It must be spring! Farmers in Virginia’s pastoral Shenandoah Valley are out and about preparing their fields for this year’s crops. In fact, farmers in Rockingham Co., Virginia, have already made their first cuttings of hay for silage to feed their livestock.
This farmer, riding his ubiquitous John Deere tractor, was heading back to the farm.
Though cold for early March, bright sunshine bathed the landscape in Virginia’s lovely Shenandoah Valley. This farmer took advantage of the situation and spread a different kind of sunshine.
For those of you not familiar with rural lingo, “spreading sunshine” equals spreading manure. It’s a necessary and important job on a family farm that includes horses, cows, and other livestock. Winter weather, especially this wet winter’s weather, doesn’t always allow farmers to regularly “clean out the barn.”
When the opportunity presents itself, farmers waste no time in getting the job done. When crop fields are frozen enough to support heavy farm equipment, the manure spreaders are loaded with the fertile livestock waste and spread onto the frost-firmed ground.
It can be a stinky job, but someone has to do it. In fact, it is the smell that satirically coined the phrase “spreading sunshine.” When the ground is frozen, its time to rid the barns of all the manure that can be hauled while the conditions are right.
We were four snowbird couples, all in our 60s and 70s, gathered for dessert and discussion. We all vacationed in the same Florida condominium building. We had a lot of tales to tell, and plenty of time and opportunity to relate them.
I wasn’t quite sure how the evening would go, given that not all of the couples knew one another. I need not have worried. The ubiquitous congeniality and spontaneity to share kept the conversation moving smoothly, freely, flawlessly. Amtrak never ran so well.
These had been lives well lived, not arrogantly or haughtily, but for family, community, with purpose and genuine, earthy pleasure. Farming does that to you. Most had some rooted connection, directly or indirectly, to the land in their upbringing.
The group was geographically diverse, too. Bermuda, England, Ontario, North Carolina, and Ohio were each well represented.
After dessert, the stories just flowed. We all sat around a plain rectangular table. The chatter rolled as naturally as the crashing waves on the beach that served as our winter front yard.
Despite our various backgrounds, we had a lot in common. We were all grandparents, each with two children. Surprisingly, the conversation centered on subjects other than the grandchildren and their parents.
Rather, reminiscing of careers, successes, failures, misadventures, heroics, and pure silliness filled the evening. I marveled at the wisdom that surrounded me. Not once did the current global politics enter the confab. That was an unspoken blessing.
Instead, true stories of hidden treasures, broken dreams, personal confrontations, changing priorities, and even morel mushrooms dominated the banter. Of course, smartphones did fact checking.
The comfort level with one another was sublime, not altogether surprising given the characters in the room. Years of experience from office managers, teachers, cooks, explorers, antique enthusiasts, carpenters, and community volunteers were present and accounted for.
Unfettered wisdom oozed from each participant. Despite some of the type A personalities in attendance, no braggadocios emerged. It was an equal-opportunity session, and all took advantage of the necessary give and take of listening and responding. I felt honored to be a member of this temporary social club.
We had originated from backgrounds that spanned rural, tropical, transient, suburban. That only enriched our camaraderie and the conversation. One refreshing tale led to another.
Though no clergy was among us, it was pretty clear we were in the midst of a sacred moment that lasted more than three hours. There was no agenda, no order of service, no liturgy, no sermon, only immediate trust, mutual respect, adamant admiration, and unending inquisitiveness. The gathering was church defined.
Amid all the world’s problems, I found peace and hope in these kind folks and their faithfulness despite humanity’s all too frequent calamitous interactions. Our friends’ faith rang loud and clear, always, always in humble, gentle, kind voices.
Some of these individuals had just met, and yet here they were affirming and absorbing and encouraging one another without bias or inquisition. I was grateful to be counted among them. I felt safe, secure, sure, loved, appreciated, and appreciative.
In truth, the beachfront location was the magnet that drew us all together in this pleasant place. The genuine fellowship was the glue that cemented our budding friendships.
Humanity too often measures historical events in earth-shattering happenings. For me, this evening of pure, pleasurable fellowship instead modeled the way we all should go. It was a moving watershed moment that pulled me into this new, transformative year.
Oats shocks standing at attention in a field during the dog days of summer is a familiar scene in Holmes Co., Ohio. When the border between them and the road holds a row of summer’s wildflowers like chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace, the landscape is all the prettier.
When fire destroyed my neighbor’s old bank barn a couple of years ago, all the firefighters could do was protect the outbuildings. The fully-involved structure burned to the ground.
A month later, blessed insurance arrived in the form of neighbors, family, friends and church members who raised a new building in a day. They started at first light and had the barn roofed and sided by evening. It’s the way of rural life here.
