Between the Rows: Masterpiece

Published online: Aug 05, 2019 Feature, Below the Surface
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This column appears in the August 2019 issue of Potato Grower

Da Vinci had the Mona Lisa. The Beatles had “Let It Be.” Spielberg had Schindler’s List. Steinbeck had The Grapes of Wrath.

You? You have a thousand acres passed down through four generations. Half of it has terrible drainage. The other half still, after more than a century, manages to yield up Volkswagen-sized rocks when the plow goes through every spring. You have a family that, for the most part, still like each other despite far too many hours spent working together in less-than-ideal conditions. In July, you have beautiful rows of deep green potato plants with thousands of tiny white and purple flowers, and grain just starting to get a tinge of gold. In the fall, you have truckload after truckload making their way to the cellars to form a perfect pile of spuds.

This is your masterpiece.  

Your medium isn’t oils or watercolors. It’s not film or pen and ink. It’s potatoes and sugarbeets and winter wheat and soybeans. It’s crop rotations and irrigation schedules and processing contracts; seed treatment and hydraulic fluid and dyed diesel. Your canvas: Red River Valley glacial deposits, volcanic soil in Idaho’s high desert, rich sandy loam in the Columbia Basin.

Ag folk aren’t typically the kind of people you would describe as artsy and creative. Those words tend to denote an air of flakiness with which no farmer would want to be associated. America’s food producers have become the world’s most efficient by seeking out the best science, being the most technologically advanced, and sticking to sound agronomic and economic principles. Yet, you have to admit, it’s not a line of work you pursue without a couple romantic, American-dream-type inclinations. It may be trite and simplistic to call farmers the van Goghs or Warhols of the landscape, but I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway.

 “Agriculture: this first and most precious of all the arts…”

            —Thomas Jefferson to Robert Livingston, 1800

Only, unlike an artist, you can’t afford to produce crap that no one will buy year after year. You don’t have the luxury of crashing on buddies’ couches as one project after another fails to garner interest. “People just don’t understand my genius yet” is no comfort for a farmer; if that genius doesn’t produce results, kids’ college tuition and grandfathers’ legacies are very much on the line. If what they say about life imitating art is true, then this is the life it imitates: gritty, dirty, sun-soaked, rain-sodden, loan-deferring, tear-stained, brimming-with-laughter, sleepless-nights, send-up-a-prayer life.  

Thomas Jefferson called agriculture the “first and most precious of all the arts.” What makes it so precious? Of course, humanity has to eat, and with a lack of effective farms certainly makes that goal difficult to achieve. But agriculture is precious beyond that most practical of definitions. Those blessed few who practice it know there’s much more to the job than a simple paycheck or even the noble aspiration of feeding the world. It’s more even than a love of the land, which, like a lot of art, is abstract and beautiful and difficult to explain to someone who just doesn’t get it. It’s about creating something worth leaving behind, something to be remembered by years, decades, generations from now.

You want to talk about creating a masterpiece? How about the grown-up kid who has made it known he doesn’t intend to come back to the farm, yet can’t resist taking a few vacation days every fall to come home and run the spud harvester? Or the little boy proudly traipsing through the house in muddy, too-big rubber boots after helping Dad repair a busted sprinkler head? Or the daughter who is able to teach her college boyfriend how to drive a stick because she cut her teeth grinding through the gears of the old ten-wheeler?

Look, maybe your life isn’t something everyone would want to hang in their entryway—or even in the guest bathroom. But it is one heck of a work of art.