This winter I was reading George Eliot’s magnificent shadow-box of English rural life at the turn of the 19th century, Adam Bede, when I came across a quote that made me laugh out loud. Mrs. Poyser, the sharp-witted, sharp-tongued farmer’s wife, having been praised for the flavor of her whey, says,
“Ay, ay, the smell o’ bread’s sweet to everybody but the baker. The Miss Irwines always say, “O, Mrs. Poyser, I envy you your dairy; and I envy you your chickens; and what a beautiful thing a farmhouse is, to be sure!” An’ I say, “Yis, a farmhouse is a fine thing for them as look on, and don’t know the liftin’ and the stannin’, an’ the worritin o’ th’ inside, as belongs to’t.”
Ah, Mrs. Poyser, that, at least, hasn’t changed in 200 years.
A farm is magical, there’s no use denying that. It speaks to something in us to see rows of crops or pastures of animals, the work of growing things laid out in (hopefully) tidy rows and blocks. To see someone’s farm is to glimpse plans made into action, work going forward. We all understand the feeling of goals being met, of someone working out their dream. We all understand hope and grit in the face of uncertainty. Raise all that by flowers, and it’s magical and romantic in the extreme.
But farms are also, cue Mrs. Poyser, a ton of work and worry. Any grower who interacts directly with her customers has the joy and burden of representing her farm to them, and there are two temptations that come with that. One temptation is to ride the “magical and romantic” pony to the sunset, showing only the beauty and order that does exist on a farm. Closeups of flowers, a rainbow over orderly just-planted rows, the finished bouquet, stripped of the work it took to get it finished. The farmer, inexplicably dressed in clean clothes, hair and makeup perfect, standing in the field pretending to farm.
The other is to constantly show the grind, the grit, and constantly remind one’s customers that this. is. hard. It’s not negativity if it’s the truth, this temptation whispers. You want to see sweat? I got it. You want to see dirt, and scraped arms, and battered dreams? I can show you those. If I don’t show you the hard part, maybe you’ll think, when it comes time to purchase my flowers, that I was just playing out here in the field, and won’t understand their value. There’s the temptation to hold you by the back of the neck and make you see.
But I am also a follower, and customer, of other farms, and what I want to see is balance. I do want to see the truth, to worry (some) over their crops and animals with them, but I also very much want to see the beauty that they get to see every day. Let me in, I think. Not to stay, I don’t want to live in their world, but I want to feel that I’ve visited. And I know that everything in life is a mixture of the achingly beautiful and the disappointing. Why would a farm be any different? To me, what’s real, what’s telling the unvarnished truth, is beautiful.
Perhaps you feel the same? Until you tell me differently, I’m going to work from the assumption that you do.
This weekend, after a couple of weeks of warm weather, the nighttime temperature was predicted to plunge to near 20. In that beautiful, teasing spring, several of the early varieties of peonies had shot up, some of them to nearly knee-high. A deep freeze like that could damage buds, keeping the plants from blooming this year. Whenever this happens, I think of the peach farmers who farmed this land before me. This unpredictable spring, with its warm spells followed by iron freezes, is exactly what brought Inman’s peach industry to its knees.
I’m lucky in that I’m farming a crop that never grows more than about three and a half feet high, and can be covered. Peach trees aren’t so easy to protect from Jack Frost.
This time of year, every year, I begin to try to look for a better frost mitigation system. There are frost fans that mix the warmer air above into the cold air at ground level. There are five-gallon-sized candles that can be placed throughout a field and lit, giving just enough heat to keep the killing ice at bay. I see photos on the internet of darkened vineyards, with anxious farmers silhouetted against smoky fires in the cold and frightening hours before dawn. I feel you, I think. If you lose your grapes, then what?
I always look for a better system, but so far what I’ve actually done is wrestle frost cloth over those tender shoots, weigh it down with whatever heavy is at hand, and hope that some combination of the peonies’ native toughness and the frost cloth’s bit of protection pulls them through. So this is what I did all afternoon Saturday in the wind as the temperature dropped; covered, secured, weighed, and then came in the house to warm up and hope.
On Instagram, I watched as my farmer friends in Greenville, Columbia, Asheville, and Atlanta fretted over and covered their crops too. Good luck, I thought. See you all in the morning.
In the morning, there was good and bad news, as any farmer has come to expect. Some of my farmer friends’ crops had pulled through unexpectedly, some had been pulped by the cold. Here, the peonies that aren’t old enough for cutting this year and were uncovered were frozen through. Those under the cloth had had a fine night, and were ready to keep a-growin’.
Peonies are pretty tough, and the frozen ones sprang back quickly. That’s a kind of resilience I could learn, I thought. That’s a kind of resilience I must learn, if I want to keep farming.
And I come back to Mrs. Poyser, with her claim that nobody knows the trouble she’s seen. This weekend was tough, and scary, but it was also its own kind of beautiful. So many of you sent me hearts and praying hands on Instagram when I posted that the peonies were swaddled for the night. So many of you checked right back in in the morning to make sure they were ok. We’re all pulling for these scrappy plants, all looking forward to six weeks from now, when they reward our work and worry with blooms that blow our minds.
So I think, maybe, you’re getting it. I think, in engaging with a farm and farmer closely like this, you understand that a farm isn’t all product, all fluffy magical bouquets of flowers that came from nowhere. You understand that there’s a fair amount of “worritin’ o’ the inside” that goes along with it, and I appreciate your willingness to look closely. There are flowers, and there is dirt, and we find them, always, in the same place.
Thank you for worrying with me. What Mrs. Poyser needed was friends like you.
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