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December 2014

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The Farm: Let Them Eat Cake

Written by , Posted in Food, Sustainability, Sustainable Agriculture, The Farm

Let them eat Cake

 

I am a firm believer that we are a construct of the experiences we’ve had and the decisions we’ve made. When I talk about sustainability I look back at my life, especially my time on my family’s farm for  inspiration. I call them the Mad Cow Years, ten years of hell, with enough lessons to fill two books. Those lessons range from finances to virtues. This story is about generosity.

 

There are some summers when good drying days are scarce. Try as you might, you spend more days staring out the window hoping the rain won’t let loose from the skies either ruining hay you have down already or stopping you from cutting more. That’s why on the days that dawn bright and turn hot, you run. Everything is done so fast those days you half wonder if you’ve forgotten something or if you’re still asleep and dreaming. We ask ourselves, how can we keep this pace? or why haven’t I died yet?

On this day however, we weren’t baling, but collecting. It was something I knew well from my time at CNH in collections, but was made all the worse when we were collecting face to face from people we had to see the next day in the grocery store or the bank.

We started the day by collecting the rotten old bales that had been left in the field after they’d tumbled over the edge of the wagon. Those bales were usually at the end of the field where we had to turn the corner because controlling the direction of the ejector well wasn’t just an art, but required the operator to crane their neck so far that you couldn’t look straight for days.

“So what’s the damage?” Gary asked as he walked up when Jim parked the truck at the barn.

I waited for Jim to open the door and grab the invoice book. When I first went home we’d send the invoice in the mail and wait for a cheque. That time had passed however. When the first mad cow closed the boarder we thought everything would be OK. After the last one, we changed. We lived day to day and had to pay for the hydro and the credit cards. The government promised it would be over soon. We quickly learned how wrong that was.

And the bank. You may not notice the sarcasm in my voice. When we first spoke to our new bank manager he’d promised that we’d be in special accounts for eighteen months. Eighteen months going on four years. We kept the bank happy by making the payments they asked for, but we still didn’t know how much we owed. The bank manager hadn’t called in over a year and any attempt to speak to him was met with voicemail and long silences. We wondered if just wasn’t into us anymore.

When we needed anything Mom usually had to plead with the local manager just to have something go up the chain and come back down several weeks later. At the very least it was disheartening, though at the time I had more colourful words.

Clearing his throat, Jim said, “It’s twenty two seventeen.”

“Oh,” Gary said. His brows furrowed. The beer in his hand slipped as he glanced from Jim to me and back again. Taking a deep breath, he lifted the beer to Jim and said, “Here. Did you want one too, John?”

I shook my head. “No, I’m good thanks.”

Gary waited a few seconds before asking, “Hey, listen Jim, can I give you two cheques for this? Things are a little tight. I can give you half by the end of next week and half two weeks after that.”

Jim’s hands were balled into fists as he looked at the man. I could imagine what he was thinking. It was always on our mind. Why did we have to wait for payment when no one was willing to wait for us? Hydro threatened to cut us off. We’d lost our phone service several times. The bank hadn’t taken the farm only because the government had established a moratorium. Oh, that and the farm was worthless. A million dollar paperweight as they say.

Taking a deep breath, Jim said, “I can’t do that Gary. I need at least half today. I have to make the baler payment at the end of the week.” His body was shaking from what I can only assume to be anger.

Gary nodded his head. “Ok, I’ll give you half now and half in two weeks. Is that ok?”

Jim nodded before scribbling something in the invoice book. “Ya, sure. Hey Johnnie can you get the wagon hooked up to the truck while I get the cheque?”

It was an interesting dynamic we had with Gary. Both Gary and Debbie had jobs off the farm. Gary worked at the local A & P and Debbie at the bank. Yes, ironically the same bank that we used. I’m guessing that at some point Debbie had heard about our plight. Everyone knew it. Hell, everyone was talking about it.

“There go the Kent’s. I heard they lost the farm.”

“Nah, but they might yet.”

“How are they paying for anything?”

“Who knows? Maybe the bank is foreclosing.”

I know they weren’t all talking about us, but there was a time when the stares people gave us were disconcerting, even humiliating. We may not have stopped every conversation, but it was certainly a few. Rooms would fall silent when we entered, whispers were traded when we passed.

Gary and Debbie never spoke ill of us. They were helpful, even allowing us to borrow their tractor when we needed it. Debbie knew we were having issues on the farm. They surely knew, given Debbie’s employer. She would have seen our names or overheard from office chitchat. Nonetheless, Debbie never said anything.

At some point Gary began dropping off food or discreetly letting us know that it was available if we wanted it. They never made us feel embarrassed. They never lorded it over us or asked for special treatment on the bills.

Everyone knows that food can last longer than the date tagged on the best before sticker. When it hits that date at a grocery store, more often than not, the food has to be destroyed. Gary was taking the food from the store and “feeding” it to his cattle. In truth, most of it wound up in our freezer; pizza, two-bite brownies, cookies, cake. PIZZA and CAKE. We ate like kings for months when the only thing we could afford to put on our plates was beef. Steak and cake.

I left Jim and Gary drinking their beers and jumped into the truck. It didn’t take long to back the truck up to the wagon so I waited for Jim to show up. When he got there I had already climbed into the wagon and was sitting on the elevator we’d slid into the back. We had to have someone sitting on it so it didn’t bounce around. Oh ya, guess who got to do the sitting? Sheila would be soooo proud.

When Jim came up he was carrying food, piled as high as his neck. There was so much that some fell off and he had to go back for it. When he arrived he tossed a package of two bites at me and I crammed them into my mouth. He didn’t say anything as he jumped in the truck, throwing his thumb up through the back window.

I threw another brownie in my mouth and sat on the elevator wondering at where the day was headed. Even after we denied Gary the time he needed to pay his bill and he still offered the food. I know it wasn’t a concept of here it is because he had it, because it wasn’t the last time they had it for us. It might seem small, but those little cakes helped us get through the worst of it. At our low, our neighbours reminded us of the good things that can come from the community. They didn’t have to do it, but they did. In fact, Gary would have risked being reprimanded for his actions. Hats off Gary. You are full of honour.

Jim waved his hand at Gary as he stepped on the gas pedal. I would have loved to contemplate Gary’s generosity further at the time, but my focus was consumed by trying not to fall out of the wagon or drop the elevator on the road as we drove too fast towards home; there was work to be done.