First, a personal note. I’m about to throw in the towel on farm work. It would be an excellent way to make a living if there were a viable living to be made at it. But there isn’t. I earned only three Social Security credits last year, and that was with a stable employment history at a single company. Truth be told, my employment history there was the best I’ve had anywhere since my summer jobs at Hersheypark. I was on payroll, my bosses were trustworthy and easygoing enough, and I completed two stints clear through to seasonal layoffs. My work history at the environmental consulting firm where I was hired a few months out of college looks better on paper, assuming that the paper has been reviewed by risk-averse in-house counsel who will overrule any inflammatory statements by HR dipshits, but in point of fact, I was a burned-out presentee for much of my six months there, and for various reasons I never really got the hang of the work. I still have a draft of a resignation e-mail that I was on the verge of sending to my boss a month and a half into the job, when things had already been getting scary for a week or two. That’s what a nightmare that job was.
The consulting job did, however, leave me with a legacy that I have come to treasure more and more as the years have gone by: over $20k in payroll income. Because #WINNING, followed by #LOSING. I have jack shit to show for all the farm work I’ve done for the moochy relatives who first recruited me into agriculture. What’s so perverse is that everything I’ve done for them has been objectively productive, as opposed to maybe a fifth or a quarter of what I was supposed to do at the environmental consulting firm. The rest of it wasn’t exactly bullshit for the most part; it was more dysfunction and inevitable inefficiency, since regulators can’t know what the hell is wrong with a site, if anything, unless it has been documented. We burned a lot of gas driving around eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey documenting groundwater pollution at gas stations. One site in dirty Jerz (Edison, if memory serves) had already been fucked up to hell by some yahoo doing a quickie UST removal for 25 years running, and there was no trend towards its getting any cleaner. I also got sent on business, if it can be called that, to Van, TX, within a week of the date that this year’s tornado leveled much of the town, because Chevron wanted to duplicate HAZWOPER training with its own superfluous in-house training scheme, and treat us to barbecue.
(By the way, a quick shout out to Steve Morehead. If by chance you’re reading this, sorry I didn’t get back to you about the wildcat mines in Scranton. I was a fucking mess for months. Mea culpa.)
Anyway, I went from this job with upper-middle-class pay and no real meaning to one with a lot of meaning but no goddamn pay at all. For years. And now the relative who invited me out west to help him on the farm (let’s call him Joe Dirtbag) has managed, after years of harassing me and gaslighting everyone who would listen, to finally go so far and so blatantly over the line that my dad is about to fly out and sit him the fuck down for some damn ‘slpainin’. I am convinced that this dude and his wife have been intimidating everyone who has been inclined to stand up to them for years, including major investors in their farm.
These are Island Boy’s housemates, so, yeah, it’s some real hang ten aloha groovy-ass hippie mooching, excuse-mongering, scapegoating, and catfishing by gaslight. The final straw was an incident of blatant on-the-job harassment, not legally actionable, I assume, but still the kind of behavior that in any other job would have prompted me to summarily resign with cause. I’d been suckering vines in a rainstorm, and a few minutes after I came back up to dry off a bit, Joe Dirtbag very calmly asked me whether I’d found local lodging yet. This was after my dad had begged him, at my request, to stop asking me about my housing situation.
It’s a sensitive subject that he uses to concern-troll me in furtherance of his own preening feelz. Three years ago now, I walked out on him and his wife because he had totally lost it, emotionally abusing me (a big no-no) and becoming so irrationally angry at me that I feared imminent domestic violence at the next minor confrontation. They managed to redirect blame for damn near the whole thing onto me. Meanwhile, I was in poor financial shape, burning through my residual savings and investments, and in no shape to apply for jobs off the farm due to this major eruption of family drama and the emotional trauma that I had very recently sustained. Joe Dirtbag was effectively my most recent landlord and employer. Shit was bad. I ended up back at the farm, in part because I was frightened of going flat broke.
