The late afternoon sunlight glowed golden as I carefully maneuvered the pickup truck across the dried, clay ruts next to our field.
I rolled to a stop, killed the engine, and checked the parking brake (old farm trucks are not to be trusted) then slid on my work gloves and slipped out of the driver’s seat. It was late spring. We would be planting summer crops soon, and the ground was nowhere near ready.
I popped open the gate of the truck and slid a broadfork across the plastic bed liner, heaving it onto the ground. Short and wide, the “fork” end of the tool reached me mid-shin. Fourteen-inch thick, steel tines curved down from the crossbar into the earth, anxious to go to work. Two solid, wooden handles rose up from either end of of the fork to above shoulder height. The whole thing weighed in at just over sixteen pounds which seemed a reasonable weight, until one lifted it over and over again, hundreds of times, working up one row and down the other, driving the tines deep into the soil. It was a tool tough enough to withstand the weight of three grown men jumping up and down on it, should they choose to.
I, however, didn’t have the weight of three grown men. I didn’t have the weight of one, for that matter. I had a pair of gloves, some thick-soled work boots, and 127 pounds of determination. I also had six rows of future vegetable beds stretched out in front of me. 900 square feet that needed to be finished this evening, before bed and after a long day of work at the “real,” off-farm job.
I grasped the handles, raised the fork with both arms, and brought it down hard, sinking it as far as I could into the hard clay soil of our newly leased property. It embedded less than an inch. I stepped both feet onto the crossbar and rocked back and forth, then side to side, painstakingly working the heavy tines deep into the ground.
I had never intended to become a farmer.
I grew up in a middle class, suburban family that didn’t keep so much as a vegetable garden. I rode my bike, roller-skated, and bickered with my siblings. I had family that lived in the country, and I loved spending time outdoors when I visited them, but even then my childhood excursions were limited to the fairly standard activities of splashing around in the creek and taking winter forays to the woods for Christmas trees. Over the years, I grew up, became a teacher, and lived in the city. Eventually, I bought a house. I put in a vegetable garden on a whim. Immediately, I was hooked.
I met my husband, who gardened as well. We bought a property with a small amount of land. Put in a garden entirely too big for our needs. Expanded it. Joined a farmers market. Made adjustments. Expanded again. Four years later we were the top vendors at the market and had leased another of acre of land, the one I was working now, trying to get it into shape after years of neglect.
I finally coaxed all 14 inches of the broadfork tines into the ground. I stepped off the fork and pulled backwards, using every last ounce of my body weight to flip the foot-deep fork with its load of clay. The chunks of soil crumbled slightly. Air reached deeper into the ground than it had for years, which was the purpose of this entire process: a no-till approach to soil regeneration that, with some love and time, should turn our over-farmed, over-worked piece of land into a beautifully producing field. I lifted the fork and brought it down again, repeating the entire process. Then again, and again, and again. After a row and a half, my shoulders went numb. I struggled at the ends of the rows, where tractors had stopped and turned around countless times over the years, compacting the Colorado clay into cement-like firmness. The ground was so solid that sometimes I hung from the fork’s handles, feet not touching the ground, dangling ridiculously as I tried to muster just a little more force to push it up and out of the ground.
This lifestyle we lead makes me a minority in on multiple fronts.
The number of farmers in the United States is decreasing. At the peak in 1935, there were 6.8 million farms. We’re down to about 2.05 million and that number has again been on a steady decline since 2007.
Most farms are getting bigger. By hundreds of acres. To turn a profit in an industry with the razor thin margins you need more land, bigger equipment, and acres upon hundreds of acres.
Farmers are getting older. The average age of the U.S. farmer is 58. The average of the organic farmer is 52. Even the average age of beginning farmers – farmers with less than 5 years’ experience, a designation we have just recently outgrown – is 47.
My husband and I are members of a shrinking profession, trying to make a go of it on a minuscule fraction of the land that statistics would tell us we need. We’re young, (well, we were young when we started,) he has the distinct disadvantage of a disability in the form of multiple sclerosis and I have the added…(dis)advantage(?) of being a woman.
Together we are a statistically improbable mess.
But I don’t often have time to dwell on statistics, trends, or populations between worrying about the rows that need to be planted, the garlic that needs to be hung, and the weeding that never (ever) ends. So in the cooling, evening air on this day, I lifted, jammed, and pressed my broadfork repeatedly into the ground concentrating much more on the fact that the clay was compacted and the aeration was poor than the fact that as a female, I represent only 30% of the farming population.
Out of the corner of my eye, ten or fifteen yards from where I was working, a man waved.
I nodded, stuck the fork in the row, and walked across piles of composted manure. Our property abuts the parking lot of a middle school and curious locals are nothing unusual. We have deep belief in fostering community and field-side conversations about our work are one way of accomplishing that.
“Evenin’,” I said. The man grinned.
“Looks like you could use a little more junk in your trunk!”
’’Excuse me?” I stepped back, confused.
“Tough ground,” he repeated, gesturing at the rows in progress at our feet, then at me. “You could use a little more junk in your trunk. Make the digging easier.” He smiled easily, just making small talk.
I stared. I am not quick at comebacks on a good day and my brain struggles to adapt to basic human conversation after two hours of staring at clods of soil. It was completely unprepared for unsolicited comments about my ass.
My husband came around the shed at the other end of the rows, making his way toward us. He raised his arm in greeting and the stranger raised his back, completely oblivious to my stunned face.
“Hey there!” The stranger greeted my husband cheerfully. “Told her she could use some more junk in her trunk to make the digging easier!” he said, unbelievably, for a third time.
My husband cocked his head in the same manner as a curious dog, and furrowed his eyebrows. He and I both stood there in silence.
Perhaps sensing the tension, perhaps still completely oblivious, the man said good-bye and turned back toward his truck in the parking lot. Silently, I grabbed my broadfork and returned to my rows.
“What was that about?” asked my husband.
I jammed the fork into the ground and stepped on it hard, turning up yet another load of dry clay interspersed with bindweed roots.
“This soil needs a lot of work.” I responded.
My husband took the topic change in stride, glancing down the rows I had already finished.
“But you’ve made a lot of progress.”
“Not enough,” I commented to no one in particular.
Not nearly enough.