The Straight and Narrow

Farmer mentors are patient folk.  When I first arrived at Serenbe (my first farm) I was about as far from a country kid as it is possible to be– I buckled my seat belt to drive the farm truck from field to field.  Despite my complete lack of experience around large machinery (or small plants), Paige, my boss, soon set me on the tractor and put me to work.

I had never driven a tractor–I’d never driven a riding lawnmower!–and while I considered myself an adequate car driver, I quickly discovered that the mechanics of cars do not transfer directly to tractors.  The trouble began when I tried to change implements.  While I could remove an implement handily enough, switching over to a new one could easily stretch into a half hour project: me pulling forward and backward, forever failing to line the three point hitch arms with the implement pins, or struggling to get the angle of approach correct.  Once the three point hitch arms were finally attached, I generally had to call for help to connect the PTO (if I had not already given up and handed the task over to my fellow apprentice, Jack)

Finally, frustrated and tired, I would pull into the lane and drive out to the field.  If  my task was mowing or tilling, I could breathe a sigh of relief–straight lines did not matter.  If I today’s job was spading, however, I would begin to sweat.  At Serenbe, we used the spader to form a finished bed.  The tractor tires became the pathway, the spaded portion, a fluffy bed.  And if I found myself bearing left or right, and if I swerved to correct my error, and if I then over corrected, my errors were writ large upon the field.  The first bed becomes the template off of which all other follow.  So, then, if the first bed wends its way, serpentine, from side to side, then the second is almost inevitably going to be worse.  My patient boss watched as I slowly swerved my way across the field, leaving tracks that suggested I’d been hitting the bottle over lunch.

Jack, of course, had no such difficulties.  He’d hop on the tractor and drive as straight at 15 miles per hour as at 2 (it is much harder to drive straight at low speeds than at high ones).  He could wield the front end loader as though it were a second set of hands, and he never had any trouble with the sticky  button on the PTO.  Despite the clear disparity in Jack’s and my skills, Paige still insisted that I practice.  Occasionally, I would lay down a single, miraculous, perfect row, but more often than not I’d find myself adrift mid-way, wailing for advice, and then struggling to finish the bed without further exacerbating my errors.

Enter Andrew.  My husband does not particularly like tractors.  He can drive one well enough, but he has not need for horsepower when tending to his animals.  As I’m the one who needs tilling, mowing, and plastic laying, tractor work is mine then, by default.  And here’s the miracle: somewhere between Georgia, Massachusetts, and Maryland, I learned how to drive in a straight line.  I learned how to hook up an implement with a minimum of fuss.  (I’m still mastering the front-end loader).

Last week, we hitched up the plastic layer we bought last spring from our retiring farmer friends, Chip and Susan.  Black plastic mulch warms the soil and suppresses weeds, and since Andrew and I are managing two full acres by ourselves this year, we’re happy for any weeding breaks we can get.  A plastic layer is a low tech tractor implement that runs behind the tractor and forms a neat little plastic-capped bed.  If everything operates as it should, the plastic will lie smooth and taught upon the soil, and drip tape will run along underneath so that the crop never lacks water even in the dryness of summer.  The straighter the bed, the tighter the plastic will lie (and the less likely it will be to blow off).  The beds I had made are snug one upon the next, such that the right tractor tire from the first bed becomes the left tractor tire for the second bed, and ultimately this single tractor tire print becomes the pathway, where compaction of the soil will not harm my crop.  In other words, as I set about laying my plastic, I had no room for wandering.

And here’s how it ended up.  Paige, I dedicate these soon-to-be rows of onions to you.

In celebration of my mechanical victory, we made burgers and onion rings that night.  I hadn’t eaten onions rings in years–probably not since I last frequented The Varsity in Atlanta, which had to be sometime in the twentieth century.  Homemade onions rings, for the record, blow all other onion rings out of the water, so much so that they were still more delicious as cold leftover the next day.  The next time you find yourself craving something deep fried and delicious, consider whipping up a batch of your own!

Buttermilk-Fried Onions
from Country Tastes: Best Recipes from America’s Kitchens

Peanut oil or lard (enough to fill a straight sided saucepan at least two inches deep)
2 egg yolks
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 t baking soda
3/4 t salt
1 cup buttermilk
3 onions, cut into 1/4 inch rings, crosswise

Heat the fat to 375 degrees (Be VERY careful around the hot oil–don’t let any water fall into the pan, or the fat will sizzle like crazy)
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together everything but the onions and fat to form a batter.  Dip the onions into the batter and drop them into the hot fat.  Roll the rings over as they brown on one side so that everything cooks evenly.  If the fat is good and hot, they should cook within 2-3 minutes.
When the rings are golden brown, remove them from the fat and let them drain on newspaper or a paper towel.  Serve immediately.

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