Bucket Farm

A. V. Walters

Let me just say at the outset that this is not a dirt farm. It’s about livestock. And gone are the days when the average farm had a big garden that provided the fresh food and canned goods for the family. Farmers get their groceries from Costco now, like the rest of us. More often these days, family farms run on such a thin margin that one or both of the resident farmers have to work off-farm jobs to support the lifestyle. At the end of the day, there just isn’t enough in them leftover to keep a garden, too. And so it goes, the almost audible last sighs of rural living.

Today’s farms, by necessity, are specialty operations. This one is a chicken farm. We produce eggs. We have some sheep, too. Elmer, the good-enough farmer who owns this place would prefer that I call it a ranch. But somehow in my mind a ranch is a big spread with cattle, and, well, maybe cowboys. I just can’t see it as a ranch, and every time he says it, I picture our farmhands out lassoing chickens.

I’m no farmer. I’m merely an urban transplant—a tenant who occupies the old original farmhouse from the turn of the last century. From my vantage here at the top of the hill, I witness most of the goings on around this place.

We’re out in west county, which were we one county over, would bring connotations of Birkenstocks, solar panels, gourmet cheese and oysters. Here though, it’s a proud lot of hard-scrabble ranchers and dairymen, land-rich and sometimes cash-poor. The area is peopled with second and third generation cattle, sheep and chicken farmers. At least so far, we’ve been spared the headlong rush that’s infected most of our county–to cover every slope with upscale vineyards. Our microclimate here is, thankfully, too cool for that.

Elmer, used to have a garden. But his wife passed away and with her went the warmth of the homemaking arts and the tradition of canning. When I arrived he was still planting every year, but all too frequently the vegetables hung neglected on the vines.

One of the attractions of the farm when I first applied as a tenant here was the promise of a community garden. Elmer had let the garden go, its decline symbolic of his losses.  He almost decided to let it go entirely, but I would have nothing of that; I didn’t relocate to this country setting to buy my tomatoes by the case at Grocery Outlet.  So I took charge of the farm’s community garden.

I’m a vegetable gardener from way back. Even when I lived in Oakland my postage stamp-sized backyard was a lush cornucopia of the season. There, limited space pushed me into French Intensive and Square Foot gardening. I had a library of back issues of Organic Gardening and every February I’d thumb through them to plan the year’s approach. Several years ago I suffered some reversals in my life so I repaired to the country to lick my wounds and reconnect with the me of me. Gardening was one link to who I’d always been and I needed the challenge of the community garden. And it was a challenge. Accustomed to tiny quarters, I was daunted by the expanse of it. Though, thankfully that first year it was just the one garden. Now there are actually three gardens on the farm, combined they are just over a tenth of an acre. My first spring I was given what we now call the main garden, an equilateral triangle of dirt of about 800 square feet. Oh, and there was a catch, water.

That winter’s scant rains had Elmer nervous. When he turned the garden over to me he was already worried that our wells would run dry before the rains started up again in October. We have the usual Northern California seasons—no rain from May until Halloween. Elmer said that the three water priorities on the farm, in order, were—chickens, tenants and only then, watering. So, in my assignment, the largest garden I’d ever dug and the prospect of drought, I had to be creative.

There was one more mother-of-invention factor. I was broke. Sure, I could afford seeds, and a few starts, but otherwise I couldn’t count on drip irrigation or any other fancy water-saving gimmicks. I had to figure a way to minimize my watering footprint. Typical of most farmers, Elmer rarely throws anything away and nothing goes to waste. The older barns are full of, well, stuff. We joke about it now, but that first year Elmer just waved in the direction of a barn we call Number Four, and said I’d find stuff in there that might help. And that’s how we came to buckets.

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