Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Farming: A Reality Check

On my travels with the marching band, we belted out many an old TV theme song to alleviate some of the implicit boredom that goes along with long trips on school buses. "Green Acres" was a standard part of the repertoire. The cute and popular 1960s fish-out-of-water television show that went with it embraced every possible stereotype about people living in an agricultural community, albeit in a sweet, charming way. You never got to see the real downside to living in the country or the dangers of working on a farm.

For instance, everybody remembers the pet piglet from the show. What you never got to see is that the pig would eventually grow into a large, mean-tempered beast who could not only kill you but would also certainly consume you (yes, eat you) if it did. The most vicious variety of hog is typically a sow with a litter of new pigs- anyone who's ever been around hogs knows this and gives a new mother a wiiiiiiide berth. Hopkins' family owned and operated the largest hog farm in the county when we were growing up...one morning, he showed up for school exhausted, and volunteered the information that he'd gotten penned in by a new mother sow while feeding the hogs the night before. He'd stood trapped behind her, motionless in the cold and dark, for hours until his father realized he hadn't come in and went looking for him. If he'd so much as flinched, that sow would've killed him. It made me truly thankful that he could be that still for that long and also that my mother's family had gotten out of hogs after my grandfather died.

Most people took it for granted that I was a townie, since my father is a doctor and we lived in a subdivision inside the city limits. Nobody realized that I spent the majority of my summers dividing my time between the family farm a hundred miles away, and my godparents', where there were a dozen or so Tennessee Walking Horses living in a stable behind the house. My older two uncles were horrified when they learned that the farm manager once allowed me to help bring in the herd when the cows got out- Mom's family didn't believe in letting women do anything dangerous like that- but I was there, the hands needed the help, and my uncles were unreachable on the other farms at the time. There was a lot of yelling about how I could've gotten trampled, and then the manager was told not to let me work with the cows anymore...so I was relegated to stuff like catching and killing moles in the garden. I hate moles, which are incidentally creepy and difficult to kill. I would've rather taken my chances with the cows.

Because Dad is a general practitioner in a small farm town, he sees everything from croupy babies to fingers chopped off in the baler. Evening meals during crop season were often interrupted by calls from the hospital notifying Dad that one of his patients had suffered an injury. He'd get up, put on his white coat, and leave immediately, while my mother gathered his plate off the table and put it into the oven to await his return. Sometimes we'd hear the Medevac helicopter (an old Vietnam-era Huey, until the city hospitals purchased newer private air ambulances) fly over the house, its meaning clear: the injury had outstripped Dad's ability to effectively treat it at our local hospital, and the patient was flying out to a trauma unit at one of the city hospitals.

The reason that the dangers of farming are weighing so heavily on my mind today is that one of my father's longtime patients, someone who's been with the practice since Dad first arrived in town over forty years ago, died yesterday in a farming accident. Learning of yesterday's accident from a former bandmate, I called home to ask my parents what had happened- my mother had heard that there was an auger (a large drill-like farm implement) involved. I asked her to stop. That's a level of farm accident about which nobody wants to know the details.

My father delivered this man's children. He treated the whole family all their lives. I went to school with two of the daughters. It's the kind of tragedy that eventually touches any farming family and sends shockwaves through the whole county, because you know how easily someone in your family could be next.

Folks, your food doesn't come from the freezer case at WalMart. It doesn't magically appear on the shelf at Kroger. Some farmer grew it or raised it, and risked his or her safety to do it. Think about that the next time you slap those ears of corn or a package of steak on the conveyer at the grocery.

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