Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Combustible Ch 2- Sy

Sy talks with his eyebrows and his shoulders. When asked why, with a first name like Robert, everyone calls him Sy, he would raise his left brow, almost imperceptibly, and shrug, mumbling something almost but not quite like the word- "Stuck". The amazing thing is, the gestures, the expressions, and the mumble, somehow communicate to the inquisitor, "Daddy called me that as a joke and it just stuck."

Sy is a farmer but don't confuse what he does with the modern image of farming. On a three and a half acre postage stamp in Houston Arkansas, Sy grows enough to feed two local families and himself, and to sell the surplus at many of the locally-grown-only farmer's markets in central Arkansas. That's where he is now, seated in his folding lawnchair behind a a white plastic, folding picnic table waiting for the first customers to arrive for the morning market in a high end neighborhood of Little Rock. The market, started and run by a large upscale church has reached its peak for the year. Tomatoes and melons, and purple hull peas and sweet corn are abundant. To either side of Sy are his biggest competition - a conventional, local, mega-gardener to the left and a small collective of young  women who operate a grass-fed meat operation. And just as Sy is sandwiched by their respective booths as they set up along the sidewalk in front of the massive red brick edifice of worship; he is also sandwiched by their respective philosophies. Caught in the middle seems to fit Sy - always the peacemaker; never one to cause a fuss. But sometimes it takes almost superhuman strength to keep his mouth shut. One can tell when Sy's got something to say but is trying to be polite. His big clam shaped ears turn purpler than a Cherokee tomato, his jaw clenches, he raises is left brow and shrugs.

To his left is Barret Downs, the mega farmer, who pushes the limits of what is embodied in the language of the Locally Grown Movement. Pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, plastic green houses, large tractors, PVC pipe, fossil fuels, refrigerated trucks are all the tools of his trade. But because the produce he sells is grown within 45 miles of the market, he, technically, is allowed to sell at the Locally Grown market. His booth is the largest in the row and covered in high dollar vinyl banners stating his produce is fresh and local. He interacts with his customers in a manner reminiscient of a used car salesman. Freshest produce, local farm, cheapest prices. Today Barret is actually here. Usually he sends an intern or a paid employee to man his booth for him as he makes his rounds to at least a half dozen other markets his operation attends every Saturday.

Though he would not say it, mostly because he tries to be polite, Sy can't stand Barret. Rubs him the wrong way. They've been on opposite sides of the coin on many occasions. The latest came when Sy decided to wash, chop, and bag his organically grown kale on the farm and deliver the ready to eat product to the market. Sy's customers loved it and would pay a premium for it. It was not unusual for those who frequented Sy's booth to pay up to $5.00 per 1/2 pound of the greens known as the King of Vegetables for its nutrition packed leaves. When Sy added this value to his product he wasn't competing against Barret Downs, he was adding value and, indeed, profit to his small farm. After just one week of selling out of this product Downs decided he would get into the fresh kale business for no other reason than to "capture dollars" as he put it in the mega farmer vernacular. The next week, Downs offered a new product to his repetoire - chopped, supposedly washed, and bagged kale for just $2.50 for a whole pound.

Sy's loyal customers still but from Sy. But since he sold out last week, Sy harvested more, spent more time on preparation and marketing and had hoped to improve his profit. Downs' strategy though drew potential customers away from Sy.

The girls to Sy's right could tell he was boiling. They were part of a grass-fed meats business and had their marketing down. Dressed in tank tops under blue overall shorts, hair tied back in pony tails was effective in drawing shoppers to their booth but with Sunny Faced Farms Meats, it was the husband dragging the wife along for a change. They had a brisk business and though there were other farms offering naturally raised beef, pork, and poultry, Sunny Faced Farms did not compete against them. Instead they sought to complement their offerings by allowing other farms to sell at their booth. Shamrock and Thistle Farm, a local bakery, provided bread for their display and it seemed to improve sales all around. Sy liked working with the collective. He did not like working against Barret Downs.

Today was no different. In fact, in Sy's mind it was worse. Three weeks ago the products Sy and Downs sold were completely different. Now just less than a month later, Downs had added so many items identical to Sy's that their tables were almost the same. Shoppers would think Sy was one of Down's employees until Down's made it clear that Sy was a different farm with higher prices and lesser quality. Sy's business suffered this Saturday as the finicky shoppers were drawn to the slick marketing of Barret Downs.

