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Farm to Table
Back to September-October 2021
Charlie bentley was a Vermont dairy farmer. He rented a small barn next to the Green River. His herd of dairy cows numbered no more than 25—he called them in every morning and evening, opening the barn doors, the cows already assembled just outside like kids on the last day of school. Occasionally, a reluctant heifer had to be coaxed with the worn end of a milk machine strap, but, as a rule, each cow moved to its stanchion and got busy lapping up the grain that I had deposited minutes before, their tongues rolling over the feed, dusting their bristled lips.
Looking back, it wasn’t much of an operation. I was in charge of mucking out the barn, shoveling the mostly liquid manure up into the overhead bucket that hung from the ancient rail, leading out to the horse-drawn manure wagon, some of it landing on my head and shoulders. As Charlie used to say about horses versus tractors, “Well, on a cold morning, at least you know a horse will start.” It was hardscrabble farming at best, with a 1949 Farmall tractor, the kind with centered, canted wheels up front, designed to flip over on a steep hill. Floyd Bentley, who also lived in our town, mowed, raked and tedded with a team—he never liked engines. He spoke to the horses with a voice that was almost below hearing range and overshadowed by the clicking of the sickle-bar mower.
When food writers and chefs talk about farm to table, I suspect they imagine some halcyon farm, the sort of operation that Martha Stewart would run. (She once invited me to her place in Westport, Connecticut—the henhouse was so clean she could have turned it into a summer rental.) But farming is full of manure, mud, blood, large stubborn animals, dangerous equipment and days when things just never go right. Nor does it offer much in the way of vacations, afternoon naps or lantern-lit dinners. It’s first and foremost about hard work and hard choices, trying to scratch a living from the soil, 365 days per year. A former employee of mine left to run a farm in Amish country with her husband. A year later, she told me about having to hand-pull 10,000 heads of garlic to sell to buy heating oil for a winter spent in a farmhouse that was half-fallen-down (or half-renovated, depending on how you looked at it).
The small farm provides grit, challenge and the fruits of our labor. When you get good at it, you can smell incoming weather, know whether a goat is going to birth during the day or night, and pinpoint when the last frost has come and gone. Farming isn’t pretty—it’s about picking rocks, plowing under ruined crops, gutting pigs, dispatching chickens, putting up gallons of fruits and vegetables and sitting down around the kitchen table with the bills, trying to make ends meet. This is not a rich person’s game.
But we need small farms to remind us that human life is built on a foundation of soil. Life begins with soil for growing and grazing, for absorbing rainfall and replenishing aquifers, for sustaining forests and grasslands. The small farmer touches the soil, kneads it by hand to test its worth, smells it and washes it off before midday dinner, scrubbing beneath the fingernails where it comes to rest.
Without this connection, we, in the words of Charlie Bentley, “start to act foolish.” We personify nature as kind, thoughtful, even a mother. Nature is none of these things—it runs the gamut from unspeakably cruel to transcendent. To fashion a livelihood, to craft enthusiasm for existence, to triumph against the odds—these are the lessons of the family farm. Farmers understand their dependency on what lies beneath, on the vagaries of nature’s benign neglect of our well-being, and on the fragility of the partnership between soil and life.
So please support your local farmer. Go to the markets and look at the hands of the people who grow our food—weathered, scratched; reminders in the flesh of what it takes to sustain life. Do this, if you like, just because the food tastes better. But also do it as a reminder that life here on earth is both tenuous and divine.September-October 2021