MIDWEST FARMER’S DAUGHTERS
I’m all about celebrating birthdays. Gail’s was last month, and we honored her in several posts. Suzanne’s is in August, and she will be feted as well. And, just so you don’t forget, mine is coming up next month.
We recognized Mom’s birthday in January, and now it is time to celebrate Dad. He would have been 85 next weekend, and I like to think we would have had a big party for such a big birthday for such a big-hearted man.
We had a giant party for his 70th birthday. We had one planned for Mom on her 70th, but the weather didn’t allow it. We never did make up for it, and I wish we had. Yet another reason to keep celebrating them every day of our lives.
So, in his honor, we are celebrating his farmer heritage, which also gave us our farm-girl heritage. We wouldn’t trade it for all the riches we never had, and likely never will.
If you knew our dad, you knew this about him: he loved to talk—to anyone, he spoke his mind—even when it didn’t make him popular, he called a spade a spade and he was a man of his word.
He worked the land, and he worked it hard. He knew the value of hard work, and, along with Mom, he taught this value to his seven children. And we are forever grateful for that lesson.
Dad’s favorite tractor was his Farmall “H”
Life on a farm in a family of nine people brings many tasks; work that simply must be done. Ground to work, crops to plan, plant and harvest, livestock to breed, feed, care for, take to market and perhaps butcher, machinery to maintain and a multitude of other obligations to the land that must be met in order to have our needs met.
And they were always met. Perhaps not our wants, but always our needs. Nine mouths to feed was not an easy task. Having beef and pork in the freezer—and chickens to butcher in the earlier days, I recall (more on this torture later)—was the most fundamental building block of our meal planning and preparation. Despite the toughest of times in the farm economy in the 1980’s, I don’t ever recall a time when there wasn’t enough food to go around. I remember an abundance, to be exact. We always had a garden planted in the spring (Mom didn’t enjoy gardening much, but she knew it was part and parcel of the package), we had fruit trees—apple, pear and cherry (more on cherry picking later), and in our small-town grocery store, we had a running credit account. I remember the folded, lined card that was produced from the box under the counter that constituted our “bill.” It was ongoing, and it was a wonderful service the grocer provided for many families in our community. We simply initialed it when we made a purchase large or small, and somehow, Mom and Dad always had the money to pay it off.
As an only child, Dad inherited the family farm without question. He was the third generation to farm our family land, and now two of our brothers farm the land he left. Two of our nephews show promise to be fifth-generation farmers, and for this, we are so grateful.
The land is more than just property, and farming is more than just a job. The land is part of our heritage, and farming, if it is what you love doing, is in your blood. It is a lifestyle, not just a job.
Perhaps it would have been different if any of us three farm girls had fallen in love with a farmer, but none of us did, and neither did any of us marry farmers.
We would have made good farm wives, though. Gail, being the eternal Swiss Army Knife in whatever job she finds herself in, was the Jill-of-all-trades, (and master of all) both indoors and outdoors. She could drive a tractor, truck or combine—and often did. She also could cook and bake, clean and do laundry, change diapers and take care of whatever younger siblings needed care, which was five of us.
Me, I was mostly inside. I never learned to drive any farm machinery, but I could—and still can—bake and cook. I remember folding clothes, a task I rather enjoy now. I still enjoy baking, and I will cook when I have to. I was also in charge of taking out the trash, which was mostly burned in barrels just across the fence near the chicken house. Speaking of the chickens, they were my responsibility, and I loathed them. My husband occasionally jokes about getting me more chickens, and I tell him “I hope YOU enjoy taking care of them.”
Gail reminded me that the chickens were initially her idea. When she was in the eighth grade, apparently she felt she needed more responsibility, so she set up the chicken operation. She quickly became disillusioned with the idea, and since she had plenty of other tasks to complete, the responsibility fell on me. Thanks, Gail.
