20-year creative writing for print, magazines, radio, television, and film industries

The Idle Thoughts Of An Idle Farmer
March 3, 2017
Nowadays everyone says farming is cool. I tell them that the only cool thing about farming is the weather before 7am and after 5pm.
Section: Ecology

Now, on the subject of farming, I can hold my own. Hand me a piece of land and some rainfall and I will be capable of growing food. Farming is one of my gifts. I have a deep connection with the soil.

Owning a pair green fingers is a big deal in this finger twitching, tech savvy, digital generation. I know more people than I care to count who are incapable of tending to a basic houseplant. Leave a plant in their care and consider it dead.

So, I talk about farming with a level of authority. I have been farming sporadically for a few decades and stem from a long generation of subsistence farmers. I have gathered experience worthy of a Ted talk. I grew up at a time when farming was a basic skill. As basic as driving but I never introduce myself as a ‘a rally driver’.

Farmers were people who worked over 50 acres and made a living from their labour. They were a commercial operation and employing mechanization, at least one running tractor. Farmers were old, boring men with a terrible sense of style. Farmers were of the large scale variety and the rest of us, in our small holdings were merely, subsisting and feeding ourselves.

In case you missed it, there is an agricultural revolution going on and it is getting televised. Going back to the land has taken on a whole new meaning. Farming is now sexy and ethical like the dietary equivalent of becoming a vegan. Young people are craving for this connection with the land.

I was farming before it was cool.

I was farming when the digs meant a place where you went to dig. Long before impressionable city women thought a man who farmed was bohemian or kinda hot. 

Before organic markets, eco labels and food stamps.

Before TV shows about young nerds, trying to make a fortune farming one acre through a season of 13 episodes.

Before it was cool to call herbs, erbs!

My farming instincts were identified early. I could use a jembe and a slasher before I could ride a bicycle. My father took me to the village during the school holidays to help out in the farm. My grandmother said she did not like boys who were fragile. The village kids considered it sheer ineptitude, that a grown boy could not use a jembe and work the land. The city had made me soft. With those inspiring words, I took my rudimentary steps and started my journey of transformation into a farmer.

Now I get up, early in the morning, thinking of slaughtering the cockerel that interrupted my sleep at 3 am. I think milking zebu cows is no different from extortion. I usually secure my milk cow’s feet to a stake before extracting the milk, in perpetual competition with the calf for their mother’s milk.

I get to the fields early before the sun is up and work through to lunch without a break. I show up, season after season, year after year to pick up expensive lessons.

Farming taught me how to appreciate all of God’s creatures. Chicken are decent people. Focused, self-catering, orderly and they always keep time. Cows expect to be waited on, require a lot of attention and they not very smart. I am yet to meet a cow that understands why it is not a good idea to eat your masters’ shamba.

Sheep are groupies with no sense of individualism and when they panic it is a case of compounded dumbness. Dogs are pleasers and social climbers. Cats are whiners when they are too lazy to earn their keep by hunting rats. They are also the most rights conscious of the domestic animals.

Pigs are individualistic and they like to be left alone to eat. Donkeys are loyal and hardworking but they can guilt trip one with a single look.

I have also tried fish farming and I found out it is not only humans that love fishing. Many years ago, I took on tilapia farming when it was a big fad. They said fish farming was a lazy farmer’s cash crop but they forgot to mention the airborne pests. I quickly learnt that herons, yellow billed storks, marabous and wild ducks all love their fish raw.

Birds can be incredibly worthy adversaries. Armed with aerial supremacy and telescopic vision they turned my fish farming venture into a flight risk. No one told me about the industriousness of a monitor lizard that sneaked into my pond un-monitored for a month and ate through my bottom line.

Nevertheless like the head of a large family, with all manner weird and quirky children, I try not to play favourites. All the animals on a farm are useful for producing good manure.

Good farmers have to be multi-taskers. To be able to fix machines, predict the weather, identify miniature bugs on sight, secure a market for one’s goods, to be an animal whisperer and a vet. Watching a cow give birth at night is nowhere near as exciting as it looks on the Animal Planet TV show.