For the past three years, this shithead has repeatedly made fun of me for being homeless. Sometimes he’s pulled cheap stunts like supplying me with half-rotten, waterlogged firewood, or phoning me to remind me to feed his farm cats while he’s out of town. These are the sorts of things he considers appropriate to do to me when I’m working for him and living in conditions that are legally uninhabitable and objectively much worse than those he provides for his dog. I understand that he and his wife won’t take me back in because they’re still butthurt, and that it’s a form of refuge that comes at a steep price in any event, but the least he can do is to not raise the subject like a total asshole. But he just had to raise it, not 36 hours after my dad warned him to steer clear.
Joe Dirtbag probably thinks that I’m a whiny pussy and a tattletale, but I honestly do not give a shit about his opinions of me as a man (seriously; he’s that irrational and erratic) as long as he airs them discreetly, in a way that they won’t blow back on me. This time he really blew it. Motherfucker is begging to have his mellow harshed with extreme prejudice.
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Joe Dirtbag trying to run a farm. He’s had almost exclusively glowing things to say about my competence and work performance under his supervision. Even so, I’m hesitant to use him as an employment reference, both because he’s an antisocial narcissist with whom I do not want to be professionally associated and because he can be a fucking nutcase, meaning that I can’t really be sure of what he will or will not say about me to recruiters. That is, I can’t really trust him to refrain from engaging in tortious interference in my job search; he probably won’t, but probably isn’t good enough for an emotionally abusive relative who won’t transcend his own narcissism for the immediate purpose of not alienating the only person who has shown up to do time-critical cultural management in his vineyard. Even if Joe Dirtbag promises to keep things strictly business with me going forward, I can’t trust him. He promised my dad that he wouldn’t bug me about my housing situation, too, and I’ve probably watched him treat his wife like shit hundreds of times, usually for no excusable reason.
There’s probably a lot of this sort of horseshit among the back-to-the-land crowd. These are people who give themselves dispensations to violate labor and housing laws because they’re organic. This is the subculture that enables WWOOF. If you look around the towns where back-to-the-landers do their shopping (Eugene, Ashland, Santa Cruz, etc.), you’re likely to see young couples with pit bulls (props, really) flying signs in strip mall parking lots, at freeway off-ramps, and on street corners downtown. Usually the boyfriend in these couples looks like he’d punch a motherfucker for looking at his woman the wrong way. Often he looks like he might make a first-strike punch on his woman, too. The chicks in these couples are no great shakes morally, either, or sartorially or hygienically, but they’re usually at least a small improvement over the dudes.
This is roughly the same shit that the coarser sorts of hippies have been pulling since Woodstock. Some men become Hell’s Angels; some don rags and play dominance games with all comers between the library and the LTD bus station in downtown Eugene; some run farms into the ground. There’s no beating these asshats. They’re in a war of attrition, probably over some of the dumbest shit imaginable, and you and I don’t have the sheer willpower, energy, and narcissism to outlast them. The only thing to do is to leave.
Think about our food supply depending on the judgment of these cosplay bullshitters. Appreciate Mexicans yet? The entrenchment of a non-English-speaking foreign peasant underclass is not a good civic or socioeconomic development for the United States in its own right, but if the alternative is some filthy early Boomer who would rather use tactics worthy of bottomfeeding pickup artists to harass his unpaid employees, we’d best choose the Mexicans.
Actually, if we don’t choose the Mexicans, the government and the growers will choose them for us. Americans demanding their own payroll farm jobs on reasonably well-run farms (a redundancy; the badly run ones are too immoral and broke to make payroll) would force some equity into the farm labor recruitment system. As things stand today, however, Americans who are interested in farm work seem more likely to seek employment at wankery operations. Maybe I’m overestimating SWPL involvement. In any event, organic agriculture is still a fairly marginal industry, no where near able to feed the country, let alone maintain export volumes, and there’s no shortage of organic or semi-organic farms that are totally masturbatory, or of starry-eyed farm hands whose attitudes about agriculture are intractably masturbatory.
The world will starve if its farms are run by idealistic wankers who value feels above production numbers. Thankfully, most of the acreage in the US is not run in this fashion. It is owned and managed by old-line Dutch or Japanese families, or maybe by Sikhs or Armenians, and run by Mexicans. The work has to be done by people who act like adults on the job. There’s just too much of it.
