Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Green Mist

Dan Tawczynski is trying to talk some sense into me — "What, are you crazy?" he says — but he is doing a lousy job of it.

I shared with him my dream since childhood of being a farmer — as he is. (Sure, when I was 8, I flirted with thoughts of being an astronaut, a cowboy and a wrecking-ball operator, but the farmer dream lingers.)

"Why am I crazy?" I ask Dan, as we sit Sunday afternoon in front of his stand at Taft Farm in Great Barrington. His son Keith is putt-puttering a plow around sections of the 200-acre family tract in preparation for planting sweet corn. Dan's wife, Martha, is inside selling homemade pies. Townspeople are pulling up in a veritable conga line for refills of their propane tanks. Grilling season has officially begun in the Berkshires, and the livestock is getting nervous.

It is a day so bright that Dan's glasses tint up, and he really doesn't have an ill thought to express about the farming profession. Instead, he tells me about the "green mist," tells me how there probably aren't any atheist farmers, tells me how he once met the happiest man in the world.

He's dodging the question, in other words. That's because he knows that being a farmer — though it pays nearly nothing and comes with a load of grief — is far from crazy. Here is the scenario that he and, indeed, many economists envision: The world, inebriated on cheap oil now for 100 years, is in for a radical reckoning as oil demand increases and oil supply dwindles. Shipping food thousands of miles to your fork will no longer be economically viable. And food production will become intensely local.

"It has to," says Dan, adjusting the bill of his baseball cap. "The question is when. Will I see it? Will it be my kids? Or will it be their kids?"

He fills a propane tank and returns. He has a small tool with a screwdriver in his hand. He folds it and shoves it down into his pocket, but it clunks to the ground. He puts it back into his pocket, and it drops to the ground again. Yup, a hole in his pocket. He laughs. "That's where the money goes, too."

Dan admits that, as the agricultural economy stands today, there is almost nothing he can grow and sell that a factory farm hundreds or thousands of miles away can't sell at a cheaper price — taste notwithstanding.

He has had plenty of opportunities to go into other lines of work, including an offer from World Bank. "But," he says, "something always led me to make the right decision." That is, to stay put.

He was 5 years old when he set up his first produce stand. It was in front of the family home on Division Street. Eleven years later, in 1961, he opened the farm stand at its current location on Route 183.

He fills another propane tank, and returns.

"You know," he says, "there's a phenomenon that occurs from time to time out in the fields. It's a green mist. It happens at midday, when you wouldn't expect it. I'll be out there writing on my clipboard, and suddenly I look up, and I'm surrounded by it. It's amazing. It just happens."

He has seen it maybe five or six times in his life. His parents saw it, too.

"It's a spiritual happening," Dan says. "It gives you a feeling — like maybe I am doing things right, and I no longer doubt myself."

He wrote about it years ago in American Vegetable Grower. He received a lot of feedback from farmers around the country who also have experienced it.

"The thing is, you can't be a farmer and not believe in God," he says. "When you're a farmer, you realize everything is temporary, and we are just stewards, and the land doesn't belong to us."

The key, he said, is to keep things simple. "But that's a very, very hard thing to do."

In the mid-1990s, Dan traveled to Siberia with a farm exchange group. And among the people he met was the happiest man in the world. The man had just returned to land taken from his family in 1917 during the Bolshevik Revolution.

The land sat in a valley surrounded by virgin forest. The man had begun cultivating his land and had just built a log home for his family. The mortar was still drying on the stove when Dan arrived. The wife baked tea bread. Their son picked blueberries. They placed the blueberries in a bowl with a dollop of fresh cream. Dan sat with the family around the table. He was handed a spoon, and they all ate the blueberries from the same bowl.

"That man sat there, grinning from ear to ear," says Dan. "I took a picture of him. That's a guy who has seen the green mist."