One Thousand Words on The Sweet Smell of Manure

On the way home from work tonight, Vermont Public Radio was interviewing the state’s Agriculture Secretary, Chuck Ross.

About the time a guy called in to ask about the Current Use program, I realized that I have never written about my stint working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I don’t know if I’ve even mentioned it.

For seven years, between working retail right out of college and the performing arts center, I was a Program Technician for the Farm Service Agency, Windsor County Office.

Although my bachelor’s degree is in theater, working for the Farm Service Agency wasn’t a real stretch.

I had been in 4H as a girl and even had a calf at Hunt’s farm up the road that I helped raise.

Well, sort of. The only thing I really remember about the calf was that its name was supposed to be Angel, but someone spelled it wrong on the calf’s ear tag so it read Angle.

Poor little thing, going through life named Angle.

I was also the only girl to take tractor repair in 4H.

I don’t know what drew me to tractor repair. I wasn’t all that interested in tractors, or even mechanics. But I have always been a bit contrary when it comes to gender stereotypes. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the ten year old me took it just to challenge and flummox everyone.

And just so I wasn’t too masculine, I also took cooking from farmer Hunt’s wife. I still use her blueberry muffin recipe to this day.

So working for the Department of Agriculture, although not my dream job, wasn’t completely foreign.

The Farm Service Agency was, and might still be for all I know, responsible for administering many of the federal government’s cost share, conservation and other farm assistance programs.

We gave farmers grants for building manure pits, subsidized milk and corn prices and, towards the end of my tenure, issued farm loans.

I hated the office politics and the government red tape. We had two six foot bookshelves of “handbooks” listing every rule, regulation and procedure for the agency.

There was even a handbook on where to file things. For instance, if you had a soil report (I don’t think we really had soil reports. Thankfully I can’t remember much about the nitty gritty details of the job), you wouldn’t file it under “S” like in a normal office. You had to look up the soil report number in the handbook which then told you where to file it.

It was ridiculous.

But I did enjoy working with the farmers. Not only did I have some sort of native Vermonter rapport with them, but I also get along well with old men. I always have.

Much like a non-profit board of directors, the agency had a “county committee” made up of three farmers who were selected by other farmers.

I don’t know about other parts of the country, but the elections were kind of a joke while I was at FSA. The only people who voted were on the committee, or wanted to be.

One of the county committee members was an old farmer named Dick. He was one of the biggest characters I have ever met.

Dick liked cigars, but someone (his wife or his doctor, I would guess) told him at one point that smoking them wasn’t good for him.

So he chewed his cigars.

You could tell how contentious a meeting was by how much of the cigar Dick got through. An easy meeting meant less cigar.

I never saw Dick without his cigar, and I never saw him spit out any tobacco or tobacco juice like you would with chewing tobacco.

I assume he swallowed it. I can’t believe that was better for him than smoking, but what do I know.

Dick’s farmhouse was a giant, three-story box. Over the years, he told me two different tales about his home.

The first was that his son grew pot on the third floor for years before Dick and his wife (I don’t know that I ever learned her name. He called her “mother.”) realized it.

The other story was that someone had lived on the third floor for several months undetected until Dick caught them sneaking out of the house and evicted them.

Maybe they should have gone to the third floor more often.

One of the annual projects at FSA was collecting acreage reports from the county’s farmers.

This consisted of calling each farmer and, armed with photocopied maps of all the property they owned or rented, asking them what they were growing on each field and writing it on the map.

The challenge was twofold:

First you had to make sure you were talking about the same field.

Many farmers have names for their land. “The old Smith field” or “the cow pasture.” But it’s hard to tell the Smith field from the cow pasture on a map when you’ve never been there.

Also, farmers would often strip-crop, meaning they’d plant a few rows of corn and then a few rows of rye. That meant you couldn’t tell for sure how many acres they had of each.

After talking to all the farmers (which took a while since most farmers are out in the field during the summer instead of sitting by the phone) the information all got loaded into a computer which spit a report the farmer had to sign.

Then later in the year, the powers that be would pick a certain percentage to “spot check.” They’d fly over and take aerial photos of all the selected farmer’s fields.

Once the FSA office got the photos, they’d have to make sure what was reported was really growing there.

I’m sure I knew the reason for such rigmarole when I worked there, but it escapes me now.

But I remember the acreage report deadline and I think of that job every year when the date rolls around.

And whenever I smell manure.

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