years into the labor-intensive ag practices of the past and we all know that won’t work.  Don’t we? (In fact some people would probably get angry at me for suggesting that my grandson will not be “better off” than I am.  It seems sacrilegious to even say such a thing.)

I am not sure what we “know” about any of this.  One thing we do know is that we are not accounting correctly for the true cost of our current industrial system.  Wendell Berry concluded this in an essay entitled “The Necessity of Agriculture”, published in the December, 2009 issue of Harpers:

(A)gri-industry is a package containing far more than its label confesses. In addition to an array of labor-saving or people-replacing devices and potions, it has given us massive soil erosion and degradation, water pollution, maritime hypoxic zones; destroyed rural communities and cultures; reduced our farming population almost to disappearance; yielded toxic food; and instilled an absolute dependence on a despised and exploited force of migrant workers.

This is not, by any accounting, a bargain. Maybe we have begun to see that it is not, but we have only begun. We have ahead of us a lot of hard work that we are not going to be able to do with clean hands. We had better try to love it.

Maybe that is what I am doing out at Robert’s farm–hoping to fall in love…


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