I’ve happily lived my adult life in one of the richest agricultural areas in Ohio. That’s a bit ironic for someone born in a city and raised in a suburb.
My parents influenced my appreciation for the agricultural lifestyle. Dad introduced his five children to farm life early on. Being an avid sportsman, Dad loved to hunt and fish.
Dad knew the importance of building trust with the farmers to be allowed to tromp around their property. Dad listened to their stories, and they returned the favor.
Mom influenced me positively on farming, too. An accomplished artist, she painted lovely landscapes of farmsteads and their surroundings. The scenes Mom created closely resemble the ones I see every day.
My wife and I built our first house on a bluff overlooking two tributaries of the mighty Killbuck. Manicured farm fields fanned out to the west from our front yard. Thick stands of mixed hardwoods that glowed in the fall filled the surrounding, steep hillsides.
When Farmer Bob came around on a hot summer’s day fixing barbed wire fence rows, I ran out with a cold, clear glass of water just for a chance to talk to him. When it was time to till the garden, Farmer Jim came up from his field to do the job. I offered to pay, but he just winked and smiled and advised using Triple 12 fertilizer.
When we moved northeast 16 miles 36 years ago, we hoped to experience the same interactions. We did that and more.
When I asked Farmer Levi for some manure for the garden, he delivered it on a bitterly cold February morning. By the time I had dressed to go out to help him, a steaming pile of natural fertilizer already sat atop the snow.
I thanked Levi and asked him how much I owed him for his trouble.
“Nothing,” he said. “I don’t have anything in it.”
That earthy attitude is only one of the reasons I’m wedded to this charming, inviting agricultural community. There are many others.
No one would ever mistake me for a farmer. Yet, I feel right at home whether in milking parlors, bank barns, farmhouses or pastures.
For more than four decades I have admired families and circles of friends gathering crops, and sharing equipment and smiles. They work long and hard in all kinds of weather for narrow profit margins.
Farming is no longer the dominant occupation it once was here. Less than 10 percent of the Amish farm today. The recent uptick of local produce truck patches has helped continue the family agricultural tradition. I’m glad they have produce stands and auctions to turn all their efforts into cash.
As I photograph sunrises on early chilly mornings or sunsets on sweltering evenings, my mind wanders to my mother and father. I’m forever thankful they taught me to appreciate the land and the good folks who cultivate it.
Rural living has more than made its mark on me. It has wholly and wonderfully enriched my life.
It seems like only yesterday that we were asking ourselves, “When will summer arrive?” I think that was in June when it was still cool and very wet.
Well, a lot has changed since then. It seemed like the summertime months turned on themselves. It was a Jekyll and Hyde summer to be sure.
The persistent rains of early summer suddenly ceased. After the deluge that created localized flash flooding in Holmes County on July 14, regular rains were scarce. We lapsed into a dry spell that lasted too long to help the corn kernels swell with sweetness.
Initially, truck patches struggled with mildew, mold and rot in the chilly dampness of early summer. Later, though, as crops matured, their unquenched thirst did them in. They ripened ahead of schedule, withered on the vine or failed to produce the desired yield.
So here we are, the autumnal equinox upon us, and we’re wondering, “Where did summer go already?” As humans, we can be as fickle and contrary as Ohio’s crazy weather. It’s in our nature, and we have the grievance gene working overtime.
Therefore, now that September is waning, it seems only fair to wonder what happened to summer. My best answer is, “I don’t know.” I do know, however, that the signs of summer’s end have shown for some time.
School started weeks ago for many students, always a sure omen of summer’s demise. Summer flies other white flags, too.
Spurred on by the early rains, rows and rows of field corn sprouted lush and fertile, growing taller than tall. Without regular August rains, they have withered and turned brittle brown overnight. It’s been a long time since I remember seeing cornstalks standing like mustered soldiers this early in the harvest time.
(Click on the photos to enlarge them.)
Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
Fireflies faded, and crickets increased amid the dryness. Our feathered friends have dawned their duller wardrobe for safety sake. Their luxurious singing has muted with their habitat’s colors.
Migration is in full swing for birds and butterflies alike. Look quickly. They won’t stay. They have long, challenging journeys ahead.
Another obvious indication of summer’s passing is just how soon sunset seems to arrive each evening. And that’s after the sun was late in rising daily.
With the reduction in daylight hours, the air has cooled considerably overall. Of course we’ll still have some splendid days ahead. But day-by-day, week-by-week, the evening and morning coolness forces us to dress in layers to adjust to the daily variables.
Summer has gradually been waving goodbye in a very colorful fashion for weeks now. Deciduous leaves have been slowly changing from their summer greens into fall’s warmer fashionable trends of crimsons, yellows, and russets. Many leaves have just simply fallen off.
