Border Crossing

Nye HIll Farm's Barn with a wheelbarrow full of flowers sitting in front on a sunny day

“I am not young enough to know everything.” – Oscar Wilde

A television production focusing on local interest stories visited Nye Hill recently. The piece was not to be about the farm per se, but about the role beekeeping plays on the farm. As conversations here always do, though, it wandered. We talked about our commitment to true organic farming, what we are growing in our fields and orchards, the care of our animals, philosophies of conservation, and the interconnectedness of it all. We talked about apple harvests in the Fall, sugaring in the Spring and brewing beer all year round. “We are,” I offered, “a traditional New England general farm,” the kind the poet Donald Hall wrote of on his family’s own Eagle Pond Farm not too far from here, over in Wilmot. Hall wrote proudly of his grandfather spreading manure from the barn to tend the soil in Eagle Pond’s fields and orchards. I had actually spent a part of the morning doing just that, taking up my role in the interconnectedness of it all. The fellow looked at me with a hint of amusement. “You must feel like you were born a Century too late.” “No,” I replied, “I think I’m a Century ahead.”

Not long after, I set off for Quebec City. I have crossed a lot of international borders, and have had all the experiences that go with that, good and bad. You can be the most law-abiding citizen around, but a certain anxiety attaches to needing the permission of a uniformed officer to proceed on your way.

“What do you do in the U.S.?”

I could have said engineer, I am. I could have said lawyer, I am. I looked the officer squarely in the eye, my advice to anyone, and answered.

“I’m a farmer.”

The officer looked back, just as squarely. He looked down again at my passport, then up again at me.

“Important work, steward of the land. Thank you.”

My youngest son was beside me. Later, that evening, having dinner in a city where boreal is not a marketing hook but a way of life, I shared how proud I was of our farm, how satisfying was the work, how worthwhile the sacrifices. That conversation, as conversations between me and him often do, turned to making a living. One must. He is young. He and his friends live in a world of rents due, loans owed and wages that leave little, if anything, left over. But I am old. I live in a world far less practicable, and I offered the advice of the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Again.

“It is very important that you only do what you love to do. You may be poor, you may go hungry, you may lose your car, you may have to move into a shabby place to live, but you will totally live. And at the end of your days you will bless your life because you have done what you came here to do. Otherwise, you will do things only for a reason, to please other people, and you will never have lived, and you will not have a pleasant death.”

The advice was met with harsh pragmatism. Again.

Just days after that dinner and its conversation, back on the farm, I sat with the inspector responsible for certifying our compliance with the standards, rules and regulations of the National Organic Program. The annual inspection is, as it should be, vigorous and sometimes challenging. Organic farming is hard, very, and the USDA inspectors are not there to make it any less so, that’s not their job. Enough said. After a long walk about the fields, the orchards, time spent in the greenhouse and still more time spent in the gardens – yes, even our flowers are certified organic – we sat down to pour over the farm’s records, from seed orders to sales, and everything that occurs in between. Everything. Eventually, satisfied, the inspector handed me his written summary of the visit, and offered his hand.

“Thank you for the very hard work you do.”

A week or so prior, I had suggested that farming, at least the way we farm, had put us ahead of the curve of progress. I had suggested that the younger generations were already joining us, embracing principles like stewardship and even public service. I had not acknowledged their struggle to make a good living while pursuing a good life. I should have. But Kubler-Ross’ admonition is dangerous to ignore.