Friday, May 11, 2012

Life on the Prairie

There's an ebb and flow, a natural rhythm to life, that I think most people have gotten away from.  But nothing jerks you back to nature like farming.  Today is a slow, lazy day at our house.  It's steadily raining outside and this is our planting rain.  In a day or so family life will explode like a run away train moving 180 mph as my husband hustles to put cotton seed in the ground while the earth is still wet enough to nurture the seed.  And around here, that clock ticks by fast.  So today we're taking it easy, marshaling our resources, and just enjoying the sounds and smells of the rain.

A listed field, ready to be planted.
Life is very much like this for the farmer.  There are periods of near-frenzied activity, times of dogged endurance work, and times of rest and restoration.  We're never sure exactly when these times will be though we know the general seasons.  From February to sometime in May is endurance.  We work slowly, steadily, to prepare the land.  Sometime in May we'll get a planting rain if we're lucky.  This is at least 1/2" of rain that ideally falls over the course of a day or two so that it can soak in.  During the planting rain we rest, storing energy for the big push ahead because once the land is dry enough to run a tractor over we will be frantically working for a few weeks to get the seed in the ground before you lose the moisture.  We will work long hours, rising before the sun and working after its setting.  This portion of the year is a sprint against Mother Nature.

Once the seed is in the ground we return to an endurance race.  We work steadily to maintain conditions for the seed.  Weeds must be removed, insects must be kept at bay, the emerging plants must have soft soil to break through, and sand must be reduced to protect baby plants from being sandblasted to nothing in our punishing winds.  The summer months will primarily be about this steady pace but occasionally we will get a thunderstorm at the wrong time and suddenly we're back to sprinting, racing to "chicken pick" the ground or incorporate the sand back into the soil (known as "sand fighting") before it can damage plants.  Every significant rain in the early summer heralds one of these brief dashes.
Flash flooding is another danger to crops in the desert

At last sometime around late August or September, as summer fades to fall, the plants are mature enough that they don't require the constant coddling and protection of the farmer.  But his work is not done, nor is his crop assured.  Even now a hail storm could destroy the work of the past year.  This is a time of anxious waiting, like a set of parents anticipating the arrival of a new child.  We will continue to work to keep weeds under control but it must be done with tools that will not interfere with the now-large plants.  We will also be preparing for the harvest.  Strippers must be made ready, module builders and boll buggies dragged out of storage.  It's not unlike the expectant parents dragging crib and swing out of the attic for their new child.  Also like expectant parents, frequent checks on the progress of the offspring will occur.  Every day the farmer will anxiously drive by his fields, examining the condition of the cotton plants, to determine if the cotton should be left to ripen a while longer or if it is time to "induce labor" with chemical defoliants that will hasten the final maturation of the crop and simulate the effects of a freeze.

Defoliated cotton ready to be removed from the plant
Eventually either through defoliant or by nature's defoliant, the hard freeze, the leaves will dry up and begin to drop off, the bolls will fully open, and the entire plant will turn brown with bright white cotton bolls.  And again begins a headlong sprint.  This race with the weather and the plant is to ensure that the cotton is off the plant and protected as quickly as possible.  Ideally we will be done stripping the plants of their precious white bundles before the first snow falls and before the first ice storm comes to coat the world with crystal.  We're also racing the plant itself because the longer the cotton stays on the plant the lower the quality of the cotton lint.

We and many helpers will work long hours in late November and December to get the cotton off the plants and into a condition to be ginned.  If we're lucky we will be done by Christmas.  If we're not, we may still be stripping cotton in February.  Wet weather halts us until it dries.  Very windy weather will also stop us for a time.  Freezing cold doesn't even slow us down, though.  We want calm, dry weather as much as possible.  But not too dry because the cotton lint and especially the seeds are combustible.  Spontaneous fires in dry weather may reduce portions of our crop to smoldering ashes and even damage equipment.

During the harvest portion of the season we often find ourselves half-wishing for a light rain or high winds, though.  Harvest is long and the pace is crippling.  If we aren't sleeping, we're harvesting.  Thanksgiving dinner is usually eaten in the field.  We take Sunday mornings off for church sometimes but even then we're back at work as soon as church is over.  It's an exhausting time.  But as with birth labor, our arduous work will be well worth it in the end.

View from atop the module builder.
In fortunate years we're done with the harvest by Christmas and we have six or seven weeks to rest and recover before we return to the work of preparing for the next crop.  This time of rest is valuable and our family very much enjoys the time together to relax.  This is when we can vacation together (whoever told you that school calendars are designed around farm families lied; public school is anything but farm-friendly in their schedule), hang out together, and share the house with each other.

That's the ebb and flow of life in our farm family.  Modern inventions like the tractor, the stripper, and chemicals have made it easier and less manpower intensive but this is, essentially, the schedule of any agrarian society in history.  Life centers around nature's schedule for the plants and, in most instances, plants have a pretty universal schedule.  Do I feel somehow "holier" or more "connected to the earth" for working on this schedule?  No.  In fact, it feels weird.  I feel like a salmon swimming upstream.  This is not how most of the Western world lives today.  But this is the reality of my life.  I do feel a little more "in tune" with my ancestors, perhaps.  At least I have a frame of reference to sympathize with a few of their hardships.  And I feel a lot more connected to God.  I have no doubt there are atheist farmers but I don't know that I could do this without a great deal of faith in the providence of a benevolent Creator.  So much of our life now depends upon things over which no human has any control.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful.

    Also, the whole "summers off because of farmers" never has worked since in the north we need fall off (in fact farm kids would not attend during harvest season or planting season in spring) so honestly no idea where "summers off" come from aside from the fact that it was just too uncomfortable weather wise to be in school.