The Rural Life

Ed. note: With this issue we introduce a new column, “The Rural Life” by Melissa H. Bienvenu. Ms. Bienvenu (no relation to food writer Marcelle Bienvenu), lives with her husband and family on a farm near Franklington in Washington Parish. She is an accomplished magazine writer who won a Silver Award in the International and Regional Magazine Association’s General Feature category in 2006. The winning entry, entitled “Diary of A Mad Watermelon Farmer’s Wife” appeared in this magazine’s Autumn 2005 issue.

I’m not sure how I pictured the future back during my formative, suburban years. But whatever I had in mind, I’m positive it didn’t involve the word “teats,” the ambition to operate heavy equipment or a desire to have anything in my wardrobe bearing the slogan: Nothing Runs Like A Deere.

So whenever I have to explain how I went from being an Atlanta journalist to being a Louisiana farmer’s wife, sometimes even I have to wonder, “What was I thinking?” And sometimes – just being totally honest – what in the [bleep! bleep!] was I thinking?

Needless to say, my life has followed one of the least predictable trajectories of just about anyone I know, or at least of any farmer’s wife-slash-magazine-writer that I know (a very exclusive group to be sure).

Since my arrival 15 years ago on what was then a dairy farm near Franklington, a town of about 4,000 in Washington Parish just north of Lake Pontchartrain’s Northshore, I’ve embraced the duality of my town-come-to-country existence. I’m at peace with the fact that I’ll always be a fish out of water, no matter which pond I’m inhabiting. After all, it’s not every day you run into city magazine journalists in a place like Franklington. Nor do you meet many magazine journalists who can climb into the cab of a John Deere 4040 pulling an 18-foot wagon stacked 12 feet high with four tons of hay, crank the engine and not only drive it, but back that sucker up.

It makes for one bipolar resume, that’s for sure. In my journalist’s hat, I’ve interviewed musicians, TV stars and famous athletes, flown in hot air balloons and descended deep into coal mines, dined with politicians and socialized with novelists. In my agricultural persona, I’ve rounded up and milked 120 cows in a freezing rain at 3 a.m., ridden tractors until my butt went numb, harvested okra until I was clawing myself like Lucy in the itching powder episode, delivered calves, laid shingles, shoveled manure, hauled hay and peddled watermelons by the side of the road. I have yet to cut off any tails with a carving knife, but never say never.

Like nearly everyone who meets us, Harvey and I are mystified by how we managed to choose such vocationally incompatible and geographically inconvenient mates for ourselves. As you might imagine, magazines and magazine writers traditionally tend to be found in large, sophisticated, densely populated urban centers. Farms and farmers? Not so much.

Our career-crossed union dates back to Fort Walton Beach, Fla., on Labor Day Weekend, 1990. He was a vacationing 30-year-old dairy farmer born and raised in Louisiana. I was a vacationing 27-year-old senior writer for Atlanta magazine who’d grown up in a suburb of Birmingham. Other than infrequent, early childhood visits to my late grandparents’ farm, farming played no part in my day-to-day reality. Like most city dwellers, I guess I was vaguely aware that all that stuff at the grocery store had to come from somewhere but that was about the extent of my agrarian awareness.

Then I met Harvey through a chance encounter on the beach. We sat in the sand talking until the sun dawned over the Gulf of Mexico. When we’re old and gray, I’ll tell our children and our children’s children about a watershed event in their history, when a pair of far-flung soulmates found each other, connected by an attraction as ancient as the stars and bound by a destiny as inexorable as the tide. Well, by that and the gigantic bottle of Scotch Harvey was packing.

In truth, my latent attraction to men who associate with livestock probably had something to do with my daddy, the former farm boy. During my single years, as I speed-dated through one boyfriend after another (or so it now seems after 17 years with the same man), Dad only ever had one thing to say about my love life: “What you need is a good old farm boy.” At the time, needless to say, this piece of advice struck me as utterly useless. After all, I wasn’t exactly tripping over good old farm boys in the middle of Birmingham or Atlanta.

But after meeting Harvey I began to understand what Daddy meant. From an early age, farm boys (or at least the ones of my husband’s generation) learn to be hard-working, resourceful and self-reliant. After all, if you had to hire a veterinarian, mechanic, electrician, botanist, carpenter, roofer, plumber, fence builder, welder, heavy equipment operator or biologist every time something goes wrong on a farm, you’d go bankrupt the first month. This tends to create men with a kind of quiet self-confidence, a rugged pragmatism, a reassuring Me-The-Provider vibe that even independent career women find irresistible. Or maybe it’s nothing that fancy. As a Trace Adkins song puts it – and much more succinctly – “Ladies Love Country Boys.”

