Randy Lamb dropped by a week or so ago. I assumed he had not just come by for a chat. I don’t know if he is the type of guy who just drops in for a chat, but if he is I am not the type of guy he just drops in to chat with. We are friendly, but not friends.
I have know Randy for as long as we have lived here. He and his older brother, Eddie, were renting the farm when we bought it and continued to use most of our fields for the first eleven years we lived here. We would see them when they came to plant the fields in May and when they came to harvest the corn in the late autumn or early winter. Sometimes if we were out in the yard they would stop in their little blue pickup to talk about the weather or Eddie’s grandson or how the corn had done that year. Eddie, in the driver’s seat, did most of the talking–not because he was more gregarious but because he was in charge. In fact, he was so clearly in charge that for the first few years Liz thought Randy was his son. And now Randy lives with our neighbor, Angie (a local scandal Anne Connor would have enjoyed explaining to you in detail), so I see him when I go and get a haircut (from Angie, not Randy). That is roughly the extent of our relationship. There’s no reason, I suppose, we could not be friends, except I did not not grow up with Randy, never played on a team with him, never went joy riding or hunting with him, never stacked bales in a hay mow with him. Plus, I don’t bowl. So we talk of this and that when we run into one another and it’s always perfectly friendly, but we would not seek each other out just to chat.
So I felt reasonably certain when Randy turned up that he had a favor to ask or offer. But I also felt reasonably certain that we would not get to the purpose of his visit right away. That is not how things are done around here. Yes, it was the middle of the morning on a work day and we were washing vegetables and no doubt Randy had plenty of chores waiting to get done back at the farm. Getting straight to business might have seemed the sensible course of action. But getting straight to business would be a breach of local etiquette.
You don’t pull into a man’s driveway at 11:30 in the morning, pull him away from work and just blurt out whatever you have come to discuss. Such undue haste suggests he’s not worth your time, which is just rude. And why on earth would you be there if he’s not worth your time. Only a fool would do business with someone he cannot take the time to chat with first. And only a fool would rush into business with anyone. Unless something is on fire you should always proceed carefully. Take your time. Make sure the moment is right rather than just jumping at any opportunity that presents itself. In fact, come to think of it, that probably applies even when something is on fire.
We knew an agricultural economist who moved up here and was driven crazy by this way of operating. It made no sense to him. As he saw it, economic success is about taking risks and making the most of opportunities as quickly as possible before someone else does. And he is right in a way. There’s no question people around here regard innovation with undue skepticism and prefer too often to stick with what they know even when it does not work any more. I doubt farmers could do anything to prosper like investment bankers– short of going into investment banking–but surely they could find ways to nudge farming towards sustained profitability if they were more willing to try new ways of growing and selling. To be fair, a few have. Battenkill Creamery, up in Salem, started bottling and distributing its own milk and has done well by doing something different.
But there are good reasons in farming not to jump at every chance that comes along. As Randy and I discussed, a lot of local farmers took advantage of a warm, dry April to put in corn extra early. If the weather held, they would get a big crop and be able to bring it in on a reasonable schedule rather than in the all too frequent mad rush before the cold and damp of autumn. Only, the weather did not hold, and most of the early corn is a disaster. Randy and Eddie, based on years of experience, chose to wait until the usual time and have a good crop. Randy is perfectly willing to admit there was some luck involved (good for him, bad for the people who gambled), but the Lambs’ decision about when to plant was also based on their local knowledge, including the knowledge that years agowhen they planted early during a warm spring it did not work. Given that the potential reward in farming for such gambles is never particularly high and the cost of failure can be fairly serious, it probably makes sense to learn as a rule not to rush into things, to go with the course of action accrued knowledge has proven sensible.
People around here are also more closely connected to older, slower, less profit-obsessed ways. They can remember (perhaps directly, perhaps from what their parents told them) a time before tractors and cars, a time when you went to grade school in the one room school house and took the trolley up to the high school in Greenwich–if you were admitted, when you planted corn by hand and cultivated it with horses, when you and your neighbors would work together to get everyone’s hay in in time, when winter snows were not plowed but packed down on the roads to make travel by sleigh possible, when cracking nuts around the kitchen stove was the evening entertainment, when 20 cows was a big milking herd, and when communicating with one another meant talking face to face.
Obviously, the locals have not hung onto everything from this time–though I keep hoping we will go back to sleighs in the winter–but they have retained a somewhat more gracious (or just slower, depending on your point of view) pace, a refusal to rush (or get to the point, depending on your point of view). That and the habit of treating those they deal with as people–and thus worth visiting with for a little while no matter what else awaits–and not just opportunities to make a deal.
Which is why Randy and I stood in the driveway for twenty minutes talking about the weather and the crops before he thought to mention why he had come by. 20 minutes that an economist or an investment banker would write off as a complete waste. 20 minutes that strike me as the entirely acceptable price of living in town that clings to its way of doing things.