A farmer friend of mine sells his produce at the farmers’ market every Tuesday in Berkeley. You probably know him if you ever shop there. Yesterday morning when he jumped in his loaded market truck and went to start it up, the starter motor made a nasty grinding sound and then died.
What most people do in this situation is call AAA and then start making other arrangements, cancelling their plans or finding another way to get where they are going. It’s a major inconvenience and probably ruins their day.
What does a farmer do?
My friend was already running late. And the truck was loaded to the gills. Another delivery truck was available, but that would require unloading and reloading. There was no time for that.
Instead, he grabbed a chain and a helper. They pull-started the dead truck by getting it moving and then throwing it into gear. And once it was started, he drove away.
Of course this was the most temporary solution to the problem at hand. But my friend had made a quick phone call to the truck dealership in the East Bay, who just happened to have a replacement starter in stock. Then he made a quick visit to his toolchest and grabbed all the tools he needed.
At this point his biggest concern was that he would forget about the dead starter when he stopped to pick up the new one and turn the truck off, necesitating another pull start that would further delay his arrival.
My friend arrived at the farmers market almost two hours late. With his crew of helpers, he set up the stand and sold produce for several hours. He could called a mobile mechanic who would have come to the market and changed the starter for him for $150 or so for an hour of work. But that’s ten times what my friend makes himself. And changing a starter, while time-consuming, is not a difficult job. So, when things at the market slowed down a bit, he pulled out his tools, crawled under the truck and spend the next hour fixing it.
People think that farming is about growing food. While it’s true that food is the end result of agriculture, a farmer’s job is actually problem solving. And because food is expensive to produce yet not very lucrative to grow, the budget is always tight.
The closest thing to an accurate portrayal of a farmer’s life that I have seen lately is the movie “The Martian”. Sure, the movie is about an astronaut on Mars. But the film just as easily could have been set on a farm in Iowa or California, the character confronting daily setbacks and weather-related disasters with humor, ingenuity and a pair of vice grips. I would like to think that moviegoers would be just as engaged and entertained by the on-farm version. But I doubt that a studio would make it without the existential drama of low gravity and no oxygen.
On our farm, we have 9 Tractors, 3 Delivery trucks, 12 pickups and flatbeds, and numerous trailers and farm implements. A hundred or more tires to go flat, hundreds of moving parts to break. It is a rare day when something doesn’t stop working.
About five minutes after I got off the phone with my farmer friend, laughing about his crazy day, I got a text from one of Terra Firma’s tractor drivers. I had a feeling I knew what it was going to say even before I read it.
The tractor he was using wasn’t working. The starter had gone out.