Francesco looked up at me from a flooded ditch and said, “Mi sa che la pompa non funziona.” I guess the pump’s not going to work.
Standing in the mid-December drizzle, with our rubber boots covered in mud, Francesco explained how the old pump did not have the power to pull water upwards out of the ditch and into a grassy area to remove excess water from our crop fields.
Excess water. In that moment, I remembered that same field, just over a year ago, with our oat crop burned and lifeless from the lack of rain. During the drought, there had been fields of shriveled plants or, somehow worse, no plants at all. Here we were, about two years after the start of the drought, with so much water in the fields that we were trying to empty flooded ditches. How could it be that there was always way too much or extremely not enough water?
I looked down at Francesco – the farm’s tuttofare – literally the “do everything” guy – and repeated my readied list of questions that I relied on in moments when I didn’t know enough about the problem but needed to find a solution: was it a mechanical problem? Could we swap out a piece and make the pump work? Was it the pump itself or the system of irrigation pipes we had rigged up to drain the field? Could we rig up another system?
As we talked through each of these options, the drizzle turned into steady rain. It had been raining since late October. Just as we finished the October rice harvest, a storm with hurricane-force winds ushered in a rainy November and December.
November and December are months when we normally plant organic hay, oats, wheat, and other grains, as well as prep the land for planting organic chickpeas and other legumes in the late winter. Due to the excessive amounts of rain this season, we were not able to get tractors into the fields and plant on time. We had close to 170 acres of seed to plant by the end of December, and not a seed was in the ground yet.
It is impossible to run a grain farm business without crops to sell, and it is impossible to have crops to sell without planting seeds in the ground. I had tens of thousands of euros worth of crops yet to plant, and the fall planting season was quickly coming to an end. Rehabilitating an old pump was just the latest idea in a series of desperate ones to remove water from the fields and be ready to prep and plant the fields whenever we got a break from the rain.
With the rain soaking through our rain gear, we retreated to the machine shed and continued on indoor projects.
A few days later, Fabio stopped by for our yearly settling-of-debts ritual. Fabio is my custom combine guy, and he has worked with the farm for decades. He owns large harvesting machinery that is too expensive for a single farm to own and harvests all of my crops. It had been a very challenging harvest season – again because of all of the rain – and that gave him ample fodder to fuel his narratives about impending doom and about how nothing in farming worked anymore. When he started talking about low commodity prices, I cut him off. Without a decisive intervention, this conversation could end in tears.
After he shook his head in general disbelief at the world at large, he turned to me and said, in Italian, “Hey, so, your ditches are flooded.”
No shit, I thought.
He continued, “You need to get the water out of those ditches or else you’re not going to be able to plant.”
I looked back at him. I can’t control the weather, I wanted to respond, and it’s been raining for almost two months. You try calling up Mother Nature and asking Her to cooperate. We had gone in with shovels to unblock the drainage system, we had tried the old pump but it wasn’t working, and I had even looked into purchasing a generator that could power a new pump. No dice.
“What would you recommend?” I asked, almost through my teeth.
This is where most of our conversations usually fell apart. There was always a problem and never a solution. Fabio would provide some sort of half response and then would list all of the reasons why it wouldn’t work.
“Let’s go out and take a look,” he replied. I guessed that the nonstop rain meant that he had time to kill. Out to the soaked fields and flooded ditches we went.
When we got to the edge of the fields, Fabio pointed to an additional ditch that paralleled the road at the base of the fields that didn’t drain to anywhere. “Ai tempi del tuo povero babbo, fu fatto un sistema di drenaggio….” He continued to explain, in full southern Tuscan parlance, how there had always been a drainage problem in this part of the farm and that when my “poor” father was still alive, he had started to create a new drainage system to address the problem.
Il tuo povero babbo – your poor father. Fabio regularly used that phrase to delineate a moment in time between how things were when my father was alive and then how things were no longer after my father died. For Fabio, those “things” were farm things, because with his death and that of my grandparents shortly thereafter, projects stopped, knowledge was lost, and the land was rented out to other farmers for many years. Yet here we were, today, staring out onto a series of flooded ditches because almost 30 years ago my father had started a drainage project that he was never able to finish.
In the first years of my management of the farm, my gut response to projects left unfinished by death was to emphasize what – or rather, whom – I didn’t have. The questions would churn in my mind: How could I know this farm – its strengths and weaknesses as a piece of land — without the two generations that started and built it? How many times did I have to make the same mistakes they did because they weren’t here to stop me from doing so? How could I know what they knew without them? Everything that didn’t work gave me an excuse to blame dead people.
But now that I am approaching my fifth year of managing the farm, I know that in moments like these there is often someone like Fabio – who know how things were and then how they were no longer – to help me stitch together pieces of a history to figure out how we might, in fact, drain these damn fields today.
I turned to Fabio and repeated my earlier question: what did he recommend? Apparently, Fabio couldn’t remember the details of the drainage project, but he suggested we call Davide.
Davide is my excavator guy. A good excavator guy is like a good juice cleanse – he removes just the right amount of dirt from the right spots to make the whole system work. I hadn’t thought about calling Davide because he normally works during the summer when it’s dry and easier to excavate. I didn’t think he had the ability to go into wet fields – fields so wet that even my lightest tractor would sink in – and remove dirt.
When we finally got a break in the rain a couple of weeks later, Davide came with his lightest excavating machine on treads to avoid the risk of getting stuck in the mud. He worked methodically along the grassy edge of the fields to do an emergency ditch-cleaning job that helped to remove the majority of the water from the ditches.
It was still challenging to plant the fall crops but working with our oldest, lightest tractors and my custom planting guys, we were able to get everything done – a little late but still within the window that Mother Nature allows us for fall grain planting.
Almost all of the December and January-planted seeds have germinated and most are growing well. Starting in mid-January we’ve been going through a dry spell. To grow, all of the plants could use some rain now. Let’s hope it rains soon.