Healthy stands of goldenrod bend and recoil with the slightest breeze. Wild sunflowers separate highways from pastureland. The American Goldfinches couldn’t be happier, gorging on their fresh fruit.
Funny how we humans too often seem to want what we don’t have, and when it does arrive, we long for something else. I think that pretty much sums up summer and answers our rhetorical questions about summer’s arrival and departure.
We can’t control the weather or the seasons. We can only enjoy them whatever weather they bring. The key is to embrace the moment at hand, so we don’t have to look back and wonder where the time went.
Summer is about to depart. Let’s send her out with joy, as we usher in the harvest season with gladness and thanksgiving.
I stood and talked with the farmer as he rested his team of horses beneath a tree along the road. For the end of May, the morning was muggy. Both he and the horses needed a break from their bucolic labor.
The horses stamped and snorted and swished their tails to discourage any bothersome insects. The conversation with the Amish gentlemen turned toward appreciation and care for the environment.
Across the weedy fencerow, we lapsed into a philosophical discussion on how we all are rooted in the soil regardless of where we live. The setting was perfect for such a stirring chat.
The musky smell of the sweated horses, the pungent fragrance of fresh earth turned, the sprouting leaves of the black walnut tree that served as our shady shelter together fueled our ideas and ideals. We were of one mind.
We concurred that it was too easy to ignore such a simple concept as caring for the good earth. We wondered if society’s reliance on modern technology and our fast-paced global order have dulled us into forgetting our roots.
He pointed out all the construction in our local area, the continued depletion of farmland and wildlife habitat. Little by little, our pastoral landscape was transitioning.
He wondered if people today understood where their food originated. Did they know all of the effort or any of the processes needed to put food on their table? Was the younger generation becoming so fixated on electronic screens to even care?
We both shook our heads in wonderment of what lay ahead, not so much for us, but for future generations. Will they get to enjoy the beauty of the natural world the way we do?
And with that, my friend encouraged his workhorses to giddy up. Soon a squadron of winged insect eaters swooped overhead, exacting an instinctive aerial harvest.
As I continued my morning walk, I mulled over the conversation. A scene from 35 years ago popped into my head. My family and I were at Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts. The place is a living museum where folks can go to see how rural life used to be long before the industrial revolution. Another option would be to visit Holmes County, Ohio.
We stood outside the dairy barn near a group of school children and their teacher, who pointed to the Holsteins.
“That’s where milk comes from,” he said.
His students were in disbelief. One even countered that milk came from the store. We walked away quietly.
The sweet-sour aroma of fermenting silage stirred my senses and brought me back to reality. That earthy smell represented the soil, the seeds, harvesting, the manpower and machinery needed to feed the cows to provide milk or meat.
That’s what being rooted to the earth does. It makes you take note and absorb and appreciate all that is around you.
The creeks and ponds, the marshes, and the mudflats are of equal import as much as the grain fields and pastures. Together they provide habitat and balance to earth’s fullness.
Rooting yourself to the soil is critical in caring for the earth no matter where we live or what our occupation. Yes, we need industry and growth to feed, clothe and house the planet’s population. We also need the earth to be healthy and respected to accomplish that goal.
If you want to feel rooted to the earth, you are welcome to walk by my neighbor’s barnyard. I’m sure neither he nor his herd will mind.
Scenes such as these make iconic Amish country photographs. However, fields of shocked grain like this are less and less frequent. Rules for the Amish farmers are changing, allowing them to make use of equipment like combines to harvest oats and wheat.
Only the lower order Amish still shock wheat and oats. This method permits the grain to dry in the warm, often hot, August sun. Once the moisture content is low enough, the shocks are pitchforked onto a wagon and hauled to the barn. There a thrasher separates the grain from the chaff.
I hope this process remains, if only for its marvelous beauty.
“August in Amish country” is my Photo of the Week.
I was on another assignment when I saw this scene recently. I lowered the window of my vehicle and took the photo. It’s the iconic image of Amish gathering hay that most folks envision. The truth is, the way Amish farm has changed drastically in recent years. Most mainline Amish bale hay, either in rectangular bales or big round bales. Only the most conservative of the sect, the Swartzentrubers and those who belong to the Dan Church, continue to use the method pictured to gather hay.
I especially liked that the grandchildren were driving the team of horses while Grandpa properly balanced the huge stack of loose hay.
I have been encouraged by friends and followers of this blog to share more of my photographs. I have decided to post a Photo of the Week, choosing the best photograph taken during the previous week.
I hope you enjoy this series of photos, and I welcome your comments.
The first offering is of an Amish farmer with his Down Syndrome son. The youngster walked the length of the field to catch up to his father and the team of work horses. His father placed a large chunk of a recently cut tree trunk on the harrow for the boy to use as a seat. Half-way across the field, the father handed the reins to his young son to guide the team of horses on his own.