For two years after we met, my country boy and I played “Your state or mine?” including a brief period when Harvey made a noble but doomed attempt at finding happiness with me in Atlanta. Hilarity, but not much happiness, ensued. When they write our life story, the chapters from this era will include: “A Straight Country Boy Tries to Use the Men’s Room at an Indigo Girls Concert,” “Container Gardening and Turnip Greens: Don’t Try It,” and, my personal favorite, “When the Dairy Farmer Met the Militant Vegetarian.”

Slowly, it became apparent that Harvey would never be truly happy caged in a tiny apartment in the middle of 4 million strangers in a culture so different from the one he’d always known. After six months, I issued his Get Out of Jail Free Card, sending him back to Franklington with my blessings and the agreement that we’d keep looking for a solution to our long-distance predicament. A month or so later, I drove over from Atlanta to visit him. Only then did I fully comprehend just how miserable the poor thing had been in the city. After a few weeks back on the farm, the man literally glowed. The color had returned to his face. An aura of joy and robust good health surrounded him. I was taken aback, even shocked, by his physical transformation. Suddenly, I realized Harvey had been slowly wilting in Atlanta, like a houseplant you keep forgetting to water. I understood right then and there that I couldn’t ask him to come back.

Short of splitting up, that left us with one other option. Still, it took me a while to wrap my mind around the prospect of ditching my dream job, saying adios to a vibrant, exciting city that offered everything a young, single professional could possibly want and disappearing to the sticks of Louisiana where glamorous, well-paying, full-time staff jobs for city magazine writers were non-existent, meanwhile causing the people in my life to wonder if I had contracted Mad Writer’s Disease and might even pose a danger to society.

Other than that, my decision to quit, leave Atlanta, marry a farmer and attempt to launch a freelance magazine journalism career from the middle of a cow pasture three states away was a no-brainer. It is good to be 30 and insanely optimistic.
As for the culture shock everyone predicted, let’s just say that there was definitely an adjustment period after I came to the farm. Instead of pantyhose and heels, I started dressing for work in coveralls and knee-high, black rubber boots. Partly because it looked like fun but mainly because Harvey needed the help, I learned to drive tractors, milk cows, deliver calves and a whole bunch of other things they didn’t cover at journalism school. (Eventually, I got smart and learned to avoid learning “fun” new skills.)

The author, Melissa Bienvenu, right, with her farming family: husband Harvey and sons Matthew and Andy (back).

Then there was the transition from city life to small-town culture, only part of which was learning to cope with the lack of goods and services. When I arrived in 1992, believe it or not, the town had recently gotten its first McDonald’s. In the last 15 years, we’ve added a few more national retailers but lost many more family-owned businesses. Yet, I’m still looking at a minimum 20-mile roadtrip in any direction to find many of the items on my shopping list. We in Franklington are living proof that it’s possible to survive without easy access to Wal-Mart, Starbucks or bikini waxes.
Two years after our 1992 wedding, we purchased the 225-acre dairy farm from Harvey’s retiring parents. As business moves go, this was akin to pouring your life savings into a Mom and Pop grocery the week before Wal-Mart announces it’s building a supercenter next door. Little did we know that, over the next 10 years, sweeping changes in the dairy industry would all but wipe out the small and medium-sized dairy farm in Louisiana.

Still, in 2003, we were one of the lucky few who were able to escape with the shirts still on our backs. After that, we tried truck farming. For three years, our main business was growing and selling famous Washington Parish watermelons, both to the wholesale and retail market. On the side, we sold garden vegetables and hay, as well as U-Pick turnip and mustard greens, with peas and butterbeans in the fall.
But the first summer was too wet for watermelons and the next two were too dry. In other words, our watermelon venture wasn’t very sweet. Then Katrina came along and made what was already a severe shortage of reliable farm labor about 250 times worse. We gave the produce business a whirl for three years before it dawned on us that there has to be a better way for two college graduates to run themselves ragged, worry themselves sick and go broke than trying to operate a vegetable farm with too little rain and hardly any help.

But as a friend recently pointed out, I’m married to the stubbornest farmer in Franklington, which actually means that I’m married to a hopeless gambler. So now we’re gambling on hay – growing and selling our own, as well as baling hay for other local landowners. Proper rainfall is still going to be an issue but manual labor much less so. Either way, it’s farming, so the odds are only slightly better than what you’d find at Harrah’s. Whether the challenge proves to be weather, fuel prices, weeds, insects or some other lurking calamity, the hay business isn’t exactly a sure thing, either.

Then again, what is? People who live in the suburbs and work 9 to 5 lose jobs every day. Loved ones get sick. Economies falter. Hurricanes happen. The challenges facing farmers and city folks aren’t all that different. We just have a lot more grass to cut.

When I look back at our long, strange trip from the farm to the city to the farm, I can’t decide which is more remarkable – what it took to get us here or what it will take to keep us here. And even though I never saw it coming, it’s hard to imagine a life anywhere else.

Besides, there’s no going back now – we have way too much money invested in John Deere T-shirts.