It’s a lawless regime. Just the other day, there was a news bulletin on KLCC about how the owner of a big fruit grower in Southeastern Washington State had been fined $2.3 million for immigration (read: labor) violations and was now complaining about the “need” for “immigration reform.” This is rather like O. J. Simpson complaining about the need for sentencing reform for violent felonies. There are better ways to grow our crops, with a less entrenched, unassimilated, and unenfranchised Mexican peasant underclass. There are reforms that can be instituted to limit the subsidies lavished on agricultural robber barons. But none of this is possible if Americans are wankers or total no-shows in the fields. The lawlessness of maintaining an underworld of Mexican peasants in plain sight is nothing like the lawlessness of food shortages. There are savvy people at the USDA who have an eye on these things. If Americans can’t or won’t get the work done, Mexicans will appear.
This isn’t to say that the Mexicans currently doing the work are there only because no Americans wanted it. Not at all. The other day I saw what looked like an all-Mexican crew of twenty or so picking strawberries along Talbot Road, a few miles east of the Buena Vista ferry. (It’s an expensive and short-lived but worthwhile cool change.) Linn County is, dare I say it, the sweet home of the po’ cracka. I’ve worked with locals from Albany and Lebanon who would be able to handle the work, but I’m pretty sure no one gave them notice to apply. No one has been advertising for strawberry pickers on the Willamette Valley Craigslist boards; I’ve checked, in Spanish and in English. But holy shit, if you can get a po’ cracka to pull green chain in a lumber mill, surely you can get him to pick strawberries. It’s not like having a union turns mill jobs into sunshine and lollipops. It’s just that the union helps labor tell management to get fucked when it turns predatory.
If the town is full of worn-out mill hands with bad backs, the strawberry growers could use raised beds. The reason they don’t is that Mexicans are cheaper. Or they could spare the town’s backs by allowing pickers to work half shifts or short weeks. They don’t because Mexicans are willing to run themselves into the ground harder and faster than gringos.
Some of them, anyway. Vineyard crews in Northern California, especially Napa and Sonoma, have taken to walking off the job mid-shift when ranch managers refuse their pay raise demands. Even so, vineyard cultural management jobs continue to be filled almost exclusively by word of mouth. Shit has to get really bad for the growers to start advertising for field help (I’m not talking about 50- to 65-hour-a-week field scout and grape sampler jobs, which are insane). Until then, we’ll continue to hear White Whines from landed lowballers sitting on expensive terroir about how crews from Lodi don’t want to work for poverty wages in Calistoga. These White Whines will pair quite nicely with a Manchego Fuck Yourself. May I cut you a slice?
It isn’t just San Francisco where they’ll ask for an empty wine glass.
NPR has offered yet another example of how out-of-touch it is with the nation it covers. This latest cultural learning of America for make benefit glorious nation of Bougiekistan comes from Des Moines. Des Moines, to the surprise of the country’s political journalists, is a city, and yet it is located in Iowa. This probably has something to do with its being the state capital of Iowa. It’s so odd that Iowa, a state with a large amount of farmland, would be governed from its largest city. It’s almost like Des Moines is analogous to Columbus or Indianapolis or Denver.
These reporters cannot imagine how Iowa’s capital city would have different cultural and aesthetic sensibilities from a couple of beefy guys in overalls running into each other at a country gas station. They must have expected the state government to consist of Chuck Grassley and whoever else shows up out back between the silage barn and the tractor shed at 7:45 am next Saturday morning with a quart thermos of burnt Folgers. Since Iowa is in the Midwest, its state government would probably meet under a Council Walnut, not a Council Oak. As it happens, Iowa does have a Council Bluffs, which is a city, kind of like Des Moines, except right across the river from Omaha, which is also a city. Wow Much municipalities Very confuse.
I’m kidding all of us. These journalists and the politicians and aides they cover don’t understand farmers or farming; they understand the political simulacrum of farming that appears at goofball events like the Iowa Straw Poll. Farming isn’t about stuffing one’s face with a big-ass pile of barbecue pork at some fairgrounds for cheap political advantage over other reactionary asshats. Farming isn’t about any of the extraneous “country” cultural memes that have been accreted onto it. As far as I’m concerned, most country music since 1990 has been garbage and line dancing is embarrassingly stupid. None of this means that I can’t pick 160 pounds of wine grapes an hour.