If the two farmers ended up selling the same products it was not because they were the same men. In fact, the two farmers from their build and upbringing, personalities and philosophies were at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Downs is an agri-businessman; Sy a subsistance farmer.
Downs is loud and a smooth talker; Sy is quiet, shy, and not well spoken.
Downs farms with Modern Petroleum; Sy farms with Old Solar.
Downs invests in machinery and synthetics; Sy invests in the earth and soil.
Downs' biggest competitor is other farmers; Sy's biggest competitor is himself.
Downs takes over a community; Sy becomes a part of community.
Downs is considered a Tea Partier; Sy is considered a socialist.

*  *  *

The brassicas thrive in rich, moist, slightly acidic soils. Planting while it is still nicely cool, cold really, in a properly prepared bed gives them the stability to set a good root system, a sturdy stalk, and a good start to developing the large, deep green, photosynthesizing leaf system; a system designed to capture rain water and funnel down the stalk to the root base. Its an ingenious design really. Wood ash is a common amendment for soils to be planted with these kings of the vegetable kingdom. Almost 6 months after Sy's market drama in August, the broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and collards are doing very well. Much better than usual. The garden spot had been cleared, the soil amended, and a truck load of straw mulch brought in for the winter planting. The new owners of the farm had taken up where Sy had left off, Old Solar Agriculture, grow it slow, live within their means, sell what they can of the excess they generate. No one really missed Sy. Just one day he did not show up. His booth was filled by another aspiring "farmer", a peddler that ships produce in from Florida, Alabama, Texas, and beyond, lets it sit on his farm until the next market day and then advertises, "Local Produce-No Pesticides Used". Most customers either don't know the difference or they don't care. This seller has tomatoes in April, a genetic impossibility in Arkansas, and sells them all every week.

Sy finished packing his booth from the last of the high end markets that ran through October of each year in the Queen City of the Mid-South, Little Rock Arkansas. His tent, his tables, his cash box, and what was left over of his produce were secured in the bed of his yellow mid-80s Dodge Ram pickup. The big 360 cubic inch V8 growled as he slowly pressed the gas pedal and rumbled down Hillcrest Boulevard toward the center of down town. He stopped to drop off the left overs at a local food bank which served the homeless population of Little Rock before heading toward hospital row, I-630, to the west past Arkansas Children's Hospital, UAMS, St.Vincent's, and Baptist Hospitals. The big truck seemed to float along the road as the engine roared. Sy was deep in thought, as he usually was. His farm was located 42 miles west of the city and as he turned left onto Cantrell Road he calculated, for the thousandth time, "9 miles to the gallon and 42 miles equals 5, no wait 4 point...uh twice 33 equals, 4.6 gallons at $3.86 per gallon is a little over $18.00 one way. That's 36 dollars just to show up at this market and I sold $112 dollars of produce. Add a $5.00 lunch and I made $71.00, not counting the water, labor, seeds, and feed for my fertilizer producers. I guess I worked for free." This all went through Sy's mind much faster than it takes to write it all down but he was right. Maybe Old Solar isn't the way to go. Maybe Barret's way is the way to do it. Maybe the local farmer and the whole philosophy of slowly grown, locally grown, is dead. Nothing more than an advertising slogan.

The yellow Dodge continued west down Cantrell, past a chain store selling ostensible fresh produce. Sy knows that this fresh organic produce is packed in plastic bags and travels sometimes thousands of miles to get there. "How fresh can it be?" he asks himself again. Further on down the road he passes another chain store that makes no allusion to the freshness of their food. They advertise the lowest prices - Always. Again, Sy, now feeling a brief flare of heat in his cheeks- a heat not caused by his lack of an airconditioner in his truck. He found himself getting more and more upset as he thought about the almost monolithic struggle the small, local farmer has to compete with these mega-markets, trying to convince customers that his prices are not too high, the other guy's prices are too low, subsidized by corn and fuel, and pollution and erosion. He started sweating - the heat would not go away.

Cantrell eventually turned into State Highway 10, the stop lights disappeared, and the black winding ribbon of the newly paved flatop lulled him into a wide-awake driver's sleep, the kind one falls into when one has travelled the same road many times. Up over a hill and to his right appeared Lake Maumelle, One of Little Rock's public water sources, extremely low after a drought ridden summer. Signs appeared along the small parks that ran along the bank as far as the bridge, "No Swimming! Public Water Supply". Sy had calmed down, cooled off over the last 15 minutes of his drive but now his dander was up again as he crossed the little bridge spanning the western most tip of the lake, the outlet of the Maumelle River. To his right and left the lake was dotted with dozens of boats powered by huge Mercury and Evinrude engines, piloted by fishermen with as much beer in their coolers as fish - "Public water supply huh? You tellin' me them fishermen ain't peein in the lake? I can't swim, but don't go messin' with the tourists huh?"

