I was taking photos of one of our friend’s children the other day; we had sweet one-year-old Sutton sitting on a blanket in my pecan orchard out near the barn. He kept reaching for the fallen pecans and collecting them into a pile where he was sitting. Lanier and I kept slowly sneaking them away from him, but ever persistent, he would collect more and had a death grip on several of the nuts.
“You sure do love those pecans, don’t ya,” I said as I scooped him up.
Lanier laughed, “It’s in his blood, Ashlee!”
It’s true. Sutton comes from a long line of peach and pecan farmers. His dad and grandfather own and operate Pearson Farms in Fort Valley, right next door to Tom’s pecan orchards and Tom’s dad’s tree farm.
Lanier’s comment did get me to thinking more about what an influence this “farm life” that Tom was born into and that I have slowly adapted into has on us.
When Tom and I began dating, I had just turned sixteen and Tom was almost 17. My parents liked Tom, but hated the fact that he lived in Fort Valley. My curfew was…get this…4:30 IN THE AFTERNOON. I wasn’t allowed in Fort Valley alone. If I didn’t answer a million questions during their numerous phone calls, you better believed I’d be pegged with 1,000,000+ when I got home. And to be honest, I hated Fort Valley, too. I hated the trains and tractors that always made me late for my curfew. I viewed Fort Valley only as the “ghetto” between Warner Robins and my beloved Butler. It was never anything more to me for so many years.
…Fort Valley gets such a bad wrap.
As the years passed, Tom decided to venture further away from the tree business after college and begin his own organic pecan company. I was distraught. How would he make money? Wait a minute, what the heck did he even know about pecans? In my mind, success was being a doctor. My parents were both brilliant and provided my sister and I with the best life I could have imagined. Did I want to stay with someone and risk not being able to do the same for my future kids?
Fast forward four years later. He and his right hand man, Kenedy, farmed 150 acres of pecans producing 200,000 pounds of pecans in 2012. In 2013, he’s doubling the crop with 300 acres of pecans trees spread across 3 counties. He’s in grocery stores and restaurants. They work countless hours a week, producing not just pecans, but soybeans, wheat, organic blackberries, and 100 million other things I’m forgetting. Farming is his life. That was a tough pill for me to swallow for a while.
But there’s something really comforting about being part of this small farming community. When you make your living off the land, you form a special bond with those that do the same. It’s like an exclusive club where everyone looks out for everyone else. Where everyone understands each other a little better than normal. There’s a level of respect that’s hard to find anymore. There’s also a level of pride, and I don’t mean that in a sappy way. You’re proud of the work that’s being done because it’s been done so many years before you. It’s the slowest and the most fast-paced job, all at the same time. The farming community is made up of modest and hardworking people that, above all else, cherish their religion, their land, and their families. I truly believe that farmers are some of the best people in the world.
Something else I’ve noticed is that it’s more than loving what you do – it’s a need to do it. I honestly believe it’s “in the blood” and how you begin to define yourself. You’re either born into it or you marry it. When I began my photography business, I had to learn how to use my camera, learn how to interact with clients, I had to learn how to use my editing software. And over the past eight years, of course I’ve seen Tom learn so much. But watching him in action, I can see that more than anything, it’s an intinct. Tom can’t hang a picture to save his life, but give him a piece of land, and he’s going to turn it around into something that makes money. There’s so much about farming you can’t just learn. You’re born with an instinct of how to make it happen.
I started checking the weather everyday and asking questions like: “Tom, you gonna have that wheat in the ground before Wednesday? It’s gonna rain.”
We’d ride by a field and I realized I could tell you who owned it and who farmed it. I started saying things like, “Dear Lord, that man needs to suck it up and irrigate”
Instead of tailgating or passing a tractor on the highway, I’d clear the way and have an appreciation for them. Probably because I usually know who’s in the tractor, but they’re growing the food that YOU eat, so have respect.
During pecan season, I’d find Tom at the farm and we’d eat dinner in the tractor so he wouldn’t have to stop working.
When I’d get overwhelmed or tired while working at home, I’d ride out to the farm. And it’s the strangest thing, because I wasn’t raised there, but it feels like home to me. There’s a peace that I have there that I can’t get anywhere else. It sounds so bizarre, I know, but just being in a pecan orchard or the smell of pecan chemicals is comforting to me. I guess because things in my life over the past few years have changed so dramatically in such a short period of time, but pecans have been the one constant. No matter what I was doing or where I was, they were always there to be taken care of.
I started overlooking Fort Valley’s many imperfections and began loving it for the small, agricultural town it is. Of course there’s problem areas, but it’s home.
Things that I would have considered trash are now absolute treasures to me. A huge sign selling peaches that belonged to Tom’s grandfather hangs in my dining room. It’s my favorite thing in the house. My chicken coop’s door is made from an old door belonging to Tom’s grandfather. Peach crates serve as bookshelves. Pecan labels are blown up and hung in frames. Most of my furniture has been salvaged and rebuilt from old barns, old doors, old packing sheds. I opened the drawer to my bedside table the other day and there was a handful of pecans in there. How does that even happen?
But most of all, I began to fully understand Tom’s need to be there. I stopped faulting him for his long hours. I stopped faulting him for putting the farm above all else, because it’s what is right for us at this moment. Of course I still nag at his schedule, but I get it now. I just can’t fault him for doing something he was born to do.
I guess you could say I’ve caught the bug myself. You won’t find me driving the combine down 341, but I might be in the passenger seat.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is from my coffee table book, “American Farmers.” In the book, photographer Paul Mobley journeys through America and documents the quirks, jobs, and personalities of 300 farmers across the country.
“Entering into this rural culture, this family of farmers, had revived my own sense of spirit and optimism. Like so many of us, I doubted the existence of this kind of goodness in the world. You look around at the way we treat – or mistreat – one another, and it’s gotten so out of hand. You want something you can believe in. You ask yourself, where have all the good people gone? Well I can tell you. Drive up to any farmhouse in this country. You’ll find them. They’re there.”
And I think the funniest part of this is, when I was 16, I couldn’t come to Fort Valley alone. Now I live in Fort Valley. Alone.