Stories in the Rain

I’ve been waking when I should be going to bed. Restless with fatigue as I try to continue on through what seems like an endless list of “to dos.”  The dogs huddle in close trying to warm themselves after what feels like six straight days of soakings.  The drought has ended in floods.  My no-till patch is a bog of hops.  Sloppy mush coming up past my ankles and squash leaves bigger than dinner platters. My Hunter boots have given way with a leak where I put a pitchfork through them, and the top of my foot, six months ago. So now I have as much of the hops slurry on the inside of the boot as on the outside.  The rains fall heavy from dark grey clouds, continuing through the night, but ending every morning before returning again at mid day.  This unlikely deluge has changed Summer to Winter.  I’ve lost track of the names of the hurricanes turned tropical storms.  Each one crossing over the Hawaiian islands and loosing it’s bearings, a bit like me.  I may be sleeping when I should be relaxing, Then awake when it is time for bed.  I read a few pages here and there from a book I picked up from the sale rack while visiting UH Manoa’s campus.  It is a beautiful book that tells the story of another time in farming, a time that doesn’t have to be in the past.  I had high hopes of raiding the agriculture text books, but my visit coincided with the bookstore cleanup where students dumped armloads of books off and fled to their summer freedom.

Stacia Spragg-Braude writes in lyrical prose, describing the daily life of an extraordinary character who continues to farm against the odds.  The beautiful hardbound volume met me eye to eye and I new it would be my birthday present to myself.  (The book summary ) I was heading back to the Big Island, and as I often do, I fill my arms with books, hoping to find the words and wisdom to keep me going even in the darker moments.  As tonight’s rains pour off the roof in an audible cascade, I think about drought and how much I, like Evelyn in the book, thinks of water.  Here in the town where I hang my hat, there is a demarcation line of precipitation levels.  Wet side and dry side.  This year, and for several years prior, the weather, like that in much of the world has been just plain confusing.  The drought was here before the year 2001 when I first planted chili pepper plants and Florence fennel on a washed out hillside in Hamakua.  I learned how to care for banana trees, and would walk buckets of lilikoi (passion fruit) to the elderly neighbors who would know what to do with a bucket of fruit.

In the book, the author writes of how water remains on one’s mind a lot in the dry near arid farmland of Corrales, NM. I can relate.  I find myself starting conversations with, “We never got our Winter rains this year.”  I often get back a blank stare.  In this town, few people think in terms of scraping out a life from the soil.  The few vegetable growers that remain, many of which on small parcels, are being hit hard.  Not only is it an uphill battle to get any to buy local produce, when unusual weather hits, our inability to produce, in walking on water fashion, is considered a let down, or worse yet, failure.  Farming is 100% risk, but we hide that risk by taking the faces out of farming, and international produce brokers stuffing our state full of the vegetable version of fast food.  Chemically contaminated, harvested too young, low in nutrition, and on every plate. You don’t often get rewarded by doing it right.  Fast and cheap has lowered our standards.

So when deluge like conditions strike up country Hawaii, I have to take a moment to rethink all things.  When a five gallon bucket is half full overnight, it leads to a drastic change of strategy.  In the book, the farmers created their own irrigation system from the river.  Here, the creek overflows it’s banks on days like this, I watch it cascading by on it’s route to the ocean. Our farmland irrigation is borrowed from the much wetter parts of the island.  We are taking their bounty.  This creates a false view of water, where farmers can squirt irrigation every day, all day until their fields are filled with puddles.  Almost nobody bothers to improve the soil, so that it actually once again hold water.  Water just appears from somewhere else, and few are even grateful for it.  I remember having a talk about water conversation that fell on many deaf ears.  The farmers crinkled up their noses when I noted that our water reserves were hitting desperate times, and that we were warned to conserve. The general attitude is that they should water more, so that they “get their share” even if they don’t need the water.  They should take it, so someone else doesn’t get it.  I realized that day that I would never relate. I said my bit about building the soil, so to cut their water usage and benefit their plants.  I was laughed at and told that their soil was some of the best in the state.  Weeks later part of the USDA’s soil team visited us, and shook their heads in the same way I did.  For once, “big government AG” agreed with the rookie. The generation before me may be the only one that bred farmers that don’t think about soil health.  My Grandfather would roll over in his grave if he heard them speak.

I was raised in a community that was a lot more like the town of Corrales, or at least the communities that surrounded our farm were a bit like that New Mexico community.  Here, the plantations left a scar on everything that it touched.  Though we focus on the damage done to the land, equal damage was done in taking away the pull yourself up by the bootstraps way of thinking.  Here farmers are pitted against each other, and imported produce is king.  It is hard to stand tall as a community of farmers when someone is standing on your neck.  It has been this way for so long that many barely remember another way, though much of the shift toward the outside suppliers happened within the span of my lifetime on the planet.

The rains now stopped, and the dogs snore.  I find myself getting tired and mistyping the town of Corrales as Corvallis, a place where I WWOOFed in torrential rains in a strawberry patch, as hail fell into the Spring mud just over 3 years ago.  I remember rounding up the animals to shelter them from the hail, feeling grateful to maneuver a stubborn ram, three Nubian goats, and a huge and defiant horse into their shelter.  I was shaking with a healthy dose of fear and adrenaline as I got them all tucked into the open sided barn.  The hail stones stung on my face as the spooked horse stomped and eyed me in that big eyed way that horses do.  The horse had leveled a few in it’s day with one swift kick.  That afternoon, I saw a different side when I clearly put myself in harms way so to help him.  He knew, and kept his kicks to a minimum.  I returned to the farmhouse kicked off the boots, and shivered as I purged myself of raingear in the entryway.  The farm owner, who had inherited the farm, was tucked in with a cup of coffee, feet up in front of the fire.  She was confused at why the animals were brought in out of the hail.  I realized then, just weeks into my farming journey, that what is common sense to one, isn’t to another, and owning a farm doesn’t make you a farmer.  That bit needs to be earned.

2 thoughts on “Stories in the Rain

  1. Reflective, thought provoking, passionate. Thank you for sharing – I sense your deep commitment as a farmer, and the level of sustained effort required to be successful, despite the weather, the soil, and everything else!

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