Sy fought the flame that was coursing through his skin. It had spread from his cheeks down through his neck and shoulders, into his chest and legs. It all became to much for him. "Can't make ends meet at a market for local produce, can't compete against peddlers, pushers, and mega markets all trying to sell the same crap. Have to drive an old truck...", the dodge sputtered, "No, no baby, I love you, just wish I could fix you up a little." The truck settled down as she made the sweeping left hand turn at the intersection of State 113. Sy tried to settle down too.

By the time Sy rounded the sharp right hand bend at Williams Junction and headed over Thornburg Mountain, his fever had gained in intensity. He felt that he would faint, he had sweat so much that his pores were now empty. The wind from his open windows dried his shirt and skin and now he just felt ache-y and chilled. Chilled on the outside but a raging fire on the inside. His head grew heavy, he still had 8 miles to go to get home but he felt he would burst if he did not get out of the truck this instant. The images he had formed in his mind over the years; the images that shaped his philosophy and his lifestyle all came to him in random flashes, each new image following close upon another. April Tomatoes. Bags of pertoleum based fertilizer, megacorporations, Low Low Prices, machines doing the work of men, ignorant customers buying based on price alone, not quality, cutthroat small farmers, a decaying work ethic, fossil fuels, tractors, soil erosion, chlorinated water, feedlot beef, genetically modified grains, drought, floods, refrigerated trucks, lies upon lies on packaging, state and federal regulations that drive farmers like him out of business. And then "Why can't we understand we are killing ourselves."

Sy blacked out. At least he thought he did. The next thing he remembered, he was sitting in the truck, engine off, in the small gravel drive at the entrance of his very small farm. He didn't bother with unloading the truck. He patted his dogs on the head and stumbled into his one room cabin, opened all the windows, and lay down on his bed. He soon fell asleep and dreamed the dreams of a man without a home.

An hour later, Sy awoke, and still half asleep stumbled down the hill to his 5,000 square foot garden plot. His fever had subsided somewhat, but he still felt flushed, like a young boy who has just been embarrassed by the cutest girl in his class. He stopped in the breeze way of his barn and sat in the yellow chair positioned there. He pulled out a Marlboro from his over all pocket and lit it. He was home, and right now at that moment, he was okay. His head buzzed with each drag of the cigarette but no matter how he tried he could not keep the distasteful memories of the day from creeping in. He got up and walked around, and then sat back down. As the heat built up within him he would hop back up out of the chair and find something to do. He collected the days eggs. He sat down. He started burning. He hopped back up. He scattered a handful of grain to his geese. He sat back down. When this cycle of nervous behaviour failed to comfort him he grabbd a shovel and headed to the garden plot.

The 5000 square foot plot had been almost depleted for the year, late October, in Sy's garden meant lightly tilling evey bed that did not have kale, radishes, turnips, or garlic already established in it. With a broadfork, Sy slowly and rythmically would "step" the fork into the slightly compacted soil and then pull back on both handles, raising a bed-width plateau that allowed air and moisture to settle beneath the large clump. Step after step, pull after pull, down each 25 foot row until all the beds were aerated. Then he piled large armfuls of soiled straw or hay from his animal stalls on the beds to hold the moisture in and keep weed seeds from germinating. This was his favorite spot in the world. The cool air, the smell of manure and hay, "This is the smell of freedom" he would often say. The worries and frustrations of his day at the market; his anxiety over paying the property taxes, all frustrations at not having nice things, not being able to fix up his truck, refence the farm, or invest in drip irrigation for the garden, all passed away when he was digging in his garden.

This cool fall day, shrouded in leaves of red and yellow and tree bark gray, the cool breeze rustling the canopy overhead, the feel and the smell of the rich fertile soil, teeming with mysterious organisms that did the real work for him, Sy suddenly felt content again, at home, at peace. But it was an intense peace. A burning swelled up in his heart and he felt it course through his veins. He knelt down. For some reason, or no reason at all, he suspected this would be the last time. He took a deep breath allowing the crisp clean air fill his lungs in the hopes it would cool the fire raising up inside him. He spread the fingers of both hands and drove them deep into the freshly prepared garden bed. He wiggled his fingers in the earth.

Sy died with dirt under his nails. If there had been witnesses they would have seen a bright flash, a hovering smoke, a large circle of ash, and then nothing but Sy's Wellington boots, feet inside, and the stubs of two arms protruding from the ground.

A white breasted nuthatch writhed on the ground near the circle of ash, righted himself, shook his tiny head as if to clear the cobwebs and the flew away home to Harris Brake Lake and perched on the dock.

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