To further illustrate my distaste for chickens, I must share this story:
Our grandpa—Dad’s dad—lived in town five miles away and would often come to the farm to see how his progeny was continuing his legacy. (I think he was pleased.) He accompanied me into the chicken house once to feed them and gather the eggs. My routine was swift and mindless, as I had performed it hundreds of times. So mindless, in fact, that I forgot he was in there with me. I got in and out quick, locking the door from the outside when I left.
Several hours later, one of our brothers heard a faint “Hey! Help!” coming from the direction of the chicken house. They let him out with no apparent harm done.
I was only an observer of the chicken’s demise when it was time to butcher. I know firsthand where the phrase “like a chicken with it’s head cut off” comes from. I wish I could un-see that, but it’s burned on my brain.
Suzanne’s responsibilities included a lot of mowing. She also kept the cats and dog fed and watered—we always had one dog, and several cats, and some indoor duties as well.
Come June, we were all involved in cherry-picking. (Ugh.) I remember groaning at Mom as she woke us up early to beat the heat when it was time to pick the cherries. We picked most of the morning, and pitted most of the afternoon. I grew to despise that job, too. Now, however, I am thrilled to finally have a producing cherry tree in our backyard thanks to my husband’s efforts.
Last year’s harvest
I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to have grown up on a farm: for the lessons the farm taught me, for learning about nature from the seasons, the weather and the animals, for the chance to get dirty and dusty—and especially muddy, for learning how to climb trees and how jump safely into a hayloft or out of a swing.
We delighted in the muddy squalor the heavy summer rains sometimes left us, just like our boys did when they were kids.
More than that, I am thankful for the women we became from our early years on the farm. Each of us spent our first 18 years on the farm before leaving for college. We learned how to work hard to make our way in the world, because, for us, there was no other way. Looking back now, we would have it no other way. We learned early and often that in farming, and in life, there are no guarantees.
Spending a day in the harvest field every summer is still a priority for me.
My husband and I had the opportunity last week to take in an amazing concert in the beautiful Stiefel Theater in the downtown of our small city.
Playing together for 53 years, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band put on a show we will never forget. Much of their music has a sense of fun and lightness, such as one of their most notable songs—”Fishin’ in the Dark.”
They were talkers as well as singers, often explaining the meanings and origins of many songs. Another one of my favorites hit home for me after they explained the origin.
“Nowhere To Go” is a heavier song, a 1988 hit that tells the story of a farmer who lost his farm due to the ailing farm economy. The 1980’s was a devastating decade for many Midwest farmers, due to extremely high interest rates, record debt for land and equipment, record crop production which subsequently lowered the grain prices and the grain embargo against the Soviet Union.
“I’m a workin’ man with nowhere to go…”
I was in high school in the early 80’s, and I remember clearly the specter of the auction block lingering around us and many other farmers in our area. I recall that several of the farmers lost their farms, and I remember the very real concern that it could happen to almost every farmer.
My heart broke for those who lost their farms, and mercifully, we were able to hold on to ours. I will be forever grateful to my dad and my brothers for their hard work that helped us survive these toughest of times.
The lead singer of the band went on to talk about his friend Willie Nelson, who, along with John Mellencamp and several other musicians, started Farm Aid. Their goal was to provide their musical gifts in concert to raise money to keep American farmers on the land.
Nelson and Mellencamp then brought family farmers before Congress to testify about the state of family farming in America. As a result, Congress passed the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 to help save family farms from foreclosure.
Farm Aid continues as an annual event; this year’s concert will mark 34 years in operation.
In the process of sorting and rearranging during the remodel, I rediscovered this book that I stacked under some other books, never reading it. I am reading it now.
My husband and I are Willie Nelson fans, having seen him in concert three times. Dad’s birthday is next Saturday, the same day Willie plays live just across the Kansas border in northern Oklahoma.
Happy Birthday Dad. I think it’s time to celebrate.
My son in the harvest field with Dad
Gail’s son enjoying a tractor ride with Dad
Dad taking a meal break in the field