Friday, February 19, 2016

Sometimes a Great Notion

"The past is never seems to let things lie, finished."
 Ken Kesey

Midway through February. X's marking the days on the calendar. Not just the days...but the years, too. Driving north on our way home from this year's Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers conference as we have many times before, beginning back in the early '80s, when we were unarguably not only farmers but,officially, also very young.

The young people at the conference today are sharp, energized, informed; not at all the insecure, inexperienced, former suburban farm wife I recollect signing my name tag and attending my first seminar. I simply can't imagine them participating in the misadventures, mistakes, and miscalculations that comprised our baby steps into the new world of what the sages of that era called 'alternative agriculture.' If you Google search 'alternative agriculture', you'll surface a long litany of articles with the word 'sustainable' in the accompanying blurb. In the early 1980s, 'alternative' meant some enterprise a farmer and/or farmer's wife could undertake to supplement their farm income, something different than their usual commodities, something they could grow that would use their talents, energy, and labor to reach beyond their crippled local economy and build independence. But our young family was just looking for something a busy farmer and stay home mama could do that could be built on the cheap on Saturday evenings and nights after work.

"Do you remember...?"
 This phrase is the introduction to tales crystallized into family legend that can bore children unto the third and fourth generation. 'Do you remember'...the small town customers whose business collapsed one afternoon into a pile of bricks....the poinsettias we didn't sell the Christmas Eve it was 25 below zero....the windy spring day a good neighbor drove by just in time to rescue Blake and me and a piece of greenhouse plastic from a scary parasailing experience into our cornfield.
I do.... I remember when a big gust of January wind lifted the baseboard of the first incarnation of greenhouses number 3 and 4, homemade of of 3/4"conduit,three inches off the ground. The original number 2 greenhouse, also home engineered, succumbed to a wet late spring snow....but that didn't stop us from growing a few more flowers in what was now an odd shaped cold frame!
We remember delivering what we thought was a big load of flowers...100 flats! a customer way down in Wichita, Kansas. Blake and I rattled south on the quiet Kansas Turnpike, pulled into Wichita about midnight to unload our flats of posies, then drank coffee and stared out at the empty darkness all the long drive home. What were we thinking? I don't know...we should have been wondering how we made a cent on the transaction. Not surprisingly, that particular garden center experiment disappeared without a trace in a year or three.

One year we tried to save some money buying some little pots at an auction, one of our very first 'wholesale' purchases with our brand spanking new sales tax number; we  bought them, only to discover later that the building holding the supplies was a nasty EPA Superfund site! The trunk of our 1981 diesel Delta 88 was commodious but insufficient for business purposes..besides, three kids in the back were pushing the limits of togetherness. The death knell for the diesel was the day it burned up its second transmission on I-29 while we were picking up baby plants at the airport, stranding us at a rest stop while two Missouri Highway patrol cars made a screaming arrival with wailing sirens and flashing lights

Still living on the cheap, we bought our first dedicated delivery vehicle off the parking lot of our local repairman  for $600. In its first life, the little flat front 1969 Ford cargo van worked for Fairfax Comfort Air.  With a new paint job covering most of the rust, it would hold a homemade plant rack and was downright cute painted up with a big red geranium on the side.
Ben's very first driving experience was in that van: a mere three feet over a curb....toward the plate glass window of the flower shop in Rock Port. He was two and couldn't reach the clutch, but that didn't stop him from dropping the van into gear when his mama left it running and his sister was supposed to keep him under wraps.
Today, 2/16/2016, I started up the seeder and planted some vegetables.
This seeder pops and crackles, breathes in and puffs out like Thomas the Train. It was already twenty years old when we bought it in 1992 or so, but, with continuing maintenance it should, as my father says, take me out. This is not inconsequential; Lee hates to seed and won't mind if we retire to watch the Cardinals at Spring long as I come back once a week to plant tomatoes and peppers and eggplant til I'm eighty. This seeder is far from hi-tech, but it is a better tool than pinching each seed between thumb and index finger and dropping them by hand in a little furrow in all manner of plastic trays of potting mix.
Back when my sister Laura would come up one weekend a year to help transplant the plug trays of begonias and petunias and seed geraniums we had picked up at the airport, we couldn't have imagined the six hundred flats Matt will transplant in just two days this week.
Sometimes I wonder what became of the greenhouse salesman who sold us our half dozen Canadian greenhouses over a five year period. We bought them because they were supposed to be strong enough to survive any wind short of a tornado. He always showed up just before suppertime and we always invited him in. Guess his commission wasn't enough to cover a hot meal....
Last month we visited a farm that hosts more than 12000 people on fall weekends for their corn maze. Their biggest problem these days: finding a place to park all their visitors. But the farmer also pointed out another venture: a field beautifully trellised and irrigated studded with an occasional 3 or 4 foot scraggly shrub. This was supposed to be an olive plantation, the successor to a sod field that fell victim to the real estate bust of a few years back. They had planted five acres of olives after farmers in a neighboring state had success with the enterprise. Only problem was: the olives wouldn't flourish that far south. That kind of upfront honesty about one's failures is a great example and comforting reassurance to all of us with a recycling bin full of misguided notions.
Sometimes, mistakes, bullheadedness, bad luck and poor timing stand out in memory like a 5 story flashing LED billboard on Times Square. If only.... What if......? Truth be told, a careening pinball path to success is likely no better and no worse than the norm. I hope all the young entrepreneurs Kansas City this past weekend have smooth sailing through their endeavors. And when they don't, I hope they survive to joke about it decades afterwards. May they laugh long and prosper!
You're not the only one who's made mistakes, but they're the only things that you can truly call your own....
Billy Joel

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