Aside from a brief period nearly 30 years ago when I attended college and resided in the Willamette Valley, I have essentially lived on a farm — or, more accurately stated, three different farms — for all of my life.
My first real job, at about age 14, was working on a vegetable farm for the princely sum of $3.50 an hour and all the hours I wanted, frequently as many as 60 or more a week. Thankfully, my boss was not concerned with potential child labor law violations and neither was I. My “green-thumb” proclivity rewarded me with plenty of “greenbacks” and provided me with invaluable on-the-job training and an educational experience that could not be purchased or duplicated at even the most exclusive university.
This early employment foray into agriculture, coupled with my upbringing on a small farm and frequent exposure to other family members who farmed for a living, both near and far geographically, aided in cementing my desire to become a farmer. While I have often worked at jobs outside agriculture, it has generally been to support my farming habit and guarantee that I would not be forced to live in town.
By any modern measurement, this is not normal. At the turn of the last century, about 40% percent of the American population farmed and 60% lived in rural areas. The most recent census data I have found states that currently 1% of the population farms and 20% of us live in rural areas. It’s no wonder we frequently hear of reports concerning the urban/rural divide.
Personally, the decision to attempt to make a living as an agrarian has been a mixed bag. I generally enjoy my work. I’ve never had to pay to exercise. I am usually my own boss, which is great unless you work for an obstinate, opinionated jerk, and I am privileged to have the neighbors and friends that I do. On the other hand, I am no longer the superior physical specimen I once thought I was. I have little in the way of retirement savings, if not for my better half’s benefit package, I wouldn’t be able to afford a trip to my dentist friend and I am surrounded by an ostensible farm equipment junkyard (I do have three of four boxes checked off, however, in terms of landscape features mentioned in the song “Gentle on my Mind” — wheat fields, clotheslines, junkyards).
All of the aforementioned was at the forefront of my mental state three weeks ago as my wife, Cindy, and I flew with our daughter, Annie, to New York City to help her get settled (thankfully she packs light and prefers an austere material existence) at Columbia University, where she will be matriculating for the foreseeable future. Yes, we are bursting with pride.
For a self-confessed rube, hayseed, hillbilly (pick any term related to provinciality and it would be accurate) such as me, the island of Manhattan is not my natural habitat. An area of roughly 15,000 acres with a population of 1.6 million inhabitants but with no gravel roads, no sagebrush and no place to park (much less turn around) a D5 Caterpillar hooked to a 40-foot Calkins rod-weeder outfit is not a place I could live. However, it represented a likely twice in a lifetime opportunity — the other, hopefully, in four years to witness the awarding of a diploma — for me to visit the cultural and economic capital of America, and arguably the world. It also afforded me a chance to visit numerous sites of historical significance (Empire State Building, the 9/11 Memorial, Grant’s Tomb), tour the Metropolitan Museum of Art (I’ve always been a fan of the “Hudson River School” — I dig paintings of cows, pastures, mountains and trees) and partake of some truly first-class food and drink (there are more than 20,000 restaurants on Manhattan). An additional surprise benefit was spotting certain landmarks — the entrance to Washington Square Park, for example — that I have seen in the background while viewing the TV show “Blue Bloods,” the only “new” television show I regularly watch.
Though I may sometimes feign misanthropic traits, I am actually a closeted people person and in New York there were plenty to choose from. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with Roy, the Otis elevator repair technician, Humero, the cabbie who was full of opinions and observations regarding Uber, and the parents of our daughter’s schoolmate — an agronomy engineer and pediatrician. Native Brazilians who had worked for years to ensure better educational and career opportunities for their only child, they reminded me of how fortunate I am to be an American.
One final observation for me was how far-sighted the creation of Central Park was. At about 800 acres, it is only slightly larger than my farm. But the counterbalance it provides to the concrete, glass, steel and pavement appeared to be of immeasurable benefit to locals and tourists alike.