Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

If At First You Don't Succeed... (Cory)

"I never realized that 'make hay while the sun shines' was so literally true," I said to Ryan, the Kay-Ben herdsman, as we doled out mid-morning hay and talked a bit about the haymaking process.

He laughed. "Yeah, only about 70% of those sayings are really worth anything." Then we both agreed that, come to think of it, that's not a bad percentage. I'd like to make a case for an addition to that worthwhile 70%: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Okay, so, the most exciting parts of my week involved a Freightliner dump truck and a Volvo loader. Here is me in the truck:

I look like I know what I'm doing, right? Ryan is not so sure.

The adventures were prompted by the previous week's revelation that Claire doesn't have her license yet. The guys on Kay-Ben were a bit dumbfounded. After all -- we learned on Tuesday over lunch -- Erica got her first car for her fourteenth birthday. She used to drive it across the fields, and right up to the road, to her babysitting gig.

So, on Tuesday, Eddie came driving up to us in some giant machine or other and asked Ryan what we were up to.

"Right now we're taking out old feed," Ryan said, and went on to list the other things on the roster for the day.

"All right, well I've got a chore for you to do. It's really been bugging me. I want you to take those girls up the hill and teach them to drive that Freightliner and dump the body."

If either of us had known exactly what that meant at the time, we'd probably have been a tad more taken aback.

Eddie added, "There's not an American farm girl who doesn't know how to drive a dump truck," and drove off.

I talked with Ryan on Wednesday about the difference between growing up country and growing up city. I used to take riding lessons; he used to own two horses. I'm proud of my recently acquired stick shift skills; he does almost all of his own auto repair work. I remember his assertion at our first Kay-Ben story circle that a farmer has to be a jack-of-all-trades, and he certainly lives by that.

How do they learn all they know? Trial and error. Sometimes I'm amazed by the amount of knowledge everyone on the farm has amassed about cows alone. They just know things about cow personalities and cow preferences and the ways to keep a cow happy. (Erica, struggling with a recalcitrant milker she's trying to move between pens: "She's got control issues. Some of them won't move unless they feel like they're in charge. If I'm in front of her, she feels nervous because she's not in control, but if I'm behind her like this, she'll go -- and then I just have to figure out how to steer her.")

Sometimes, it's their way or the highway.

Knowledge like that can't really be gained any way other than being around the animals constantly for years and years. And the learning is an ongoing process. Eddie told Erica on Tuesday that one of the cows looked like she'd put on a lot of weight. "Something has to be done about that," he said. Erica plans to give soy a try, but if that doesn't do the trick, they'll be on to looking for a different solution. Certainly they give some credit to what "experts" on cattle feed say, but they're also experts themselves, especially when it comes to their own herd. And they are well aware that, often, the experts get it wrong (like when an overly optimistic weather forecast for Thursday led to thousands of dollars worth of hay getting soaked).

As Ryan was sitting between me and Claire on the Freightliner, watching me struggle with the finicky clutch and the barely-differentiable lower gears, he told us how his brother taught him to swim. "He just threw me in the water and said, 'Survive.'" His teaching style for us was a little kinder, but in the end, for me, it wasn't until Eddie insisted that I drive the truck and dump the body alone -- no one else in the cabin -- that I really felt like I'd made progress towards learning, not just to drive it, but to operate it. When I didn't have anyone looking over my shoulder, anyone of whom to ask constant questions, I no longer stalled or struggled with pulling the lever to release the body. I just did what seemed to make sense in the moment, and usually, it turned out to be right.

On a side note: Yesterday I went to Nateva, a big music festival in Oxford, ME. The Felice Brothers may have become one of my new favorite groups, and they sang this gorgeous song that, as they put it, is about farm life and the hardships that can sometimes accompany it. It reminded me of a lot of conversations we've had, in and out of story circles, about the rollercoaster of emotions involved in farming -- and, also, about that romantic view of farming as "the simple life." I think the song takes a romantic view of farming, although it certainly doesn't paint it as easy. At any rate, it affected me a lot and here it is.