It’s planting time in Central Mexico. For regular farmers like us, (“regular”, hah! Joke) it’s time to plant corn. If a farmer came out financially ahead on the wheat crop, there are funds available to invest in corn-planting expenses, and early June is the time. This year we began on the 6th. When we got out to the fields we were noticeably alone. There were no other tractors or planting teams with pickups loaded with fertilizer and seed. We’re in charge of seven fields, and they’re not all located adjacent to each other; we have a good view of the neighbors’ fields. Nada. There was no movement – only us. And we heard the talk (and jeers) about town. “Too early!”
Our team was headed by Chon The Guitar Player (boss), Me (driver), a tractor operator, and two loaders. Loaders load (duh) the pickup with the seed and fertilizer sacks, and then move that heavy stuff to the canisters on the planter behind the tractor. Each sack of granulated fertilizer weighs about 100 pounds. The seed sacks weigh less. It’s a heavy job but there are long resting times between the carrying and loading, and to me that balances it out – long hours, but a reasonably pleasant day.
That was the first day. It took us a week and a day (and then another two weeks) to finish the planting, and I won’t write a boring blow-by-blow chronicle for something that should have taken 5 days. Damp fields, hot weather, nightly rains, not-dry-enough leftover wheat stalks that got stuck in the planter wheels, lack of fertilizer (the supplier ran out!), but workers who wanted to Get Things Done by working at odd hours; all these contributed to a final acceptable outcome.
And then, like farmers do, we had to hope that the rain would arrive to keep the corn sprouts alive. They were already poking up out of the ground in some areas. The most costly thing that could happen is for all the millions of sprouts to die of thirst. And if it happens to us, it will happen for most of the farmers in our area.
If you were paying attention, the “Too early!” comment turned out to be true for nearly everyone. And by the end of the month (including on my birthday) many of us were re-planting. For three long weeks we waited for the rain we expected at the beginning of June, and with the exception of small sprinkles of rain in certain micro areas, they didn’t come.
A comment about my birthday – it was pleasant! We had casually planned a short-distance trip to somewhere new, thinking we’d just drive somewhere. Instead, since it was Tuesday, we decided – why not? – we decided to go to our go-to Tuesday place, where two-for-one is the magical word. For big plates of breaded fish filets served with rolls, salad, rice, and tostadas with chíle oil, and just about any kind of salsa you could ask for.
A dash to the ag supply place with money freshly withdrawn from the bank account preceded a stop at our tractor driver’s house. Yes, he said, he’d come to reseed a field.
And that’s what we did, until rain began to splatter the field, thunder sounded, lightning flashed, and – we finished the section of the field that had sprouted but not lived!
It was a day like many others, but somehow – just right.
We practiced! Yes, we did! For the first time in – no, I can’t say it. Just know that there were many, many reasons that other activities took precedence. It took several hours to locate all the equipment we needed, and to set up. We’re trying out a new spot in the portál. In this photo you can see our Audubon bird clock (very popular with the denizons of the rancho), some framed needlepoint work, our ancient electrical switch box and the place we hook up our musical electrical equipment, and a very old cement tile floor that I have grown to like.
In the afternoon when we took a break, we went to survey the lot behind the house.
On the other side of the stone fence is our neighbors’ corn field. For the first time in 6 years, the two middle-aged sisters have a respectable crop. Since the parcel slants down, and is dry land, the season was perfect – some rain every night.They also have some squash plants, tomatillos, and beans. I cooked a big handful of beans with lentils, and I must say that they were excellent. I had small hopes for them because the bean pods were beginning to dry. I shelled the driest ones to find tender, pale beans inside, and as for the greener ones, they soften right up, and the combination of legumes was delicious, cooked with onion, garlic and tomatoes. We had an excellent supper, served with bolillos.
Our friends Michael and Richard headed home to the Los Angeles area today without us being able to spend time with them. Their Mexico vacation didn’t turn out quite as planned.
In the afternoon I found some time to try to make up for lost time knitting. It’s beginning to look like a sweater! That’s the back of a short top-down cardigan knitted with recycled cotton yarn.
Chris suggested I translate some words, so I did. Good suggestion.
It was one of those awful, good days – a little bit of everything! It was cloudy and warmish when I got up before 6. We got an early start and got to El Joconoistle at 7 a.m.( All the fields around us have old, official names you can read on the deeds, and there are maps of them. I’d love to put a copy of the old, fragile map right here – one day I will.) We own a field in El Joconoistle, named for some cacti that used to grow there. Another field in El Joconoistle is rented from a friend. In La Tabla Grande, the big board, we own two fields that lie next to each other, purchased from two of Chon’s uncles. El Melonár, named for the melons grown there many years ago and La Tierra Blanca, or white dirt, named for its light-colored earth, are also rented, from Chon’s godfather.
