We have been living here at MisFit Farm for eight years. Our zoning is Exclusive Farm Use or EFU. That means our immediate neighbors have the same zoning and are also “farming” to one degree or another. Some neighbors are clearly suburbanites living rurally with their mcmansions and ranchettes, where one person of the household dabbles with a fruit tree or horse or two but not much else. Other neighbors are full-on performing acts of mega agribusiness. Us being a small parceled organic farm fall somewhere in-between the two aspects. And, even though we have a small plot we are probably more diversified than most of our neighbors as monocropping is certainly the norm around here.
One of the largest and most prosperous crops in Oregon is seed farming, particularly grass seed, or seeds for lawns. Rye is one of the most common types of grass seed grown here in the Willamette Valley, but wheat, oats and clover are other commonly found seed crops as well. Often these crops are farmed on land that does not hold irrigation rights. Hard to believe that in rainy Oregon we have limitations on irrigation but we do! So these crops are planted in the fall where the rains of the winter and spring do all the watering for these crops taking them to fruition the following spring or early summer.
Our place is surrounded by conventional farming, on three sides there is grass seed and on the fourth, cherries. The cherries are across the street and are managed by a family who lives up the road, and while conventional they also employ a number of organic practices. But, when we hear the rumble of the BIG machines coming near we know that there is going to be activity on the grass seed parcels.
The happenings on the grass seed areas usually involve large machines. Large and bizarre machines that frankly, the likes of which I had never seen before or ever dreamt existed. The drivers of these enormous machines are almost always men, and they sit high in the sky in sealed, climate-controlled booths with tinted windows. Each tire on the giant rigs are about the size of our station wagon. These thunderous machines come infrequently but when they do come, they cannot be ignored as the sheer girth commands attention let alone the rumbling thunder that they produce. Sometimes depending upon the task they need to perform the house shakes. Sometimes they come in the middle of the night, especially for harvest, and shake us awake. There is in fact a county ordinance excluding essential farming practices in EFU from noise regulations, even in the middle of the night. This is all fine for the most part, I am not complaining about their size or noisiness or even the waft of diesel fuel permeating our yard. I am however, concerned about the chemicals that they spray. At the very least, the chemicals they spray are pointed straight down into the earth. Unlike fruit trees, which are sprayed upwards where herbicide or pesticide exposure would be much more likely if caught in a draft. It just seems better when the chemicals are sprayed downward rather than upward where wind can enhance the drift. Maybe I am kidding myself but downward spraying seems less toxic. Nevertheless, I remain extremely tentative about the safety of living near conventional farms. When we see and hear the behemoths coming and they have their huge ‘wings’ extended outward we know the chemicals are about to be administered and we round up our animals and run indoors.
The management plan for grass seed is fairly hands off and intermittent. For several years in a row the parcel is managed without tilling. This is progressive for conventional farmers, any farmer really, but I would have to guess that the severe topsoil erosion due to previous over tilling was so evident at one point that rotation had to implemented. I know this not just intellectually but visually after viewing the edges of our property soaring high above the adjacent plot. After the occasional fall tilling comes seeding and that can be performed immediately. This year we watched one tractor pass by tilling and within moments a second tractor passed over spreading seed. Then fertilizing happens and that is usually a smaller vehicle dropping small round pellets. Not too long after, maybe a few rains or weeks and the land will be sprayed with most likely an anti-fungal or anti-moss chemical as well as an herbicide to deter weeds. Then there will be no activity for many months. It can be quite serine really. Come late spring another application or two of chemicals are sprayed, followed by a day or two of hand spraying. A small group of day-labor workmen with backpack sprayers will methodically walk through the field spot spraying for weeds. These few days of spot spraying are the only time humans touch this land or the crop: the only time humans touch this land. After the spot spraying the crops are left on their own to be watered by nature and it grows into their fullness and then goes to seed. Come June or July the crop is cut down and left to dry in rows of mounded heaps. A machine will come through and suck the material up and separate the seed from the stems. The remaining dried material is formed into bales. A large forklift comes and moves the bales on to huge semi trucks and away it goes. Before the rains return in the fall a dusting of lime is applied and the growing cycle will repeat.
So, the people who farm this land do no live there and they do not spend much time there either. Because of this we enjoy a lack of congestion and gain a sense of elbowroom since there is rarely some one tending this plot. We have come to learn that often these parcels of land are leased out to one farm or company who will manage numerous plots totaling hundreds if not thousands of acres because the various machinery and equipment necessary for this style of farming requires a huge investment. So, there’s only one combine per so many acres if you will. In all, we are exposed to about ten days worth of farming on the seed sides. This would be the opposite if it were say, an organic vegetable farm, where almost daily someone would be tending the plants by digging, weeding, watering or harvesting. I relish the solitude and privacy, but there is something a miss for me with this kind of agriculture.
So I return to where I began; we have lived here for eight years and I have never met the owner of the neighboring parcel, they are absentee. Nor have I ever seen the people who manage this property interact with the land in a meaningful or intimate way. They don’t touch it, feel it, smell it, sit with it, watch it or live with it. They have no idea of its nuances. They don’t know what the dirt smells or feels like. They don’t know what the sunrise looks like from the peak of their hillside. They don’t know what critters live in the trees on the perimeter. They just come around every so often either to deposit seed, spray chemicals or cut the crops down and they are always shrouded in their high-off-the-ground climate controlled and highly specialized farming vehicles. They never spend more than a moment passing by, systematically maneuvering through or over each row with their overly regimented and impersonal agendas. I don’t understand this style of farming. It makes no sense to me. To me farming is about a relationship to the land, plants, animals and the environment that hosts the crop. This highly impersonal way of farming lacks connection to the very environs that gives birth to their commodity. I suppose that this is the ultimate in agri-buisness, where for a minimal investment of time and energy one can derive a viable crop. But, it befuddles me.