Farming in the Suburbs


Havre de Grace. -- The look on her face would have curdled milk.

No doubt she was in a hurry and had reason to be annoyed. She was following a farm wagon carrying a couple of tons of baled straw down a narrow country road. The wagon was pulled by a truck carrying another ton and a half, and the whole rig couldn't go more than about 15 miles an hour without developing a bad case of the trembles.

The driver of the truck knew she was there. He'd seen her in his mirrors as she kept edging her sporty little car out to the far side of the road and then jerking it back in irritation when she saw there simply wasn't room to pass. So as soon as he reached a place where he could safely do so, he eased up next to the bank on the right of the road and rolled to a full stop.

Nothing happened. He motioned for the car behind to pass. Still nothing. Apparently it was so close to the wagon that the driver couldn't see him waving. He could almost hear the drumming of impatient fingernails on the steering wheel behind him.

Finally, with a screech of tires and a sexy fishtail, she zipped around the rustic obstruction in front of her and proceeded down the road toward the rest of her life. He waved. She glared. Then he put the old truck back in gear and rattled onward. The sporty little car disappeared in the distance.

It was the sort of encounter that happens often on the metropolitan fringe, and it's yet another indication of changing times. In all sorts of ways, the rural and the suburban cultures remain foreign to one another, and as one retreats and the other advances, there are inevitable irritations and misunderstandings.

Farmers like to complain that development pressure makes it hard to get their work done, and of course sometimes it does. Anyone who's driven cows across a road used by commuters can attest to that. But farming in the suburbs isn't all bad. For many farmers, in fact, it has certain advantages.

For one thing, suburban people in general seem to like farms, and enthusiastically support pro-farm public policies. Even though they may be only dimly aware that the land on which their own subdivision sits was once part of a farm, they're invariably unhappy when the rezoning notices go up on other farms nearby.

Because they cherish what they perceive as a rural atmosphere, suburbanites try hard -- harder than farmers, generally -- to maintain it. Thus they usually attend the local farm fairs, buy local produce, raise a few animals, and send their kids off to join 4-H. On narrow roads when they pass oncoming farm machinery, most of them squeeze politely over, and then give a friendly wave as the baler or the combine or whatever lumbers past.

And in various ways large and small, such people benefit the agricultural economy. The load of straw is a good illustration.

This straw came from wheat grown on a suburban person's farm. Whether the farm was bought as an investment or for less hard-nosed reasons doesn't matter much. What's significant is that the new owner doesn't farm it himself, but rents it out.

This arrangement produces certain benefits. The owner's land remains in production, and continues to look like a farm. Wheat is more scenic than poison ivy and thistles, which would be growing there otherwise. Moreover, the young man who rents it and many more acres like it gets to make a legitimate living as a farmer. While he can do so as a renter, as an owner faced with taxes and mortgage payments he wouldn't have a chance.

After he combined the wheat, the renter sold the straw to another farmer, the fellow we left getting glared at by the side of the road. That person -- the straw man, let's call him -- baled it, hauled it home, and put it in his barn. He might use it himself to bed his own livestock this winter, or resell it later on. Straw is in demand in the suburbs, whether it's used to bed the stalls of riding horses or to mulch the grass planted by developers or highway crews.

So the suburbanites not only make land available to farmers, they provide a market for farm products. Sometimes their children or dogs or habits can be pesty, but as a rule they treat the farmers in their neighborhoods with more respect and appreciation than they get in return.

As he was unloading his wagon a little later, the straw man reflected that the grumpy young woman in the sporty little car probably wasn't at all a typical suburbanite. Maybe she was a farmer's daughter, hurrying home to milk her father's cows.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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