Farming certainly isn’t about “family values” as defined by shrill outfits like Focus on the Family. The insinuation here is that all this carrying-on about sexual wedge issues is somehow related to preserving the family farm and the values it needs to survive. The wedge issue mongers never admit that actual family farms have been under siege by agribusiness and wealthy individual investors in the Midwest since at least the early 1980’s, or that the dominant rural politics in the same states over the same time has declared agribusiness sacrosanct, an essential bulwark against clueless environmentalists from the big cities.
As it happens, there’s a lot of material in the Bible about farming, ranching, and the virtues needed to make these enterprises successful. A version of it is featured in the Catholic Liturgy of the Eucharist: “fruit of the vine and work of human hands,” to which my natural response is, “holler atcha boy!” A stable, supportive family life is conducive to success in agriculture, just as family discord (divorce, spousal or child abuse, endless grudges, etc.) is disruptive. Hard work is crucial. A measure of sexual restraint is important, but not a huge measure; the important thing is to relegate sexuality to a small enough and adequately defined part of the day so that the workday can be spent on the inevitable backlog of chores and not on fucking like bunnies. A large family (“be fruitful and multiply) can provide extra hands to get work done.
None of this really has anything to do with obscenity in the media or gay sex. A gay couple need the same amount of sexual restraint (moderation, really) as a straight couple to keep a farm viable. The demands of farming naturally put quite effective limits on the sorts of sexual decadence that get idle, deracinated people into trouble. There’s no need for a prudes’ lobby to drive these messages home. The message makes itself clear: you won’t get any damn work done if you screw around all day, literally or figuratively. There’s no need for a political movement to enforce the work ethic, either. Or maybe more accurately, if there is one, it won’t do a bit of good. Anyone who genuinely needs inspiration from social control freaks in the Republican Party to work hard isn’t long for the farm, certainly not as a principal operator. I’ve seen the amount of work that principals need to put in to be successful, and how bad things can get when they slack off, so I’m scared to become one myself. Heavy the head that wears the crown, etc. Farming isn’t entrepreneurship in the Amway sense or the Donald Trump sense. It’s a hard-ass fucking business, dawg.
I’d believe that these loudmouthed Christian sexual purity organizations had something worthwhile to say about viable rural living if they expressed a broad understanding of the virtues of moderation, modesty (not just sexual, in case you’re that foolish), industry, plain dealing, and so forth, and weren’t fixated on who’s diddling whom in what particular marital or extramarital arrangement and what sorts of popular culture have been disseminated to commemorate the same sex acts. If country folks are against gay sex, someone forgot to advise Dennis Hastert and Larry Craig. Mercy. It isn’t some big-city conspiracy, although in fairness Mr. Craig seems to prefer it in urban settings such as the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport.
The truth about Iowa Republican politics is that it’s mostly a pastiche of bigotry and corruption masquerading as agrarian virtue. I don’t entirely agree with the late David Kuo’s claim about wedge issues that “nobody in the heartland gives a shit about that stuff,” since I’ve known people from the rural interior United States who certainly do care about wedge issues, but he was on to something. Many of the people pushing wedge issues on the right are catfish. They’re wealthier, more educated, more politically powerful, less religious, and less austere in the practice of their avowed faith than they make themselves out to be. They cultivate the image of being plain-dealing down-home local boys from the grange. In point of fact, many “farmers” in the Midwest are actually either wealthy investors who have never done a lick of farm work in their lives or are de facto commodities speculators and farm company administrators. The latter tend to work very hard and often come from genuine farming families, but they’re too busy with office work to personally operate any of the far-flung farms that they administer. In either case, physical operation of the farms–plowing, harvesting, etc.–is devolved to on-site employees, who are often paid in the low- to mid-five figures: not bad for places with low costs of living, but pretty marginal against the huge volumes of produce that they personally coax from the land.
Family farmers personally working their own smallholdings are a vanishing breed in the Midwest. (“Small” in this case includes properties running into the low thousands of acres, since many of these families are either grazing livestock on semiarable land or growing low-value, low-margin commodity crops.) Many Midwestern yeomen still haven’t recovered from the drubbing they took in the 1980’s. Some never will. Some will have their descendants living in deracinated poverty and dysfunction for generations to come. Landholdings in the Midwest have been consolidated, often by amoral, virtueless institutional investors, and land prices are up, making it harder for dispossessed farm families to buy back in.
