If you’ve driven Tenn. Highway 107 along the Nolichucky River you’ve had a chance to notice miles of tomato beds and thousands of tomato stakes.
If even luckier you might catch a glimpse of a crew of field workers. I don’t imagine I want to do that kind of work. It looks hot, too much sun, endless rows, and not a lot of pay. But, necessary work.
Most of us probably do not usually pair tomatoes in the store with some person soaked to the skin from sweat lugging buckets full of tomatoes to the truck doing piece work that would wear out most folks.
We live in a place fortunate enough to see veggies in the field and cows in the pasture. Most Americans are generally disconnected from the food supply just as we’re disconnected from the factory floor that builds our cars. Or our disconnect to energy sources beyond the light switch. This is not a criticism. That we have evolved as a country to bring us food from the West, cars from everywhere, and energy out of the ground or from the sky is a testament to smart, hard-working people. And cleaner water and air than most of us knew 50 years ago.
We probably ought to be a bit glad that we live where farming allows you and me to see what we eat for our meals. Unlike many folks who live in the canyons of New York or Tokyo or Mumbai, we can roam, breath the air, see the sky, smell the rain.
But, all that produce and all that dairy and all that beef we see as we drive around requires water and humans, to flourish and grow. Someone has to pick those tomatoes off that stake. There are only 120 dairy farms in Tennessee. No local dairy in the future? No cheese on your pizza or hamburgers, either. I haven’t noticed almond cheese on the shelf.
We should appreciate the hard work of farming. I cannot imagine spending my entire life, day in, day out, twice a day, milking the cows. There are automated dairy barns in the country but I think the jury is still out about their effectiveness.
We should remember that a grain farmer in the Midwest literally bets the farm every spring as he digs through the myriad of details like interest rates and seed prices and market forecasts and the price of diesel. All I know about the price of a commodity is to look it up in the Wall Street Journal. And that’s semi-Greek to me.
Those kinds of operation also usually require a strong, long-term family commitment. As we all know, the kids tend to migrate away from the farm and the farmer (Dad?) relies on migrant field hands who work hard for not a lot of money (and a wife who works for no money but would probably not want to trade places, either). But some people stick with it and they have my admiration.
We city folks tend to think of visiting the farm as more like a factory tour, everything ready-made for your edification. Except all that other stuff you don’t see: negotiating prices, negotiating loans, laying off the help, a second job to buy your own groceries. Watching the forecast. Ground temperatures. We tend to always get the message that it’s silage and feed in one end and milk out the other.
Do they ever mention culling the herd?
I can recall years ago (and purposely leaving out a detail or two) I was birding out toward Greene County from the Philadelphia community and I could hear this terribly, painful sounding mooing coming from a barn. To my untrained ear is sounded deadly serious. Pretty soon here comes the farmer just brutalizing his pickup truck to get to the barn as fast as he can and pretty soon after that I heard a shot. No more mooing. Didn’t know what the man killed but for all I knew it was his best cow and for all I knew he was sad and angry for doing it. If you’ve ever taken your lifelong best pal to the vet, you know what I mean. That’s not part of the day tour.
The farm, like any other business, much like most of us, is both independent and dependent. Local farmers need land and water to grow hay. Commercial feed is manufactured someplace else. You can’t time the market. The farmer gets all his cards lined up and war erupts in the Middle East and the price of fuel and fertilizer just went through the roof. It must seem to never end.
Sooner perhaps than we might want, these processes will be highly automated. Then what? In the mean time, how about a little show of respect for the men and women who pick that crop or milk that cow.
Charles Moore lives in Johnson City.