Even when I was a kid, The First Four Years was sort of painful to read, because Almanzo had such awful luck with his farm. The first crop was promising, but was destroyed by hail; the second crop was just mediocre because the growing season was dry; the third crop was promising, but was quickly destroyed by hot, dry wind. And through all that, he was building up debt to buy equipment that would make the work on the farm more efficient. Before they married, Laura objected to Almanzo working on the farm because farmers have such a hard time making a living.
That hasn't changed. My husband has planted a blueberry patch as his retirement project/income (he plans to quit teaching in another five years or so). The first couple of years, the patch was great - lots of big, juicy berries. The last two years have been terrible; in fact, this year, I think he estimated we sold only 40 gallons. There haven't been many berries to pick, in part because the weather has been hot and dry during the late summer when the plants set their blossoms for the next season's crop (anyway, that's what we were told by a friend who is a horticulturalist). And of course, the past two summers have been just unimaginably hot for long periods of time, meaning we are also losing some plants.
Of course, crops are dependent on weather, but raising animals has its challenges, too. There are always the normal problems like disease or accidents (last summer we had a lamb that just disappeared - we think a coyote got him), but this year there is a new challenge - feeding the animals. The lack of rain during the spring means pastures have almost no grass. Not just no green grass; there are places where the ground is literally bare. That means there also is no grass to cut for hay. Since there is no grass for the animals to eat now, we have to feed them something, so we are doing a mix of hay (not much, since we have to have it for winter) and grain ($9 per bag, but cheaper than a bale of hay...especially as hay becomes scarcer in the area). We're also trying to make use of whatever else is available. We are pulling up everything but the tomatoes in the garden and giving it to the sheep and cows. The cows love the dry cornstalks. The sheep seem partial to the grasshopper-riddled brussels sprout leaves. Yesterday, I started pulling up the lima bean plants, even though they still are green and have leaves; not only is the weather dry, but we've also had a recent infestation of blister beetles. The lima beans probably won't produce anything anyway, and I'd rather the cows have them than the blister beetles. I feel especially sorry for the two horses. We don't give them any of the "special treats," since horses have such delicate stomachs and get colic so easily. But they stand at the fence and watch while we are giving the cows the extras, and I can almost see their depression, ha.
Still, I wouldn't want to live any other way. And I think that's why I'm wanting to re-read these two books at this point. Despite the hardships of living on a farm, both hardships brought on by weather and by lack of money, Laura and Bethany both come to appreciate the land and its promise. As Laura said at the end of The First Four Years,
It would be a fight to win out in this business of farming, but strangely she felt her spirit rising for the struggle. The incurable optimism of the farmer who throws his seed on the ground every spring, betting it and his time against the elements, seemed inextricably to blend with the creed of her pioneer forefathers that "it is better farther on"--only instead of farther on in space, it was farther on in time, over the horizon of the years ahead instead of the far horizon of the west.It rained last night for the first time in over a month. This morning when I was hanging out the jeans, I thought I saw a little green in the grass that wasn't there yesterday. Maybe I'm imagining it, or maybe it's really there. But between that and reading these stories, I think I'll mentally make it through this drought