The best part of farming is the planting and harvest season.  Only because they occur once in a season. Everything else is repetitive and tedious.

Farming has some subtle advantages. It has kept me in good physical shape. People ask what I do to keep the potbelly at bay and I recommend shamba-robics. The slasher is a waist toner and the jembe is a complete compound movement that targets multiple muscle groups, the back, the hamstrings, shoulders and upper arms in one motion.

In all my years of farming, I have never ridden a tractor. All the digging has been done by hand and the only mechanization I have attempted is a donkey pulling cart or a bull pulling a plough.

My nephew who trained to be a lawyer wants to farm too and he called me old school. He has a plan to make mad cash because agric business has ridiculous potential. He does not call it farming. He is all about agri-business, permaculture and biodynamic agriculture, whatever that means.

He did not go to school to learn all these smart terms and he has no previous farming experience but he comes armed with facts. When I try and tell him about my personal experience, he recommends Google, a Youtube video and some farming group on Facebook.

“There is app you need to download, uncle. It is super cool. I will whatsapp the link”.

Nowadays everyone says farming is cool. I tell them that the only cool thing about farming is the weather before 7am and after 5pm. These days, you can walk up to a woman and introduce yourself as a farmer and the thought of manure is not the first thing that jumps to her mind.

I must have been asleep when farming as a profession moved from dirty to glamorous. I suppose all these Latino soaps, that introduced us to the Hacienda and positioned farmers as drop dead gorgeous Lotharios are to blame. Those rich and handsome men in tight jeans and boots, cotton shirts rolled up to the elbows distracted from work by some melodramatic beauty.

Farmers are now up there with environmentalists and animal conservationists. They are savvy and trendy and they even have a full section in the weekend papers.

My digital nephew has been pressuring me to get into agribusiness and stall the inevitability of dying a poor man.

I do not know where he got the impression from, that farmers are doomed to misery. I guess no one told him that it was a calling. That we farmers are connected to the earth and we farm because we must keep an ancient connection with the land going.  At least for my brand of subsistence farmers. He does not understand that I would not be doing anything else other than farming. He craves the outdoors, he craves a connection to the land but he is going about it all wrong.

He wants me to lay off my three acres for a season to see what a profit he can turn. The only part I like about his enthusiasm is that a college graduate is attracted to physical labour, formerly known as hardwork. That is something to celebrate but he keeps talking about leadership and delegation which is just a clever way of saying he will be doing all the thinking and talking while some poor sod does all the work.

“I need a capable team to execute my vision” he says.

“The important thing is to get the systems in place. I will need an agronomist, to draft a strategy, a soil engineer for a comprehensive soil test, some investment in rural infrastructure from the ministry, a researcher to tabulate the new markets and an angel investor for seed money for agribusiness scaling”.

He talks about the value chain, value add and the untapped potential of the Far East market.

“Did you know that we have some great soils for growing Chinese cabbage?”

I did not know that.

“If you want to make some money, you want to get into farming”.

I told him I was farming and he said that is my problem,

“I should be doing agri business”.

I asked what the difference was and he said,

“One is working hard and the other is working smart”.

All these new farmers talk about these days is how much money they are making.

Money that is sprouting out of the ground. They talk about getting their hands dirty with mad cash. They call it a lifestyle, with a dress code and insist that I must invest in sun cream with a broad spectrum SPF if I am going to be out in the sun for long periods.

Farming is no longer just a job or a calling. It is an enterprise and opportunity. The new breed of farmers are oozing with passion and quitting desk jobs, swapping suits for jeans and gum boots.

They want in now, success and money and all in one season. I tell them that they miss the connection.

A farm is like a child. You cannot hurry its growth. You have to learn how to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run. You have to understand that you can only be a really successful farmer when you learn to fall in love with failure.

And you must be willing to be rich, maybe next year or the next or never.

My nephew looked at me, puzzled and said,

“You do not get it. You are talking about farming and I am all about the agri-business. I have to send you this really cool YouTube video”.