I'm a Farmer
I’m a farmer.
I used to be a teacher when I was younger and had a lot more get-up-and-go, but I got fed up with the strings that were attached to my hands and feet-but not my brain-to better “guide” me in the direction the state felt was best, which was standardized testing.
Thanks, but gosh, no thanks.
So I cut the strings and repaired to the farm. Two years ago almost to the day, I began a series of blog posts on HappyDay Farms, and in the inaugural piece, I wrote the following:
“What we also get plenty of around here is harmony and humor to go with the hard work and long hours. I say “we” in the general sense of the word. I leave the farm work to the younger set, while I do those tasks that are more age-appropriate for a gray-beard. I did move and stack those three cords of oak/madrone, and I have been carving steps into the newly-terraced back yard, or west-40, to make it easier to move compost and nutrients around the site. I have also begun the spring weed-eating process, but most of the time I am more likely to be found cleaning up after meals, sweeping and mopping the floors of the inevitable mud, or otherwise keeping things flowing on the domestic front.”
That was then-this is now.
When I alluded to the “younger set” in the passage above, I was talking primarily about twenty-something guys and gals, many of whom have taken up residence on-farm. With better than two acres of terraced rows, all more or less south-facing, there is a volume of manual labor that can only be imagined.
And therein lies the problem: By employing farmhands the work got done, but there was nothing left in the coffers after all was said and done, except for the food we ate. That’s no lightweight accomplishment, but it still does not pay the bills that extend beyond food.
We employ no machinery in the farming process. The farm does have a couple of rototillers that have been utilized in the past, but we got over that. My limited experience with the ‘tiller led me to conclude that it was a clear case of the law of diminishing returns: I spent more time extracting rocks from the blades than I did turning the soil.
If rocks were a farmer’s best friend, I’d never have to buy another round in Boomer’s as long as I lived. As it is, the pitchfork remains my implement of destruction and I am pleased to announce I have not impaled either of my sandaled feet-yet.
But I’m not here to prattle on about my feet-the subject today is the therapeutic value of hard work, and the hidden benefits from what can only be described as back-breaking labor.
Back in 2003 I injured my right shoulder by simply overdoing it one weekend. I spent ten hours a day for a long three-day weekend, hauling out a madrone tree from a creek-bed, after it had been rounded out by the chain-sawing crew.
Annie was at a conference and the boys were all off at school so I had the homestead to myself. I decided to leave the house on hold and just gravitate to the work site, where I had water, music and job security.
I was so intent on the job at hand that I failed to heed the warning signs that I was straining my right shoulder with all of the unaccustomed effort of hauling fat rounds of madrone up a sixty-foot trail out of the creek-bed.
My left shoulder remained fine because it is my dominant shoulder, but what happened was that by going on for too long, I stretched the muscles holding my right arm into the shoulder socket, out to the point where they no longer were doing their job, which is to hold the arm securely in place within the socket.
As a result my labrum, another name for the socket, became chipped and frayed, allowing my arm to ride the rim of the labrum, in danger of popping out and dislocating the shoulder. I generally prefer to describe pain as discomfort, but there was no getting around the fact that I was experiencing a much greater level of pain with this shoulder than I ever did when I blew out the anterior cruciate ligament of my left knee.
Ever since then I have had limited use of my right arm, particularly when it comes to raising it any higher than waist level. As long as my right arm remains in a downward position, with my elbow as close to my side as possible, I’m good to go. Think of Tyrannosaurus Rex, if that helps.
Here is where the plot thickens. Combine the decision to eliminate the vast majority of outside farm labor, with the springtime’s sense of urgency to prepare the soil for summer’s bounty, and I found myself volunteering to try and get the terraces in my immediate back yard, prepped for spring planting.
I felt it was the least I could do, even though I genuinely thought I would only get to a certain point before I was forced to abandon ship. Last August when I was doing the hardy-board on the outside of Lito’s workshop, I aggravated that right shoulder to the point that I had to cinch my right arm to my side so as to immobilize it.
But what was I doing? I was working off a ladder with my arms functioning way above the safe level, reaching up to hold the boards in place with right arm, while drilling in screws with my left. My shoulder ached all the way to Christmas.
What am I doing now? I am working with my arms straight down, my right arm on the lowest point of the pitchfork that I can manage. My back picks up the slack, but I am fortunate at 63 years of age, to be able to still bend over far enough while in the shower, that I can keep my legs straight and scrub the backs of my heels with a brush, to try and wash off the accumulated soil.
So because I am still so limber, I can thrust the fork all the way to the hilt, bend over and twist the forkful of soil up out of the ground, and over so as to break up the clay and get rid of rocks. That’s the first time through in March.
The second time through in April is to mix the compost, rice hulls, worm castings and amendments into the soil, so as to prep it for planting. I am prepping soil in three sites: my backyard, the terraces below Casey’s house and the new parcel that Lito and Casey bought a couple of years ago.
Altogether that means there are eighteen terraces, each averaging seventy-five feet long by eight feet wide. That’s 10,800 square feet of soil. Oh, and I got to do it twice.
Seriously, when I began, I was only focused on my own spot, but it went so well, I kept going, much to everyone on the farm’s utter shock. The first week I overdid it twice, stretching my work day out to almost six hours, and both times I had to hit the cannabis tincture to contend with discomfort.
But I found that by not working more than four hours turning soil per day, that I did not experience shoulder discomfort. I didn’t dare say anything to anyone, for fear of breaking the spell. I kept plugging on and my shoulder got stronger and stronger, and gave me less grief than I had experienced in more than thirteen years.
What was happening here? How could I be putting all this pressure on the shoulder without it giving out? The answer is that by doing the repetitive motion, at a safe functioning level below my waist, I was building up those very muscles that I had stretched out of shape back in the day, when I was still a schoolteacher.
In doing rehab immediately after the surgery, I concentrated on simply getting the shoulder mobile again, but did not approach the level of conditioning that I was attaining now. The more I worked that pitchfork, the more I built up the muscles in those arms, specifically the right one.
I get a lot of satisfaction out of expanding my role on the farm. I may be a graybeard, but that doesn’t mean squat.
I’m a farmer and I’m damned proud of it.