The Real Farmer Brown

 

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In spite of my vivid, neurotic fantasies, I fell in love with farming. Spending the rest of my life on Farmer Brown’s land occupied my thoughts in the field. In the evening, I kept a blog called “Some Country for Old Ben,” devoted mostly to the idea of producing my own beer from scratch. I wrote business-development outlines that detailed a demonstration hop yard, a barley field and thoughts on making a special “barn brew.”

But whenever I broached the subject of working together, Farmer Brown countered that he was winding things down. He assured me that a farm like his, especially in Connecticut, was more valuable to a developer than to a farmer. It was hard to bite my tongue, and I never enjoyed those conversations because I was sure I had the background, the energy and intelligence to succeed. I was hoping to convince Farmer Brown that his life experience—and a small starter portion of his family’s magical land—would lead us all to the development of a smart and popular farming attraction. I always slunk away from our chats feeling like an exuberant, eccentric sharecropper—a dreamer, with lots of ideas and no money to back them up.

I decided I’d show Farmer Brown what great vegetables I could grow, and dove into creating a spectacular produce stand. I started hauling in wooden pallets, piling them in front of the barn. These would be stacked waist-high, and then covered with baskets of produce, bags of corn and an ocean of pumpkins. Then, as I was delivering the last dozen pallets, Farmer Brown steamed out of his house, waving his arms. I’d finally succeeded in driving him to distraction.  

“Get those out of here!” he ordered.

“I don’t understand . . .” I began. But it wasn’t worth arguing. He’d likely imagined a folding table and a shade umbrella when he agreed to give me a spot for a farm stand. My vision was way too ambitious.

He told me that he’d really never wanted a farm stand, that he’d tried it in the past. As he spoke, I began to look around and see the farm as it really was. The lack of paint, the rotting sills, the missing windows and doors—after 178 years, the land and the elements were getting the upper hand. The Colonial pastures were filling with young trees, and the frost-heaved walls seemed to whisper: “Shhhh! Listen, Ben! This is a good family and you’re their guest—that’s all. They like your tomato plants, but they’re not looking to adopt you.”

Eventually, Farmer Brown agreed to let me finish out the growing season on his land, but that would be it. I got busy developing a produce route, using old Mystic Chips customers as my contact base. As the crops came in, I delivered fresh basil and dill to The Spa at Norwich Inn. Soon, I had hundreds of pounds of pickling cucumbers and, when the tomatoes arrived, I sold every last one to nearby restaurants and resorts, like the Ocean House in Watch Hill, R.I.

A few weeks after the pallet incident, Farmer Brown drove his golf cart down to my field. We hadn’t spoken since; I’d been avoiding confrontation.

“Want some corn?” he asked.

“Hey, where’ve you been?” I responded with a smile. I told him I could use half-a-dozen ears, and he gave me a big bagful. I picked a few fat jalapeño peppers, which he accepted. At that wonderful moment, I learned how easily differences settle with laughter and the simplest of field crops. I felt welcome again, and hopeful that our friendship could survive beyond one short season.

As September’s days grew shorter, my visits to Wychwood Farm became less frequent. When I did go, I often crossed Route 201 and looked across a field to Farmer Brown’s poultry barn. Through the open doors, I could see the turkeys milling about, eating their way to market weight. They called out to one another in garbled gobbles. As a gesture of thanks for lending me his land, I’d offered to help Farmer Brown process the turkeys the week before Thanksgiving . . . so I kept my distance from the doomed birds. I guess I’d learned another fact of farming: A strong heart will never break if you can keep it guarded.

As I considered the lifeless pigeon in the field, I knew that, in his own way, Farmer Brown had marked my season’s finale. His gunfire had sounded a salute to summer’s passage. He picked the bird up and went to lay it atop the old stone wall. I imagined the red-tailed hawks, soaring above, pleased with the offering on the granite altar below.

Then he turned and asked when I’d be finished for the season. He wanted to harrow the field, allow the soil to work on the weeds and the plants I’d carefully cultivated. A few days later, I pulled up 150 faded tomato stakes and gathered the hoses. The next day, in less than an hour, he returned the field to order.

About a week after Thanksgiving, I returned to Wychwood Farm to collect the rest of my belongings. The high clouds couldn’t hold their shapes any better than so many family farmers can hold on to their land. Under a windy, deep blue sky, my old box truck felt light and unsteady. I pulled up to the prefab cow barn where I’d been storing my tools since mid-May.

Fumbling and grabbing my wool cap from the wind, I blew into the barn. The corrugated metal roof strained and rattled, and I wondered for a moment if this was the day it would fly free. Empty gallon water jugs, frozen dribbles inside, scattered as I grasped at them with numb fingers. I gathered the small tools by their worn handles. This building, that once might have been home to a hundred cows or more, now looked dingy, dry and lifeless. But I knew better . . . that it had become a warehouse, stacked lovingly with a season’s harvest of hay—and the life and lessons of a good farmer.

Interested in a fresh Wychwood Farm turkey for Thanksgiving? Call (860) 536-9632 to make an appointment.

The Real Farmer Brown

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