Failed Steel

Failed Steel

We were taught in nursery school that some things were built to last. Houses of straw? Not a good idea. How about using sticks, instead? Not even close. Bricks? Bingo. Huff and puff as he might, the little pigs were safe from the big bad wolf. Plan ahead, the story teaches, and use sound judgement. This type of prudent behavior keeps the wolf from the door… or at least safely on the other side.

These fairy tales, which frequently double as parables, are great lessons for running a farm. When one is trying to grow a living organism, regardless whether it is a field of tomatoes, or wheat, or lambs, the farmer must have a plan. A good plan. We try to think ahead, anticipating problems. Unlike many businesses, if we don’t have a good strategy, things don’t just become disorganized, or inefficient. They die. Suffice to say, all the king’s horses and all the kings men can’t put a dead field of eggplants together again.

So when we buy a truck, we try to buy the best we can afford. A farm truck has nothing to do with style, or features, or practically anything a t.v. commercial would have us believe is an important factor in buying a truck. No, when a farmer buys a truck, she wants to know precisely how much stuff can she load on the back without the tires falling off, and exactly what sort of beating it can take from the ruts and potholes it is about to endure. Everything else is pretty much irrelevant.

In between, she keeps the oil changed, and makes sure it gets a tune up every 100,000 miles, and checks to see that the tires aren’t bald. She learned her nursery rhymes, remember? She would no sooner tolerate a clogged air filter than she would fall asleep in a haystack, allowing the cows to wade into the corn. Negligence is the opposite of planning, and no good farmer is ever negligent.

It wasn’t bricks, but steel that failed me. Thick, industrial steel. I was on the way to pick up a load of piglets, pulling my trailer behind my truck, when I heard an alarming metal-on-asphalt scraping noise behind me, then, WHAM!, my trailer slammed into my bumper. I pulled to the side of the highway, put on my hazard lights, and assumed I had been rear ended by a car behind me. Not so.  My trailer hitch, made of solid steel, had sheered cleanly in half, and was now keeping my trailer connected to the truck with one compromised flange of metal. A moment before, I had been going 60 miles per hour, with cars all around me. Yikes.

This, I realized, was what farming was really all about. As farmers, we try to do everything right. We check, and we double check. We plan. We devil’s advocate ourselves. We question our own decisions, constantly looking for evidence that we’re doing things right. And even when we buy a sturdy truck, and hook it to a professional-grade trailer, it only takes a structural failure of solid steel, impossible to anticipate or trouble shoot, to make the whole operation shut down.

For the small farmer, something like this can be the difference of getting food to farmers market or not, being even being able to pay the bills. Black and white. The system is already subject to huge variability, from droughts and floods to commodity fluxuations, to waking up with the flu one morning, and having no one else to do the chores for you. Throw in a twisted piece of broken steel, the very “brick house” of safety that we should be able to take for granted, and it can certainly feel discouraging at times.

But above all else, we farmers are an optimistic bunch, even if we’re a bit gruff and surly at times. In what other occupation does one plant a seed, and hope beyond hope that 1,000 different factors fall into place that will turn that seed into a canteloupe, or a field of grass? We can’t let one unexpected repair stop us, when we know there are nine hundred and ninety nine more to occupy our minds.

So what if the steel fails us? An hour of changing the bolts, squinting through the undercarriage dust that will doubtlessly fall into our eyes, and three hundred dollars later, we have a new tow package. We farmers are made of stuff that is stronger than bricks, or steel.

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