Photo by Angela Lamb

Close Enough to Touch

Brooks Lamb—

It’s 1999, and I’m five years old. I’m with my family in the long patch by the road, just a few hundred feet away from the four-way stop. It’s a sunny blue-sky day in May, and we’re setting tobacco.

Mama is standing near the fence row, under the shade of cedar, hackberry, and bodock trees. My grandfather—Papa Horace—is standing with her. They’re holding trays of six-inch-tall tobacco plants and waiting to bring them into the sunshine. Daddy and Patrick, my middle brother, are sitting low to the ground on the tobacco setter, just a piece of foam rubber under their butts to soften the time-worn plywood seats. I’m perched on the water barrel right behind them, and my oldest brother Michael is driving the M John Deere, pulling the tobacco setter and the three of us along.

Photo credit: Angela Lamb

Mama and Papa step out and meet us at the end of the row. They take Daddy’s and Patrick’s empty trays and hand them full ones. Michael swings out, makes a tight U-turn, straightens the wheels, and heads back down a new row, his eyes locked on a tree in the opposite fenceline to keep our path straight. Just beyond my dangling feet, Daddy lowers the setter’s blade into the ground, Patrick reaches back to turn the water on, and we’re off.

One-by-one every eighteen inches, baby Burley tobacco plants are carefully set into dry dirt. A click from ground-driven gears releases a splash of water from the barrel for each plant, all synced together with my father’s and brother’s rhythmic motions. When the barrel is full, some of the water splashes out through the opening on top. Since that opening is my seat, it soaks through my blue jeans. But it’s warm outside and the water we’ve pumped from the pond is cold, so I don’t mind. When I’m a little older, a little bigger, a little more able, I’ll give up my barrel seat to swap in and set myself.

Photo credit: Angela Lamb

We’ll set tobacco— and chop weeds and top blooms, cut the plants, spear, haul, and cure them, then strip and sell the leaves, all by hand—together as a family until I’m in high school, a few years after the federal production controls that kept this crop a viable source of income for small family farmers were removed. At that point, tobacco—a crop that is detrimental to human health and gave Papa Horace the cancer that killed him but was once so vital for smallholder agrarian economies—joined the “get big or get out” chorus that has come to dominate American agriculture.

For a while, though, our small tobacco crop marked the rhythms and seasons on our family’s farm. It was an ever-present, “13-months-a-year” process that ticked along amid school and work, joy and loss, life and death.

. . . .

Twenty-four years later, I’m in that same patch, now a hay field, with my family. It’s late May, warm and sunny once again, and we’re hauling square bales. Mama is driving the tractor and pulling a wagon, Patrick and Regan—my wife—are picking up the 60-pound bales and tossing them onto the wagon, and I’m stacking them neatly into layers of five. Daddy is in a different field, driving our beat-up 3000 Ford to rake loose hay into windrows to be baled.

After we finish in the old tobacco patch and make a quick repair to our neighbor’s baler, we move to the little fields next to Aunt Bonnie’s house. She has been dead for more than two decades, but we still refer to that little home, first built by one of our ancestors in the 1890s, as hers. We haul and stack until the wagons are full, and then we head to the barn.

At this point, Patrick has to leave. His son has a baseball game in town, and Patrick doesn’t miss those games. Mama leaves to cheer on her grandson, too. (He got his first hit of the season that evening, so it’s a good thing they were there.)

Photo credit: Regan Adolph

Daddy, Regan, and I pull the wagons behind the barn, open up the second floor sliding door, and take a short break from the heat before tossing bales up into the loft and stacking them. There they’ll sit until winter, when we’ll call our cows into the bedded-down barn on the coldest, wettest, windiest days. We’ll drop a few bales down into the troughs, and they’ll eat their fill of cured fescue and orchard grass. That’s when the hard work of the hay harvest pays off: the delayed satisfaction of knowing that animals in your care are healthy, warm, and hopefully happy because of the sweaty, itchy work you did months before.

But for now, it’s still springtime, and we’ve got more hay to haul before it clouds up and rains. Regan hops on the wagon, I open the gate, and Daddy drives us back into the field.

. . . .

These stories are about different crops, and they’re from different decades. With the passing and aging and welcoming of family members, they also involve different people. But they share common themes.

For one, these stories are set on the same 75-acre farm, land that has been tended by my family for generations. They both involve difficult and, if we look closely enough, beautiful work. They’re both weather-dependent and responsive to the seasons, and both happen on the same scale. These are stories that unfold on a small family farm and are rooted in the particularities of that place and its people.

These are also stories about touch. As conventional American agriculture has grown larger and more industrial, charging ahead under the masquerades of efficiency and “progress,” the frequency of touch has dwindled. Some “farmers” sit in offices miles away from their fields and send employees to manage their crops. These employees may be piloting a million-dollar machine, punching buttons and flipping switches but not feeling the crop itself. With GPS-driven tractors, they may not even touch their steering wheels. By many accounts, these are the farmers our economy calls successful, though that begs the question of what defines success—and what tremendous failures occur in the process.

Am I suggesting that we should plant and harvest all American crops by hand? That every ear of corn, every bushel of wheat, every bale of hay be handled by a human hand? No. But there’s something lost when we limit touch. When we grow distant from the land and its bounty. When we can’t, or don’t, feel what we’re farming.

Some people like to talk about farmers “needing to get their hands in the dirt.” That phrase makes me laugh. When I hear it, I imagine someone spinning, panicking, holding their hands out in front of their face, scurrying to a bare spot of loose soil to shove their hands into the dirt. Instant relief washes over their face once they’re wrist-deep in the ground. “Ahhh,” the farmer sighs and smiles, “that’s better.”

So while there’s something silly and comical about that popular “hands in the soil” image, there’s truth in the power of touch, in large part because a scale that enables touch can also inspire love and fidelity.

Wendell Berry writes that imagination—or deep attunement and connection to place—yields affection, and it is affection that stimulates loving, sometimes self-sacrificial stewardship. We care for what we love, we love what we know, and we know what we’re close enough to touch. Maybe that’s why the verb “to grasp” can mean both to seize something with one’s hands and to understand something with one’s heart and mind.

As it was once grown, tobacco, for all its many and grave problems, required closeness: the kind that required touching every single plant as it went into the ground. The kind that called the machine we rode a “setter” because we carefully “set” each plant into the earth. In a hay field, it’s the kind of closeness that touches every bale multiple times in the same day, that hauls it from the field to the barn, that stacks it intentionally in the loft and leaves it until—again by hand—we toss it down to be eaten by cows and calves.

When done well, there’s intimacy in this work. There’s love and care—for the crops grown, the people who grow them, and the land itself. In my mind, work done in these small-farm contexts offers some of the closest societal connections we have to the environment and the earth and each other.

We don’t need a return to tobacco. We don’t need wistful nostalgia for time gone by. But for a long list of environmental, agricultural, economic, and even spiritual reasons, we do need the active, loving connection that is possible on small farms. We need a scale that affords attention and affection.

We need an agriculture that is close enough to touch.

Brooks Lamb has served farms and farmers on local, state, and national levels. He currently works with American Farmland Trust and writes on agrarian and environmental issues. Originally from Holts Corner, Tennessee, he now lives in Memphis.

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