Hard Lives, Hard Times

The life of country people, the Kentucky poet-farmer Wendell Berry has observed, is marked by a surprising complexity. To be successful it requires deep knowledge of the land, of the seasons in their time, of plants and animals—to say nothing of markets, freight costs, and federal regulations. Plant early, and risk late frost; plant late, and risk summer flooding. Calve early, and risk the high mortality rate winter brings; calve late, and risk the infectious diseases the warm air carries. Make the wrong guesses and face foreclosure, battle the elements and hope for the best: each day brings a new challenge to the farmer, the rancher, the orchard keeper.

For the country people who populate Sam Bingham's The Last Ranch, the complexities are constant, even in the quiet times. "The learning," he writes, "all seems so simple in the middle of winter. You get good stock. Train a sheepdog. Lay off the coyotes. Lay the hay in this new way. Your land improves. Your margin improves. A few new techniques and you gain a stride or two. . . . You learn to beat the system. But of course, this is only February, agricultural dreamtime, when everything seems possible, predictable, and even mechanical. Inevitably the season will turn." Turn it will, to summers of beleaguered herds, unpredictable rains, the occasional twister, and always the vagaries of the beef market; one complicated matter unfolding into another.


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