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do not farm. it will crush your soul.

February 24, 2014

I wrote this post last June, as I was trying to make sense of something awful that happened on the farm. I will warn you now, it’s a little disturbing, so if you’re looking for some light reading — this isn’t it. But if you are a young person considering starting a farm, read it. You should know what you’re getting yourself into!

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I am writing to say:  do not farm.  It will crush your soul.  For three reasons.

1)  The first problem with farming is that it is incompatible with modern life.

Yes, there is that thing where you spend Friday nights harvesting vegetables instead of going out; where you work weekends and weekdays sunup to sundown; where vacations are complicated by the fact that you a) have little money and b) have to hire an entire army to take care of your beets/goats/cows/chickens/farmstand/markets while you are gone.

But parents of young children don’t often go out on Friday nights; there are other vocations that yield little money; and other people sometimes hire armies to take care of their homes in their absence. So none of those things are unique to farming. Farming’s incompatibility with modern life runs deeper.

As a farmer, you will occasionally go to the city. In the city, you will realize that you have become a country bumpkin; you do not understand this pace of life, you do not understand that some people are responsible to and for only themselves. You will go to the grocery store and wonder how any of this makes sense. How many cows were milked together into the tank that this gallon of milk came from? How many cows are in this carton? You will wonder why no one is asking these questions. What was your name, cow? Where do you live? You will wonder at the fact that most of the people buying milk have never touched a cow; have never placed their cheek against the soft side of an animal and smelled the sweet musk of her as they trap milk in her teats and squeeze it out into the silver bucket. Psh, psh.

2)  The second problem with farming is that you will become far too comfortable with death.

More so than most — save, perhaps, the climbers of Everest or those who still sail the seven seas — farmers live on the edge of survival. Is this just melodrama? No. Farmers are constantly surrounded by entropy. We wage war against insects to protect our precious plants. We harvest those plants, then till them into the soil, burying them.  As cultivators of life, we are constantly thwarting and constantly hastening death.

More problematic than our proximity to death is the role we play in it.  As a farmer, you quickly learn the terrible power you wield. You are the lord of your kingdom; judge, jury, and executioner.  A rooster attacks you so you mete out punishment: off with his head, his body boiled in the stew pot. What begins as justice morphs into a commitment to quality. ‘Breeding program’ means keeping the strong, and ingesting the weak.

Then, one fine day, you will learn that you can put a bullet through the head of an hours-old baby goat who has just learned to walk.  By all rights, she should grow up, produce offspring, spend quiet minutes each morning in the milk room grinding away at her grain as her udder empties out into the milk pail.

But none of these things will happen, because she has an umbilical hernia. Her intestines are sliding out of her body: wet ropy coils, unwinding. It is nighttime. You have a .22. She is suffering. And her suffering arms you with a terrible knowledge — that leaders must be able, in a moment, to shut off their emotions.

You kill her, and yet you feel nothing — nothing, perhaps, but a distant horror, a vague unease. This is tragic! You should cry! But you did not cry and you felt nothing because to feel something would be to admit too much. It would require admitting that life really is that fragile; that the world really is that cruel. There is no meaning to be found in a tiny creature with so much will to live and so much brokenness in her body, whose only destiny is to be shot in the head in the middle of the night in a hasty, shallow grave dug across the road. There is no greater good, no feast deriving from this death, no meat to share from these brand new bones, no happy life with one bad day.

There is only the one bad day. And three bullets, because the breath did not stop after one.

3)  The third problem with farming is you can never go back.

The trouble is, farming is addictive. Like a gambler you get yourself in so deep — poker chips of livestock, infrastructure, equipment — you can’t get out, except by continuing to play the game.

But the addiction is psychological, too. As a farmer you find yourself deeply connected: to plants, animals, death, life, the universe, and everything. Everything needs you. The goats need you daily: to be fed, to be given water, to be milked. The plants need water and food too, in their own way.  But those are the obvious things that need you, the things that are most like your own children, organisms that live and reproduce and grow old and die. But they are not the only things needing you. Fences and tractors need you. Shovels and shears need you. In a strange way, the land itself needs you: it calls out to be worked.

Even if you did not farm it, even if it were not cultivated, the land would need you to manage it, for trees fall on power lines and fences. And if you do not believe in those things, fine: let the trees fall where they may. But trespassers leave behind half-empty handles of drug store vodka, and those, I think we can all agree, need to be removed.

You are connected to all of this: the animals and the plants and the fences and the vodka.  To dissever yourself from these things would leave you lost. Walking away from farming would untether you, and while it would free you, perhaps you have come to fear freedom. Perhaps you have learned the value of roots. Perhaps to pull up those roots would make you feel like you were walking into a life of quiet vacancy, if not outright desperation.

In these ways, farming crushes your soul. If you love and hate those roots, if you can’t imagine life without them; if you have a personal hierarchy of life (bug, plant, chicken, turkey, cat, goat, dog, us) and you thank God when you find out from your spouse that it’s just a laying hen he’s burying, and not a dog or a goat; if you can do what needs being done, when it needs to be done, no matter how horrid…

Then I’m sorry, dear soul, for you too are a farmer.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2014 10:36 am

    Dammit Lynda! I’ve been struggling with the fact that death and killing some animals has become a rather numb feeling for me. This weekend we helped a friend slaughter some of her old hens. They had names. She was attached to them. She was visibly upset but knew it had to be done. On the other hand, I felt nothing except for a bit of awkwardness at the nursery when I realized I had left the house before having the chance to wash the blood splatter off of my arms and change my blood splattered clothes. I was a bit horrified that while my friend was having a hard time as we slaughtered her pet chickens that I just didn’t feel anything. I wasn’t happy or morose. I just knew it was something we had to do and I was there just to get it done. Goats aren’t as easy, but the chickens, rabbits and turkeys…I just do what has to get done.

  2. drdean permalink
    February 24, 2014 11:38 am

    wonderful piece. but the goats don’t ‘need’ to be milked.

    • February 24, 2014 12:30 pm

      That is true. You do not need to milk goats. But once you do commit to milking them once or twice a day, then they need to be milked regularly — a lesson I learned firsthand. (I’m the only mammal that has ever come down with mastitis on the farm… Because I wasn’t as careful with my own routine as I am with the goats’!)

  3. Daniel permalink
    February 25, 2014 8:45 am

    Not just one, but two fulfilling and valuable and productive talents/occupations; a good farmer, and a good writer.

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