Imagine it’s 6 am. The sun is just peaking over the eastern hills, illuminating the morning haze into blue and yellow pastels. You walk over to the corkboard, find your assignment, written in Ted’s unique handwriting, on standard farm stationary (any one of three different sizes of yellow sticky notes), “Daren, please cultivate corn and beans in so-and-so field.” Thus starts a cultivating day.
I use two different tractors while cultivating, both International 140s that own several decades of seniority over me in this world. And, most likely, they will outlive me. They are wondrous machines, technology of an older era where men on tractors were cheaper or more available than herbicides. The way they worked was simple- attach various metal implements to the underbelly of the tractor, set them to kill the weeds on the left and right of your row of crops, and drive. For a period from the advent of gasoline engines until the ‘70s, they were the better option for weed control. Then, herbicides got cheaper, and thousands of farmers dumped their 140s and their cousins into the market, where they’re now bought by organic farmers everywhere. That’s how our two ended up with us. They use no chemicals (obviously, unless you count the caffeine you drink in order to be awake enough to operate the thing at 6am), are dirt-cheap on the tractor market, and are relatively efficient fuel-consumers compared to most modern tractors. They are the organic farmer’s answer to the need for weed control.
That’s all fine and grand, but at 6 am that is hardly going through your mind. You first heave yourself up, using the tires as your ladder, to peak in the gas tank to see if she needs a refill. No fuel gauges on this ancient beast, it’s just like looking down a well and seeing how big the reflection is. After that, a certain amount of sweet-talking is advisable. I call my favorite 140 “the Wife.” When she’s out of commission for repair, I have to use the other, “the Mistress.” Ironically, the Wife is quieter. She brakes much better, makes better right turns, has better hydraulics, and rarely needs the choke to be pulled to start in the morning. The Mistress is loud, has a bad right brake, makes good left turns, and will not move an inch without stalling if you get too impetuous to move on a cold morning and don’t let her warm up for five minutes.
The preferred language for talking with both of them is Irish, it sounds stronger than Spanish or French, but nicer than German, very well balanced. It’s a brisk exchange of pleasantries, comments on the weather, musings on the assignments, and then we’re off. The tractor might make a puff of smoke, jump a bit on the first gear shift into reverse as I leave the pole barn, but then it’s second gear off to the fields till lunch.
At this point, I pull out my ‘Tard Pod. It’s called that because it’s a cheap imitation mp3 player that looks retarded compared to the sleek, beautiful, actual iPods of Steve Jobs’ creation. It plays music though, so it does the trick. I select my music very carefully while cultivating. When I do something like broccoli (three-row crop, very easy) that needs aggressive tooling, I play what I call Viking death metal. I found a Scandinavian metal band that sings about slaying enemies and running off in their ships. It’s great. I use this music whenever I dislike the assignment, or the weeds are over-sized, or if the weather is crappy. It brings out the aggression needed to destroy the weeds, and you get a strange glee watching them get their roots ripped out, their stems overturned, and you look back to see piles of them withering in the sun.
For a more pleasant assignment that requires attentiveness, patience, and other such things, a popular selection is easy-listening country like Zac Brown Band. Using basket-weeders to cultivate four-row lettuce requires exactly this type of music. (For a basket weeder, imagine five hamster wheels attached to the bottom of a tractor, with spaces between them corresponding to your four crop rows. The little wire spokes gently churn the soil, killing young weeds and leaving your crops unharmed.)
Potato cultivation, quite naturally, requires Irish music. For a long day, endurance is the name of the game, so you go with something World-ish like Enya, to keep your pace and not go crazy. When you need to go fast, switch to the Chieftains and let the jigs and reels set your pace. And when you’re really just pissed off, switch to the good ole Irish fighting songs and imagine the weeds are not only all English weeds, but Black and Tan weeds.
On the hottest days of the year, I have two selections. Bob Marley when it’s slow-going and I need to take my time. Blackhawk Down soundtrack when I need to get things done... Either way, the theory is that if it’s going to be hot, clearly African and/or Caribbean music is in order. Certainly not the time for Christmas carols.
Good Turkish music is essential at some point in the cultivator’s repertoire. It’s a good selection for medium-hot days, or assignments of moderate difficulty, neither requiring great aggression, nor allowing you to fall asleep in your seat.
At five minutes before noon, I set my bearings for back to the barn. Sometimes, I’ve been so in tune with my music and the tractor, and immersed in the assignment, that I have to be in a silent period at the table before I rejoin civilization. But I snap out of it eventually, and join the rest of the crew for our thirty minutes of banter, comparisons of each others’ lunches, and general team-bonding, or so we may call it.
After clocking many hours on the tractors, they begin to feel like an extension of yourself. I’m sure anyone who’s into sports could know the sensation- when the racquet, bat, mitt, lacrosse stick or other such thing is just an extension of your own limbs, and you find yourself doing things unconsciously and fluently with them. When I’m at the end of the row, and I need to simultaneously raise the hydraulics, lower the throttle, brake right, re-throttle, and re-lower the hydraulics, I find myself already starting the next row, not remembering which limb pulled what lever or did what. It’s strange.
So, at the end of the day when I park the tractor and dismount, it feels what I imagine it’d be like to take off a limb. Not like “ouch! I chopped my finger off,” but like simply detaching a limb, hanging it on a hook or parking it in a garage for the next day. But somehow it always feels good, and I drive off in my “Baby” (my car) for home, where I, and my ‘Tard Pod will recharge till the next day.