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Tag: farmers

The Grapes of George (and other crops)

I’m not sure who’s behind it, but in the flatlands of eastern Washington — before the westbound traveler gets to the far more magnificent side of the state — someone has decided to label the crops.

“Crop names in fence lines next 14 miles,” reads a sign on Interstate 90, somewhere west of Moses Lake and east of a town named George.

I like this idea. For one thing, it turns a fairly boring drive into a learning experience. For another, possibly, it makes people a little more aware of/involved in the place they’re at — as opposed to the text they’re sending, the video game they’re playing, or the cell phone on which they’re blabbing.

It’s kind of like a picture book for kids: Here is the field corn, here is the alfalfa. You don’t even have to turn the page, just your head. On your left, potatoes; on your right, peppermint. Here is a field of … wheat. Here is a field of … grapes (wrathless variety, it appeared). Here is some Timothy. Timothy? (It’s a kind of hay.)

For 14 miles, on both sides of the highway, I got a lesson in agriculture — thanks to, I’d guess, the state or some agricultural commission. I wanted to learn more about crops, including why every state seems to package its hay differently. But the lesson came to an end; and as I progressed west, instead of crop signs, the only ones I saw in the fence lines — not counting those of politicians — said “For Sale.”

It struck me as a good idea, though, all this labeling and identifying — one that, if carried to extremes, could both create jobs and lead to a more informed public.

In addition to crop identifiers, why not farm animal identifiers: Sheep, goats, cows, llamas? Tree identifiers that would help us differentiate between our birch and our aspen? Factory identifiers that tell us what’s being made inside that big building? A much needed explanation of what silos (a) hold and (b) are for? The American public would get a better understanding of the importance of farming, and everything else we take for granted.

(Label this idea satire, but only kind of.)

Of course we don’t want drivers reading signs so much that they neglect their driving, but it’s nice to see signs that inform, instead of those that merely advertise, or give harsh orders — as if we were dogs or something: “No this … No that … Stay in lane … Right lane must exit … ”

I’m tired, too, of the signs that scare us: Dangerous Crosswinds Ahead, Watch for Ice, High Accident Area, Gas: $3.15.

We tend to readily identify dangers, we profusely post rules, we slap advertising everywhere — so why not label the run of the mill good stuff, like cows and creeks, steaming bowls of oatmeal and doers of good deeds?

My label-everything-on-earth plan could help the economy. Think of all the jobs. Think of the stimulus. We would need more signmakers, more sign putter-uppers, more sign repairers, more sign changers — for when the crops are rotated, or the landscape changes.

Maybe knowing what’s what would help us appreciate our Earth a little more, teach us to better “live in the moment.” Or maybe not. In any event, here’s the one I want to see:

A sign that the economy is improving.

Chasing spuds in the far north of Maine

Given that there’s not all that much else to do in Aroostook County, Maine, Ace and I followed the potatoes.

For it was potatoes, mainly, that brought John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley 50 years ago to the state’s largest and northernmost county — a place he’d never been. Neither had I, and though we’re not precisely following the path Steinbeck took for ”Travels With Charley,” this piece of it seemed worth duplicating.

“I wanted to go to the rooftree of Maine to start my trip before turning west. It seemed to give the journey a design, and everything in the world must have a design or the human mind rejects it,” Steinbeck wrote. “… Maine was my design, potatoes my purpose.”

Of particular interest to the author of “The Grapes of Wrath” were the migrant French Canadian workers who crossed the border in harvest season to pick up potatoes, after they were unearthed by machinery, and place them in baskets.

Poverty, farmworkers and migration were recurrent theme’s in Steinbeck’s vast body of work, so it’s not surprising that, for what would turn out to be his last book, he revisited them.

Steinbeck parked his camper, Rocinante, on the side of a lake, just down from a migrant camp. Smelling their soup from 100 yards away, he dispatched Charley to serve as his ambassador. He’d let the poodle go, then follow, retrieving him, apologizing for the nuisance. A conversation about the dog would inevitably ensue, leading to conversation about other things.

