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  THE FARMERíS WIFE

 

       I did not plan to be a farmerís wife. 

       Here on the farm, on a cool August morning with the birds singing and the neat rows of greens and beets and peppers laid out across the road like a childís picture book, I think there is nothing better.  The farmer  works all day and every day, throughout the year, with no rest, always at the mercy of the weather  and the crows and the blackbirds and the raccoons,  thieves and rascals who steal and spoil the corn and greens and tomatoes, and yet he is his own master which is worth a great deal.  And we eat like kings, at least in the summer time.

         At this time of the year it is all about the corn.  The season has been beautiful, just enough rain, a temperate spring, corn coming up well, and  the great battles begin.  Every day we drive to the fields to chase the blackbirds and the crows.   Last year I wrote a curse to drive away the blackbirds, but it did not work.  I canít bring myself to write a curse against the crows because I love them so much.  They watch out for the farmer and when he appears they are all gone out of the field - except for the lookout, who laughs.  I love them when they fly low across the back yard,  grumbling quietly to themselves.

       As for the raccoons:  there are too many of them.  Lying dead on the road, eating the dog food on the back porch, ravaging the young corn, even, last summer, growling horridly at me when I ventured out after dark to take some clothes off the line. 

       What else?  The coyotes.  They prowl about the fields and sit at the edges of the cultivated land,  returning stare for stare when the farmer comes upon them.  We no longer take the old dog into the fields, for fear of  them.  One fall day we found the remains of a deer just off the field in a thicket- an almost perfect skull, some leg-bones,  a sad doormat of hair in a huddle.  This spring, the farmer was plowing when he heard a siren from an ambulance racing along the highway, and then an answer from a den of coyote puppies, hidden somewhere nearby.  But the coyotes do not eat the corn,  indeed they may occasionally eat the raccoons, which is a blessing.  Mostly though they eat voles and moles and field-mice, the occasional groundhog.   A brutally scraped-out groundhog hole and near it, the red, gnawed upper jaw of its hapless inhabitant.  And peopleís pet cats and dogs, left outdoors near conservation land.  We are warned now, in newspaper articles and through friendís stories, to keep our pets inside. 

       When the farmer was a little boy and even when I moved to this town, thirty years ago, there were many farms.  Now there are only two, and on only one of them, ours,  is everything grown on the farm itself, or in neighboring fields in the town.  People are interested when I tell them Iím a farmerís wife, but they donít get it.  Even though we have a farm stand and sell our produce, they donít understand the process, and they are suspicious of the vegetables. 

       ďIs this corn fresh?Ē  they ask and they peel back the husk and do the Martha Stewart thing of popping the kernels with a fingernail, ďIs this today's corn?Ē  and  there is the farmer, brown and sweating, pulling into the parking lot at 3 oíclock with another ten bushels he has just picked.  I wonder  where or when they think the corn on the bench was picked?  In New Jersey at midnight?  In New Hampshire at dawn?  But every ear of corn has been picked by the farmer, by hand, from plants  he  planted, weeded, fertilized, protected, worried over, and finally harvested.  Since early spring.  

 

 

TWO:  CORN FACTS

       The  farmer  was having a quiet talk to himself  the other day about growing corn, and I took some notes.  So here they are, I call them  Corn Facts. 

       The farmer begins by picking varieties, about ten out of the hundreds available.  He chooses the varieties based on several considerations;  taste, of course, and growing characteristics for the time of year are the important ones.  Experience and knowledge of the land he grows on guide his choices. 

       In early spring here in New England we are apt to have cold weather, wet weather, hot hum id weather, or a combination of them all.  There are varieties of corn for each kind of weather:  early spring corn that germinates out of the ground easily in cold weather,  reliable but not especially tasty, varieties which are not reliable but taste good, and varieties which fall in between these extremes.  The farmer tries to strike a happy medium,  planting  those which he knows from experience will taste best and are as reliable as can be without sacrificing taste.  He tries a few new ones each year and keeps growing them or not, based on  experience and feedback.  He will not list for me the varieties he likes best.  He says itís a secret.

       As the season progresses and the corn grows, the weather determines how well and quickly it matures and how it tastes.  Cool, cloudy weather at the time the silk appears means less  sugar production - the corn tastes less sweet.   In hot weather  the corn matures quickly which means the sugar turns to starch fast.  Good corn taste is a combination of sweetness  and  and starch, and is a matter of taste.  The farmer prefers the corn to be on the sweet side, so he tends to pick it when it is young.  Every day, he tastes the corn raw in the field, finding the balance between the two.   Those taste tests determine what he picks and when.  Too young, and  the corn tastes crispy and sweet, but not like corn.  Too old, and itís starchy and heavy. Also, by picking the corn on the young, sweet side, he can keep ahead of the bird damage.  He says that if the birds finish with the old corn - the picked- over field - before you pick the new corn, they will ďjump on itĒ and ruin it before you get a chance. 

       All during the spring, he has been planting different varieties at different times in order to have a consistent crop from late July until the first frost, usually sometime in late September.  Different varieties have different tastes of course.  Some are sweet and not corny, some are corny and not sweet, and all are affected by the weather, the kind of soil, the cultivation they get, and when they are picked.  Wet land gets one variety, dry land gets another.  All these factors are balanced by the farmer, who knows the soil.  As the summer draws on, the varieties he has planted are longer-maturing, the ears are larger, the quality os better and the picking time is shorter, because the weather is hotter.  Corn sales increase now too, from now until the middle of September.  They decrease then, which is a pity, because the last corn of the season is sometimes, the best. 

       This knowledge, experience, constant testing and tasting goes on all  season.  It reminds me of a painter who  revisits each corner of the canvas, touching up here, changing that,  making the composition better, or of a poet revising a poem, changing a line, shortening it, lengthening it, adding an image, subtracting a word, both artists striving to arrive at the perfect image, the poem that says exactly what is meant and no more, that will satisfy the reader of the poem,  the viewer of the picture,  the devourer of the corn .