Chon is irrigating a section of a parcela we farm so as not to pay a peón to work. (Parcela is the word used here for a parcel of land.) Irrigating is the most highly paid job here, because the irrigator is supposed to be there 24 hours for each turn. The section we were watering had flooded a little bit in the night, and we went there (in the night) forgetting to take a shovel, but Chon had closed the boquilla with his hands and mud, and it was OK in the morning. (A boquilla is a sort of notch in the side of a ditch where the water is managed. To open it and let the water into the field, you shovel away the wet dirt. To stop the water, you just build it back up again. Or use a costál, a large , woven plastic bag that can hold about 100 pounds of fertilizer, or sand, or dirt.)
Then we went to La Tierra Blanca to make sure that one of our father/son teams were taking care of the water there. The night before we listened to extremely upsetting stories of how the water was taken from us by a well-known peón of the most well-known farmeraround, who removed the boards we had put in the compuerta to divert the water to our ditch. We heard more details of that story.
The sky got darker and darker, and then it began to sprinkle, and by 8 a.m. to was raining. The sound of rain on tall corn plants is something to remember. And this time it was particularly wonderful, as the plants really really needed water. By 8:30 it was still raining. The ground there gets gummy right away, and I managed to get the pickup stuck. Both front tires were over the edge of the ditch.
One of our workers drove his decrepit red pickup over and after jockeying it around, and nearly getting it stuck, all the peónes together, and the red pickup pulled us backwards out of danger. By this time Chon was chilled to the bone, and his shirt was dripping water from the hem. I gave him my merely-damp flannel shirt to wear, and a bandana, because I nearly always wear a t-shirt underneath flannel in the mornings, and I wasn’t cold. And by that time the sun was out!
We went then to open the water in La Tabla Grande, and were there an hour or so, and then traveled back to El Joco. While we were there, a bump in the road that had been becoming more and more of a driving problem had turned out to be (I knew it! I knew it!) a broken pipe that crosses under the road, and Porfirio and his son started digging, and they uncovered most of the smashed part, and the water began to flow out of it, and then it inexplicably got stopped up, and Chon pulled one, two, three costales out of it. They had been used on the other side of the road at the compuerta to divert the water from the canal into our irrigation ditch. In the US they most likely would have been filled with sand, but these had been filled with mud, maybe a year or two ago. The mud had partly oozed out through the mesh fabric, and the no-longer-full costales had made their way into the 10-inch pipe. Chon also pulled a dinky little mud turtle out of the pipe, and we all laughed at that, and I took it back to the canal.
The pipe just kept getting plugged up over and over, and we finally drove to the house to get a very, very long piece of rebar (12 meters long!) which eventually was used to clean out the long piece of pipe after Chon had a brilliant idea to open one of the boquillas into the field to get the water moving better.
We didn’t get back from the fields until after four p.m., and it was nearly all work and/or frustration!
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We drove El Esqueleto to the reservoir at the end of summer. I had thought it would be a miserable drive, but it wasn’t. Anyone who has walked up that road knows about the uneven, rocky road. It’s built of rocks, and there are speed bumps (speed bumps on a rock road, you say? Indeed.) But it was fun!
The reservoir is about 120 years old, and the old presa is much older. Chon’s ancestors moved to this area to get work building it. It’s important now because it’s owned by the water industry, and all of us farmers use it for irrigation. When the water level gets up to about 26 meters, they sometimes can begin to release it to use to water crops.
So we got there, and walked out on the dam. There are millions of water lilies there, choking it up. There must be a way to harvest them.
Here are some photos of the area. It was a gorgeous day.
Just as we finished the afternoon fertilizer work it started to rain, which couldn’t have been better timing to dissolve the fertilizer granules so the plants can use it.
This is the sort of thing that makes people say jokingly, with a little bit of caution in their eyes, that we have a pact with the devil. How else could we have started off so well 5 seasons ago, and continue to do well when we’re only musicians?
Manotas, Beto’s male dog, seems to think he belongs here. He’s out sitting next to our pickup (which we left in the street because I don’t want to get wet in the rain moving it) and Chon says “We have to give him something. He’s cold”.
“And I say “Do you want a dog or something?”
“He’s just fine. If he really gets cold he’ll go to his real home.”
I’m trying not to love the two black and white litter mates.
Here’s the condensed version.
We harvested our wheat. There was concomitant drama: parts of some of the fields weren’t mature and the grain elevator owner asked us to wait four days, causing several days of stress and worry: Would it rain? Would the wind knock it all down? Skimming over the days of stress and wonder, it all turned out fine. We didn’t have a magnificent harvest, but it turned out to be quite respectable after four long days of hot and dusty harvesting.
