June 11, 2011
A little over three weeks ago I was picking up rocks to clean the field for planting food to give away. This morning I stood looking at a good stand of crops and praying the weekend forecast for rain is true.
Late in the week before we planted, there was still too much rain to disk the field for the last time before laying off the rows. We caught enough of a break to get a tractor in the field and Mr. Snyder and I raced the fierce black storm cloud we hoped would pass to the south. He pulled a disk with a drag log behind it as I walked the field getting out the last of the rocks which threatened the disks. We lost the race and buckets of rain drove us to shelter in an old shed across the road. We haven’t had any rain to speak of since 5 days before planting.
Before the bottom fell out I had stacked my first pile of field rocks along the northwestern edge of the field. I smiled at the recollection of a conversation with a friend and former colleague from my time in Atlanta with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Connie, a true mid-western farmer’s daughter from the Missouri Ozarks, observed that one of the marks of a well tended farm was the piles of rocks accumulated over the years around the edges of the fields. There are still visible piles of weathered rocks sunken into the ground around the older fields of this farm which stand as evidence of careful tending by the Skeen family who made a home and a living here until a few decades ago. May this first pile of rocks I’ve stacked stand as a monument of gratitude for the privilege of continuing their useful care for this land.
Planting couldn’t have happened nearly as effectively as it did without the emergence of yet more local old-timers. Three of the four local men who have offered time, equipment, expertise, and help to the Healing Springs Acres venture are named Snider, or Snyder, depending on which family, or branch of the family, produced them. I can barely allocate the vowels correctly to the person myself, so there’s no way a distant reader could hope to tell them all apart. I’ll probably just use them interchangeably in reference to my various mentors and leave you to follow along as best you can.
After I had spoken in a local church near the farm Mr. Snider, a local builder, offered to bring his tractor and planter out to speed things along. My best option until then was a borrowed push plow to open a furrow and a hoe to cover the seeds. I was resolved to do it that way if need be, and was somewhat looking forward to being able to say that I had. Standing at the front of the church I did a quick calculation of the couple of days the hand planting would probably take me versus the handful of hours with the tractor. Without any regret at all for the lost literary beauty of the hand-planting-in-the-hardscrabble-earth-uphill-both-ways story I responded to the offer with a simple, “Yes sir, I’d appreciate that very much!” It took us longer to load, deliver, unload and reload the tractor than it did to plant, and it was worth every bit of it to me to have the work done, and to see the nice straight rows across the field. I had already begun to feel embarrassed ahead of time for the shamefully crooked rows I’m sure would have resulted from my novice manual plodding.
Planting turned out to be another of those attention getting experiences which seem to keep accumulating in this ministry adventure. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the oil and meal which wouldn’t run out after the woman entertained the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-14). I planned to start small this year. My friend Jon and I stood at the counter of Farmer’s Feed and Seed in Kernersville, NC with the owner and checked and double checked the quantity of seed we needed to purchase to plant just 8 rows of corn, 8 rows of green beans, 3 rows of squash, 3 rows of zucchini, and 4 rows of okra in 200 foot rows. After consulting charts and tables under the approving eye of an expert who’s been selling seed for decades we bought what I am sure was the correct amount of seed.
When Mr. Snider and I set up the planter we made sure it wasn’t planting the seeds too far apart. At the end of each row we took a handful of seed from one or another planter to add to the other to even them out as best we could for the next trip through the field. When we finished planting for the day, we’d planted 24 rows of corn, 28 rows of beans, 6 rows of squash & zucchini (but only used half our seed), and 4 rows of okra. I realize it sounds like we got the okra exactly right according to the plan. Actually we planted it by hand and as Mr. Snider followed me through the field covering the seeds with a hoe, he assured me I was dropping them three or four times too thick. I had soaked the okra seeds the night before as advised by all the old-timers and just couldn’t get my hands to turn loose of the wet, sticky seeds in accordance with his seasoned, patient instructions. We could have planted at least twice as many rows had my fingers been as mechanically precise as the planter plates.
Some of the rows are double planted with beans and corn together in the same row. That fact represents a fundamental philosophical decision I made at the beginning of this project. Every bit of advice I could find in print, or from an agricultural expert in Raleigh, said not to double plant beans in with corn. Every single old-timer I’ve talked with has offered unprovoked, “You know, you can plant them beans right in along with your corn…” I have cast my lot with the wisdom of the old-timers.
With the inexplicable abundance of seed on planting day, I’d worried what would come up. Surely we’d gotten it wrong and would have absurdly sparse rows once the seeds germinated and plants broke through the surface. After planting I had to leave town for a little over a week and fretted the whole time about what I’d find when I got home. I returned to a field full of green.
I got a call from Mr. Snider midweek last week after he’d gone back over to run the cultivator through the field to knock the weeds down. I’d spent nearly a whole day chopping weeds with a hoe five days earlier. Again, his work with the tractor did in an hour or two what had taken me a day. Despite my faithless fear that we’d done something wrong when we planted, his assessment after cultivating was, “The Lord sure did give us a good stand…” I heard that again this morning from another friend who stopped by to see the farm. I just smiled in amazement, “Yes indeed. It’s a good stand!”
After eating a cake made of meal and oil, Elijah promised his generous host that her provisions would last until the rains came. About halfway through this writing, the heavens broke and rain fell.
I do not regret my decisions to cast my lot with old-timers and prayer.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice.
From “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer” by Wendell Berry