My two cash cropper brothers-in-law recently brought out their iPads to show me the work of a number of farmer-poets, farmer-comics, and farmer storytellers who are broadcasting to the nation from the comfort of their tractor cabs. I knew about the TV series Letterkenny and the work of a couple of new rural playwrights like Karen DaSilva and Mark Crawford, but I was startled to learn that the combination of social media and auto-steer technology is producing a host of unpaid entertainers in a field that has traditionally been stony ground for artists of any stripe.
I would list some of these new voices here if I could be sure that my gentle readers had the stomach for the rough language and stark images now commonly found on cable news and podcasts. Just take my word for it that I have competition and lots of it.
When I was a kid there were only a handful of farmers who had the time to write about their world and none of them were really farmers. E. B. White was a magazine writer who kept chickens and a couple of pigs on a farm in Maine while writing Charlotte’s Web. Pete McArthur gave up the New York advertising business to farm and write In Pastures Green at the family homestead south of London, Ont. And Wendell Berry quit the life of a university English professor to return to his roots on a hill farm in Kentucky where he got some sheep and a team of draft horses and produced 20 volumes of essays, novels and poetry. I always wanted to be just like them.
But it is very hard to do a thing properly and write about it at the same time. Farming is not the kind of occupation that lends itself to reflection in print. Most farmers I know are too exhausted after a day fighting soybean aphids or frozen water bowls to even consider pushing away the supper dishes and start wrestling with the English language. I knew from the beginning that I would have to learn to farm just a little bit and write a whole lot.
But technology is changing everything, and I am not to be spared from it. Auto-steer threatens to eradicate the livelihoods of truck drivers, taxi drivers and now farm writers, too. But then my old friend, the farm boy turned real estate agent, says I am being dramatic. For years he’s been climbing into a big tractor to do recreational tillage for his brother. Even though the tractor needs no supervision he still finds it a quiet place to do paperwork.
“People don’t do something for nothing if it’s hard work,” he says.
I understand how a podcast might make sense if a big chemical company wants to pay you for an on-the-ground view of how Grim Reaper works on post-emergent weeds. But if you lie awake at night, as I do, thinking up new ways to reach your reader with a well-chosen anecdote and the only return you ever receive is a few thousand ‘hits’ in cyberspace, I don’t know how you could keep it up.
I just now scrolled through a list of 10 great farm podcasts posted online in November of last year. Of the 10, three have already given up in the last eight months and the sites are abandoned. One poor man even expired from his efforts. I wondered if some passerby spotted him slumped over in his cab as the tractor circled the field endlessly. Or maybe his poor wife came out to investigate when the tractor finally ran out of gas.
I knew an old farmer who always said, “There’s no point having a dog and barking yourself.” This was the reason he gave for hiring a qualified tradesman for all those jobs your ancestors thought you should be able to do yourself. I learned this principle the day I watched a crew of drywallers go through my whole house in a few hours. I took my drywall tools out to the orchard and buried them in case I ever thought of taking up the sport again.
The same principle should apply to writers. Unpaid podcasts are a fad that will inevitably fade, just like the hula hoop, jogging and Napster. In the end, it is work without hope, and that usually defeats a person.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.