It Takes Time: Why Sustainable Farming Can’t Be Rushed

Maybe there’s something deeper to the stereotype of old-school farmers as plodding, slow-moving people.

I’m not much of a drinker, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and a place for it.

It was true that we hadn’t eaten all day. But unless we took all the time we needed, our problems would only multiply.

For me, that would be a dirty martini with Bob on the front deck on Saturday evening, after our farmers’ market ends. Since our long market day starts early, Bob is absolved from Saturday evening chores, and time is on our side. We sit together, chat sporadically, listen to Prairie Home Companion, and enjoy the girls’ antics, but mostly study the waning light as it illuminates different parts of the forest along the eastern edge of our property. That ritual is followed by the next joy of the night, a roasted chicken dinner, and then by our once-a-week dessert. Saturday night is a celebration we look forward to all week long.

But last Saturday, Mom and Dad were gone on vacation. We had someone come in to do the afternoon chores for us, but the thunderheads on the horizon suggested that there would be a strong downpour sometime in the night, and the chickens would need to be herded into their shelters beforehand.

“Ok, let’s do it now,” I urged him, once we’d unpacked from the market, “so we can go home and not come back.”

“No,” he shook his head, grimacing at the skyline. “It’s still too hot. We need to wait until dusk.”

I sighed. That meant Saturday martinis would be replaced by herbal tea. But at least we’d get to watch the light from the deck, listen to the radio, and enjoy a good dinner.

But when we got home, we had another surprise waiting for us. A bear had broken through our electric fencing and attacked one of our beehives. Bob madly began trying to reconstruct an ad hoc hive to keep the bees from abandoning the site, while the outraged worker bees took their rage out upon his legs and ankles. I watched briefly from the safety of our screen porch, then set about calling every one of our beekeeping friends and neighbors to find hives and helpful advice.

Carol up at Heather Ridge Farm patiently talked me through the procedure of nailing and strapping the remaining hives closed. We would have to wait until dark. And we couldn’t procrastinate. The bear would be back.

The martini was already out of the picture. There went the herbal tea as well. There went the nice dinner. And if we were to be so busy, it wouldn’t be worth bothering with dessert, either.

Mark and Lissa down the road had a spare hive they weren’t using. Heather next door told me to bring the kids over and she’d watch them while we ran about trying to fix things.

I brought the girls down to Heather’s cabin. I apologized for interrupting their Saturday night. She shrugged her shoulders. “Take all the time you need.”

Bob and I drove down to the farm to exchange the car for the pickup before heading out to Mark and Lissa’s. Lissa led us through her barn to find all the pieces, then helped us load the hive into the truck.

“We’ll try to get this back as soon as possible,” Bob assured her.

“No,” she waved her hand at us. “Take all the time you need.”

By this point, the light was beginning to fade and the intense heat of the day was finally letting up. We drove to the farm to put the chickens in. As we arrived in the back field, we were greeted by the calls of a few evening thrushes, and the sight of contented, happy chickens just settling in for the night. We both sat quietly for a moment in the truck, studying those darkening storm clouds. The impulse was to rush, to rouse the birds and hustle them into their shelters as quickly as possible, to get back to fixing this beehive mess, to get some supper, and to find a way to move our hives out of the danger zone before thunder, lightning, and a return visit from a bear with a sweet tooth.

Time is the most essential ingredient when producing food in a sustainable fashion.

But rushing, in this business, results in further complications and disasters. A bird could be injured or killed, one of us could fall and get hurt, or our nervous energy could just make the livestock unwilling to comply with our herding. We needed that second in the truck to transition, to lose our tension and to stop worrying.

I repeated in my head the words both Heather and Lissa had said: “Take all the time you need.”

I gave thanks that I live in a community where folks understand the nature of growing food.

That’s a funny quirk about this business we are in. Urgency comes often in the throes of the growing season, but a panicked response will inevitably create more urgency and, possibly, catastrophes. As we slowly coaxed and scuttled the birds into their shelters for the night, talking softly, moving with care, I thought about the stereotype of the rural farmer—the plodding bloke who speaks slowly, who never seems in a hurry, whose brain function seems moronic when compared to his urban cousin. It was true that we could hear thunder rumbling. It was true that the bear would come back. It was true that we hadn’t eaten all day. But unless we took all the time we needed, our problems would only increase in number.

It was a long night. We worked until well after dark, then breathed a sigh of relief once the storm finally rumbled its way into our front field. We trusted that not even a bear would be interested in coming out in thunder and lightning. Bob rigged up lights to shine on the hives and spent the remainder of the night on the screen porch, just to be certain. We slept a few hours, then woke before the sun came up to finish moving the hives.

And in the end, we got it all done. The chickens were safe. The undamaged hives were relocated. The angry workers got a new hive (although they are still inclined to make a punitive sting now and then).

As I reflect over this past weekend, I recognize how time is the most essential ingredient when producing food in a sustainable fashion. But it cannot be saved. It must be taken.

Watches and clocks mean little. So long as something is growing, daylight and weather are the arbiters of the schedule.

As for the martini and the roast chicken and the Saturday night desserts, there will always be next Saturday. And if not, come next winter, we’ll make up for it beside the fireplace, when we can take all the time we need.

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