We had had to delay our planting dates because of other, more pressing personal and human problems, but that’s a story for another day.
As immediately after the wheat harvest as we could, we began our corn planting, hiring a nephew to drive the tractor, using our brand-new planter-seeder.
Torn between planting an established and famous strain of hybrid corn seed, and a brand new type, we ended up using mostly Cimarron, an expensive seed we bought from a new dealer, the daughter of a local friend. Until we ran out. That caused us to scramble to order more, with delays and not-exactly-the-truth finessing by the dealer. We ended up ordering a new hybrid from a trusted dealer who even delivered the seed and loaded it into our pickup so that we could rush out to the last two fields to finish the planting before the rains came.
Planting usually results in long, long days, even though the work isn’t too taxing. The guys that are hired for loading have lots of waiting before they move into action, loading the canisters of the seeder with seed and fertilizer. Often one worker helps the other load bags weighing up to 100 pounds onto his shoulder, whereupon he walks to the tractor carrying it, and dumps the contents of the bag into its canister.
There are minimum half-hour waiting times. There were some unexpected problems (aren’t there always?). Some parts – nuts and bolts things – got lost, and we found out to our chagrin how much the tractor company charges for replacements. Since they weren’t available anyway, at least not locally, we made substitutes.
And the cycle starts over – instead of hoping that it won’t rain and ruin the crop or the planting, now we’re hopefully watching the skies for clouds to coax the baby corn plants out of the ground.
Here’s my friend Josefina and her helper – early morning sweepers.
This morning, bright and early, we drove our new red tractor to the llantero, tire guy, about 3/4 of a mile from here. Since we’re going to use it starting tomorrow (already!) we had to get the tires filled – get this – with water. Water. I didn’t have a clue.
We backed the tractor out of our garage, and started up the street to the carretera, the highway that’s in the process of being reconstructed. On the gravelly, dusty highway, we made our tractorly way to the tire repair guy, Pancho. He repairs and fills all kinds of tires, and is an pleasant guy. We got to his shop and sat there for awhile as he began.
A woman we know passed by, carrying sacks full of plastic bottles to recycle. She used to come to our house every couple of weeks to pick up the bottles we save for her, but she hadn’t come lately, and we had several fertilizer sacks full of bottles. They had been there so long the sacks had begun to deteriorate.
As it so often happens, and as it turned out, she is the aunt of a neighbor woman. In these small ranchos, nearly everyone has relatives in the surrounding ones. We often see her trundling by on the highway, carrying bags of plastic bottles to sell to the recyclers.
There’s a very small hardware store very to close to the tire repair place, and we walked over there to get a couple of things for the tractor. We needed a new what’s-it-called, thingy to drop through the holes to hook the disc to the tractor. when we received our tractor, the holes weren’t properly aligned to do the hook-up,
and we needed to either enlarge the holes or get a smaller thing to drop in there. And one of the nipples for greasing had broken off, so we bought a new one of those. The hardware store had all sorts of things to keep me looking, as do many hardware stores: nest boxes for parakeets, fish hooks in two sizes, rope, and fiddly little things necessary to keep your house running well.
Next to the hole-in-the-wall hardware store was a restaurant that serves seafood, and we had resolved to spend our hour-and-a-half there to have some breakfast. There was one thing on the menu – shrimp cocktail. We ordered a large one to split between us, and it was excellent! I watched as the owner prepared it for us. In the kind of tall glasses with large bases you’d expect, he started with about a half-cup of water (shrimp water?) he dipped out of a plastic bowl. Then he added the shrimp, and as I watched he chopped up onion, then tomatoes, and then avocados. He poured a red liquid over the top (probably Kermato or Clamato, maybe with some sweetener added). And then, voila! he brought them to the table and opened a cardboard box of Saltines, called Saladitas here. It was excellent, and a wonderful breakfast. It cost less than six dollars for the two of us.
The tire man finished filling the tires with water, and we headed for home on the dusty, bumpy highway. Once there, we parked the tractor behind the house and started filling the big water tank in the back of our pickup so we can dump water in the bottom of a narrow ditch our workers have been cleaning. It’s been so hot and dry that it required pick-axes to break the surface of the ground in the dry ditch.
And then, the señora showed up to get the bottles, so we helped to re-bag them in newer plastic sacks. This is the first time I’ve seen 100-lb bags that are a green color. They deteriorate rapidly in the sun. Farmers use these sacks by the hundreds and thousands, so it’s a wonderful thing that they are clearly biodegradable. This woman is a widow, and supports herself by picking up bottles along the highway. She walks several miles every day.
We had six or seven sacks to fill with the plastic bottles. We have a few bottles that we buy ourselves because we purchase Coke-a-Cola to serve to visitors (that’s about all they care for), and I pick up bottles whenever possible while we’re working.
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