No “family values” organization in the usual bullshit sense of the term has any interest in facing this nightmare. Organizations like Focus on the Family don’t care whether the “families” supporting their work are working yeomen, dispossessed former yeomen descending into crackerdom (rather than taking a cue from the politics of their late peer Cesar Chavez), city slickers playing country bumpkin in the exurbs, or what, as long as they maintain their political and financial support. Many of these organizations manifestly do not give a shit about the financial welfare of families or the general welfare of their children; if they did, they’d be up in arms about the United States’ worst-in-class human development statistics among developed countries (infant and maternal mortality, poor nutrition, hunger, illiteracy, etc.) rather than moral panics about sexual dissolution.
And, as I’ve mentioned, crackas be projectin’: Craig, Hastert, Josh Duggar, ad nauseam. As Jesus fortunately did not say, Senator, tell not thy neighbor the airport centurion to remove the mote from his ass until thou hast(ert) removed the beam from thine own ass, thou nasty, naughty boy. I repeat: as Jesus fortunately did not say; contemporaries accused him of obscenity, but not of anything quite that nasty and naughty, and not of cheap wordplay. As the ancient American aphorism goes, if English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me. By the way, speaking of homosexuals, the most popular and enduring English translation of the Bible was commissioned by a most fabulous English queen.
How you gonna keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen the internet? How you gonna keep them on the family values plantation? Yes, this discourse needs to be Godwinized, at least a bit. “Family values” is little more than a crude social control and red herring to distract goobers from serious problems, like the dispossession of the actual family farmers who grow a huge amount of the American food supply and a large portion of the world food supply. The problem is that land reform doesn’t have anything to do with sex, so it isn’t sexy. The other problem is that genuinely grassroots grange politics are threatening to ADM and Monsanto, just as they were threatening to the trusts of the Gilded Age. Most of the national family values agitators are part of the Cathedral, or else they’re trying to get a foot in the door. If push comes to shove and they have to choose between agribusiness and the grange, they’ll side with agribusiness. Billy Graham was a front man for reactionary corporate titans who wanted an official American religiosity to hold the line against communistic atheism, by which they really meant Western European-style socialism. They didn’t want the gubbyment taking their shiznit, although they were fine with the government endlessly giving them stuff.
The right-wing catfishing campaign over wedge issues has been masterful. The left (the bourgeois left, at least) has neither the common sense nor the discipline nor the calculating, amoral dishonesty to hold its own against these creeps. The left is forced to contend with an opposition that is perfectly comfortable aping agrarian dress and mannerisms for personal and political gain, and one that is generally willing to tell outright fabrications and lies with a straight face. The left stands up publicly for “Piss Christ,” while the right discreetly tries to pick up airport police sergeants for bathroom quickies.
It makes sense that a political movement swarming with people who are comfortable pretending to be straight (rarely have I seen such a bull dyke as Larry Craig’s wife) is also full of people who are comfortable pretending to be workaday and not part of the very haute bourgeoisie that the entire American political class is today, either by birth or by assimilation. Combine this with wistful reminiscences about the lost glory days of agrarian family life, and we get stupid spectacles like politicians entering into cow-milking contests at state fairs. Only the Amish, and mostly the hardcore Old Order at that, still milk their cows by hand. Manually pulling titty has as much to do with running the average working dairy farm today as driving a gleaming, jacked-up crew cab pickup with truck nuts has to do with ranching (real farmers and ranchers don’t keep their trucks so clean, or so new) or as putting on four hundred dollars’ worth of plaid and leather for a night of line dancing has to do with anything agricultural.
Acting all fucking country doesn’t mean shit for being able to run a farm, and real farmers and farmworkers know that, but we’re a nation of drugstore cowboys now. I could probably stump most of Congress and a huge supermajority of junior Congressional staffers with legitimate technical questions about agricultural policy. I could probably beat every announced 2016 presidential candidate (okay, maybe not Sanders; he seems to know some shit) in a bipartisan roundtable talk about farm policy and things having to do with farm policy, like cross-state aqueducts. Most of these fuckers think that they can prove their agrarian credentials by going to Ames and eating a pile of pork. But anyone who doesn’t have a moral or religious objection to eating pork could go to Iowa and pig out on the flesh meats. What’s next, Guy Fieri as Anthony Bourdain’s running mate? (Michele Bachmann: “Now, this foot-long corndog is made from what I like to call parts unknown!”) (That’s a total fabrication, of course. I’ve never heard of Bachmann saying anything perceptive about food safety or wholesomeness.)
