Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Tales of a Google Farmer

The following was first published in Berkshire Magazine:

By Felix Carroll

I wish circumstances were otherwise, but the food I grow and the animals I raise are the result of knowledge gleaned almost entirely by means of blinkered queries plugged into an Internet search engine.

I am a Google farmer. I’m sure there are many of us out there by now—we who haven’t the time, ancestry, or formal education to have it any other way but to hack into the ancient agrarian code. There are drawbacks. There are benefits.

My father was a salesman of molded plastics, not a farmer. His suitcase of wares couldn’t have been any less inspired by the open country. No boyhood hay-baling for me. No late nights around the potbelly stove listening to solemn discussions about fence lines and soil profiles. No leaning against the buckboard soaking in the yarns of old farmers sharing curative uses of turpentine or saying things like: “Life is simpler when you plow around the stump.” (I found that saying through Google after looking up “farmer wisdom.” How lame is that?)

But when I was seven or thereabouts, my mother presented me with a pack of tomato seeds. I dug into the earth, turned it over, set the seeds into it, and food grew. I was hooked, which is how I eventually got to today, the midwife of several acres that, over the course of the last seven years, I have prodded and emended into increasingly nutrient-rich soil, thanks to wisdom liberally doled out by means of Google.

More or less, I look like I know what I’m doing. But to be a Google farmer is to stand on the shoulder of giants—real farmers, the ones worthier of the name than I, their faces furrowed by the learning curve of time, their laugh lines and lamentation lines merging far afield at the vanishing point of an eternally vulnerable crop. 

I’m certain that real queries put to real, local farmers would bear far more rewarding fruit, questions such as: “Is it just me, or is nature utterly ambivalent?” “Is it a Berkshire thing that soil conditions radically change every ten feet?”

But time won’t allow. I have a day job. What I learn about farming is on a need-to-know basis. 

If I encounter heavy clay, I hustle inside, take off my boots, type in “clay soil, what the hell?” (or something like that), and bingo! Twenty minutes later, I can speak with the authority of the ages about clay and soil and what the hell. 

More conventionally knowledgeable farmers probably make use of the Internet, particularly with regard to weather, but I doubt they, like me, bookmark YouTube videos on leaf shredding with a weed whacker. I doubt they need to keep web-page cheat sheets on companion planting.

I’d like to think the non-Google farmer’s vocational soundtrack is the put-put of a tractor not the click-click of a keyboard. 

And yet, the keyboard is my friend. I know about crop rotation because of Google. I know the signs of an unhealthy goat because of Google. If their stool doesn’t look like loose pebbles, for instance, that’s a problem, in which case I would have to bushwhack my way through Google to find reputable advice of what to do about it. 

I have a lot riding on my goats’ happiness. They eat the nasty, invasive multiflora rose. I know it’s multiflora rose because I looked it up. Otherwise, I might have gazed upon all that multi-flora rose and remarked, “My, look at the pretty rose bushes covering the field. How lucky are we?” 

Each year, the goats clear the way for more of this land to farm. They are highly sociable animals. I can tell them my troubles. Each morning, they lean into me as if to say, “Come on, old pal, you’re doing just fine. Now how’s about you feed us some more grain, and then feed us some more grain. And after that, maybe bring us some chips and salsa.” 

They play me for a fool. Look it up: “sure signs goats are playing you for a fool.”