At this particular juncture, Steinbeck had the added advantage of his dog being French. Charley was born in Bercy, outside Paris. He invited the farmworkers to come see his camper after dinner, which six of them did. They drank beer, then brandy, served in pill bottles, a jelly glass, coffee cups and a shaving mug. They had more brandy, and then more brandy.

Rocinante, Steinbeck wrote, “took on a glow it never quite lost.”

I didn’t get a glow on in Madawaska. Seeking food, I stopped in Jerry T’s Chug-a-Mug, but they weren’t serving any. The only place that was, Jeff’s Pizza and Subs, about ten doors down, was closing in 10 minutes. I walked down, placed an order, then finished off my mug at Jerry’s. The bartender wasn’t familiar with John Steinbeck. Neither was the operator of my motel. Neither was the receptionist at Naturally Potatoes, a processing plant I stopped at after following a loaded potato truck down the highway to see where it was going.

Finding no Steinbeck afficianados, no glow, and no French Canadian farmworkers, I settled for some quality time back in the motel room with my burger.

And a side of mashed potatoes.

The harvesting of potatoes is all done by machinery now — human hands rarely enter the picture. Machines unearth the potatoes, machines scoop them out of the dirt, sending them up conveyor belts that drop them into trucks that hit the highway and dump them at processing plants.

Until around 1960, potatoes were dug out of the ground with a mechanical digger, then picked up by hand, put into baskets, then dumped into barrels. The barrels were lifted onto a flatbed truck and hauled to storage or to the processing. Farmworkers were paid by how many they picked up.

Today, migrant farmworkers have little place in the potato farming industry. They are used to harvest two of the state’s other top crops — broccoli and blueberries. But harvesting the hearty spud, thick skinned and mostly bruise-proof, is a job that clunky machines have taken over.

Maine once led the nation in potato production, but by 1994 it had fallen to eighth on the list of top potato states.

We left Madawaska the next morning amid a thick fog the sun was in the process of burning off, following Highway 1 to its end, then heading south on Highway 11 — destination Bangor, Maine.

We passed through rolling hills, more small towns, and more potato farms, whose harvest goes on to be powdered and chowedered, mashed and hashed, chipped and french-fried.

We may not be eating our vegetables, but we were seeing plenty of them, including this sea of broccoli. Was it crying out for cheese sauce, or was that just my imagination?

We passed by lumber mills, where the smell of sap wafted into the car, mom and pop motels, more farmland, and sheds both collapsed and collapsing.

Having seen both coastal Maine and inland Maine, both recreational Maine and working Maine, both comfy Maine and struggling Maine, we decided — behind schedule as we are — to rest up in Bangor before heading to the next state west: New Hampshire … or is it Vermont?

(Black and white photo, circa 1930, from the Maine Historical Society)

(Other photos by John Woestendiek)

Guard dogs protect sheep, save cheetah

Guard dogs that protect sheep and goats on African farms from attacks by cheetahs and leopards are also helping out the cheetahs and leopards.

With their livestock safe from attack, farmers no longer feel the need to hunt or poison cheetahs and leopards, according to a BBC report.

Anatolian Kangal dogs are used in the program, started in Namibia and recently launched in Kenya.

“We have had amazing results,” Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund said.  “Since the dogs were imported, the cheetah population had increased by a third.” 

Anatolian Kangal dogs are extremely loyal and are ready to fight to the death. The puppies are given to farmers when they are just eight weeks old and grow up with the flocks of goats and sheep they are to guard in order to bond with them.

If a predator approaches, the dogs bark loudly and the flock gathers round them. For most predators, the barking alone is enough to keep them from approaching.

The Conservation Trust began importing the Kangal from Turkey in 1994 and since then has provided around 300 dogs to farmers.