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Indelible dirt

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Over the past several years, the number of "gentleman farmers" taking their goods to market has increased as quickly as the variety of heirloom tomatoes sold there.

So, just what is a gentleman farmer? He or she is someone who farms for pleasure, not the need of money. They have an alternate source of income or might have cashed out altogether in search of something to fill time, inflate ego or invoke long-lost roots. For the gentleman farmer, farming is a hobby.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with farming flirtation, but it does become a problem when these farmers set up shop at the local market, competing with and sometimes bleeding those who depend upon the cash for their crops. In spite of the utopian ethos generally associated with local farmers markets, a bureaucracy lurks beyond the idyllic veneer; the laws of supply and demand still apply. Once a market accepts a gentleman farmer, there's one less spot for a young agriculturalist burning to plant and sow for what I consider the right reasons, or for an old-timer who needs the harvest to pay bills and support a family.

For the past three years, I watched the farmer I worked for suffer through two serious illnesses, pulled muscles and a mysterious shoulder-and-hip ailment. Actually, it was only mysterious because he couldn't afford health insurance. And that's just the physical toll. Last year, the transmissions on both of his beat-up pickups quit, costing him a fine 10 grand. His barn burned to the ground, killing a beloved sow and her newly born piglets. The John Deere wouldn't start and had to be fixed. Implements break. Crops fall short of expectations. Feed has to be purchased. Mortgages and employees must be paid. Expense invoices pile up like potatoes and butternut squash in his cluttered office. "White Cross, North Carolina, where the wind blows, the corn grows and the farmer does owe" goes a saying familiar to those locals trying to eke out an existence on the land.

On the farm, I often witnessed these hobbyists come for advice or to borrow equipment. That's fine and neighborly, but the gentleman farmer's perception of time and place is skewed—in this case, farming is an escape from the pressures of work or life. To the full-time farmer, the pressures of farming and its endless chores are work and life themselves. Who would ever dream of hanging out at an accountant's office, chewing the fat and asking questions about debits and credits just so you could do your neighbor's books next year? Dirt that is not a permanent part of a farmer's fingernails, a newly purchased pickup and an overabundance of unblemished Carhartt clothing are all sure symptoms.

I don't want to sing too vociferously of the serious farmer's plight; there are an untold number of small joys that are experienced daily. Most wouldn't give it up for the world. Let's hope they don't have to.

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