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An Old Farmer

January 3, 2020

Two or three times a week, he gets on the microbus heading into town, with his two churns of milk. One is bigger than the other, but since he appears my own age, both must feel really heavy for him to bring down to the roadway and hoist into the combi. Usually, somebody helps him position the churns as he gets on, as I did this morning.

This area is still cattle country, and cows in the road are a traffic hazard that has caught many an unwary outsider who’s forced to screech to a halt after taking a bend too confidently.

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Cows here wander the roadways, like these I photographed near the entrance to the village. Drivers from elsewhere don’t expect to encounter them, and often have to brake hard when they do.

But every month, I see another plot of land has been hived off a field for someone to build a house, so the available pasturage is shrinking. There’s grazing up in the hillside meadows, where few people want to build, but even there the foundations and walls are arriving in a few places.

I figure, then, that he’s part of a dying breed. Many people comment on the waning of farming here, as the rewards for the effort keep diminishing. Some still like the independence of it, but once the next generation gives up on it, there’s no turning back. Land is sold, either for houses or, in some cases, consolidation under corporate ownership.

Not long ago a friend and I, out hiking, came across a cornfield that took ten or fifteen minutes to get right around. It was clearly not part of a traditional smallholding. And there are media stories about a problem in the tequila industry, where young men no longer want to harvest the blue agave plants for the usual wages.

The older man can’t make much money off his milk. His jeans and shirts are ragged, and even if they’re just work clothes, there are ranchers round here who are better dressed for their jobs. He looks like he barely makes ends meet. I don’t know the math of the milk business, or the capacity of his milk churns, but he only has a dozen gallons or less to take to the dairy each day. That he doesn’t own even a beat-up pickup for transportation is telling.

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Milk churns – just in case you’ve never seen one, or have forgotten what they look like.

He’s a tall man for a Mexican, and thin, but shy, and doesn’t look to engage the other passengers, even the occasional friends he greets. I’ve never felt I could ask him personal questions. He is traditionally religious, raising his battered hat as we pass a church or roadside shrine. My assumption is that he’s been a dairy farmer for so long, he has no idea of what else he could or should so. He’ll simply continue as long as he can.

But as with so many people here, I wonder what he makes of the changes that have happened over the decades. His generation grew up with their parents and grandparents telling them stories about the 1910 Revolution, in houses without electricity or running water. The road to Amatlan was paved around fifty years ago, around the same time that cables on poles brought electrical power and the first pay telephone to the village. TV followed later in the 1970s, though not many people could afford even a second-hand set until the 1980s. Everything happened thirty or forty years later than it did elsewhere in North America.

Now, my farmer can see the old ways of farm life disappearing. How our food will be produced in future is shown by that big cornfield I mentioned, with its hundred acres or more. And this approach will keep down the cost of eating, whatever else we lose by it.

What I appreciate is that I can still see aspects of how it comes together – while, of course, not having to work at it myself. I pass fields of calabasas (zucchinis, or courgettes), tomatoes, nopales (edible cactus) and of course maize, and can watch to see how it develops. I even fret over the rainfall, as I did last summer, when so little came down in the first part of the growing season; and was cheered to see the reservoirs filled by the end of November.

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A rain-fed reservoir outside of the village, where ranchers bring cows and horses for watering.

I like to think the man on the combi, despite the hardships of his livelihood, still enjoys that same connection to the rhythm of the seasons. Maybe his inherited knowledge won’t be needed when all our food comes from large corporate operations, but at least I’ve lived here while it still exists.

The Daily Barkathon

September 8, 2019

The first indication that they’ve arrived is the dogs barking. In the photo below, you might just see my neighbour’s dog in the gate, his paws up between the bars as he yelps. He is often bored, so barking at horses and cows is a diversion for him. Shortly after, a couple of my dogs will be at it –the pair who most prefer to be outside – plus three or four of the dogs of families living on this laneway.

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A photo taken by leaning dangerously out of my living-room window.

They all make more noise than they would if a pack of dogs from the main part of the village had come in for a rumble. Big ruminants are a scandal to the canine world, apparently. There’s no mistaking, therefore, that cows or horses have arrived outside.

The laneway is only half built-up, and on the side opposite to where I live, there’s still a meadow. This offers grazing, but so does the central reservation of the lane, and its fringes. We’re still getting the occasional rainshower, so all this is green and lush right now.

I’ve never been able to understand how the farmers keep track of their animals. Theoretically, they could wander miles, up into the hills or off to a village miles away. Horses are still branded, so they can be identified, but there must be arguments over the cows.

And, occasionally, an out-of-town driver doesn’t realise a large animal could emerge onto the road at any moment, and present a costly compensation case when it’s hit at speed. You don’t want to run down someone’s horse or cow, believe me. Somebody will always know someone who knows the real owner.

So somehow they do work it out.

Most days, mothers, calves or foals come meandering into our cul-de-sac for a meal, seemingly ignoring the dogs’ racket. Sometimes, a dog gets nippy, and gets a hoof in the face. More rarely, a cow or bull lowers its head and threatens the dog with a horn. I’ve not seen a dog killed or injured in such an encounter, but it must happen.

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A foal just a few days old, with its mother, at the entrance of our laneway.

Meantime, the livestock are cheering to look at. They keep the village’s agricultural heritage intact, and they’re often beautiful animals as well.

So I’m glad the dogs start a barkathon when they come by. It reminds me to stop and look out.