I don’t do line dancing. I did for a few weeks in middle school, and from the start I could tell that it was some of the daftest goddamn bullshit I’d ever done. There were some hot chicks in the line dancing class, but they would have been a lot hotter if they hadn’t been going about in public doing something so intractably fucking stupid to bad music. But I know shit about farming. I’m wearing gray Dockers and a sort of teal aloha shirt right now, and I know shit about farming. What the fuck do you think Hillary Clinton knows about farming? She knows a thing or two about commodities trading fraud, apparently, but not about growing the commodities that facilitate the fraud.
To be fair, though, she, like most politicians, knows how to say nice things about corn ethanol. No sensible politician talks about corn-based ethanol as a technical proposition (because it sucks) or as a financial proposition (because it’s a huge money sink) or as a humanitarian proposition (it drives up world food prices, exposing the poor to hunger) or as an environmental proposition (large-scale corn monocultures tend to be environmentally destructive, so they oughtn’t be grown to produce a crappy, low-yield sugar feedstock for the production of a low-efficiency gasoline additive and substitute). No, corn ethanol is discussed exclusively as a political exigency. It’s about corn growers, broadly defined, as a bloc of influence-peddlers, not about corn growers as agriculturalists who ought to grow something that will sell decently on a real market, as opposed to the federally backstopped quasi-market for one of the most economically nonviable fuels in production today.
This shit is worse than the tweakers in Oelwein. The most they’re asking for is Section Eight and food stamps, and maybe some job training when they decide that they’ve had enough of the crank pipe for a while. Plus tweakers are totally fucked up on drugs. They shit in bathtubs and make tire chains for their bicycles out of old coat hangers. They serve as a warning to the sober not to trust them with any sort of power, #NotEvenOnce. They can’t catfish anyone. They’re too busy living #NoFilter, maybe in (yes, this was inevitable) #YOLO County. They can’t corrupt public policy in order to divert the feed grain supply for misuse as a low-yield fuel feedstock.
That’s another down-home country value: tweaking like holy shitballs on the goddamn shake-n-bake product. It’s related to the deracination of farm families and very closely related to the corporate pillaging of the meatpacking business for a quick buck. It ain’t Powdermilk Biscuits that are tasty and expeditious and give the timid the courage to get things done in the slaughterhouse when meatpacking has been turned into a Spanish-language sequel to The Jungle. But one wouldn’t want to harsh the country-ass mellow of the good Iowans who profit from this perversion. That would be bad politics.
Politicians don’t have to understand Iowa; they just have to pretend to understand Iowa. Stuffing one’s face with barbecue at the fairgrounds is a meaningful statement in Iowa GOP politics, or so we’re told. If the state’s voters hold themselves in low enough regard to fall for a stunt like that, it’s their problem. Then again, the Iowa Caucuses seem to be exceptionally low-bullshit affairs with unusually good opportunities for straight shooters to make themselves heard.
But can we believe anything we hear about Iowa from the national press or from its incestuous friends in national politics? These are people who are confused that Des Moines is a city. With buildings. They’d probably be surprised that farmers would rather get cancer treatment from board-certified oncologists in Des Moines than from whatever cousin they’re able to call over at 3:00 am to help deal with a breach delivery by one of their cows. They’d rather get their cancer treatment in buildings, but not in barns, which are also buildings. Because there are different kinds of buildings in Iowa, and different kinds of Iowans. Some Iowans have training in oncology, and other Iowans can shove a hand up a cow’s twat in the middle of the night if a veterinarian isn’t available, but most Iowans aren’t so fucked up on meth that they can’t tell the difference.
Only journalists and politicians can’t make that distinction in a state of total sobriety. Verily, the honorable hay bale has not made its last political appearance in Western Gateway Park.