Recently I’ve been thinking about the beauty of a farm, especially for those living there. In the space of a few minutes, a farm may continue on or it may begin the slow march towards decline. Within this last month, I visited with two dairy farmers with two completely different stories. One is about my age, 54, and the other is in his late 40s. Both are second-generation dairy farmers. Both have college degrees. Both have for their oldest children – sons. Both of these young men have college degrees from the same university as their fathers.
At the age of 26, one of these young men walked into the kitchen where his mother and father were seated, drinking coffee and tea. He announced that the farm was so important to him he would like to be a part of it. He had always been a part of it, even during his four years at college. But what he announced today was really wanting to be a part of it.
I can imagine the joy within his father who must have felt emotional relief from knowing the farm will retain its name for a while longer.
I imagine that as he walks into the USDA Service Center and asks for technical and financial assistance, he is happy and forward-thinking. He is expanding his operation, and he wants some help with mitigating some headquarter site water quality concerns as he shifts the milk cows to the new barn. His son is standing beside him. He is learning about government programs, cost-sharing, Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) dollars and planning options that will require changes in management.
The young man is thinking about some of the ideas he learned at his land-grant university. He remembers the crops and soils courses. He understands the words spoken here between the district conservationist and his father.
He is married with one child and another one that will be born in four months. His wife grew up on a farm and understands farm life and culture. She supports him. She encourages him. And she knows that family time away from the farm may not come as often as she would like.
I imagine he smiled as he left the service center and climbed back into the pickup truck. I bet his father was smiling, too.
In the second case, the visit by the other 24-year-old son was not in the kitchen. Rather, he is in a city in another state. He is a banker and is studying for his MBA by taking online courses. He is not married. He revels in the financial world. His father tells me that his oldest son took agricultural business management courses at the land-grant university and developed a liking for business and economics, except that these interests were not agriculture-related.
On the phone, this father tells me he is having problems with two neighbors. Can I come out and meet with him and the district conservationist? Yes.
I arrive and find a farm in disarray. There are multiple leaks in the runoff and manure system, which could be interpreted as direct discharges.
“Can these be fixed?” he asks.
We talk with him about goals and objectives. His answers are simple: The family is milking cows for a few more years, then they will sell out. Someone else can raise heifers here, or he could and continue farming. He actually likes the farming part better than managing the dairy herd.
I learned the farm went off DHIA testing about four years ago. The farm note was paid off, and the banker no longer required DHIA testing. I also learned the herd was going through a relatively severe mastitis problem, requiring many cows to be culled. We suggested some temporary solutions for the polluted discharges.
We suggested he contact an extension agent for some additional help. And we asked him to take the discharges seriously.
He shrugged and knew that he must or he might face a different kind of farm management – one that included reporting to a regulator. He was not smiling.
I remember his final words: “I should have sold out a long time ago; this is not fun anymore.”
These two visits occurred within 10 days of each other, and the farms are within 20 miles of each other.
I began by writing that a farm is an object of beauty – a physical place that we know and love. It has plants, animals, barns and smells of every kind. It’s a place that is home and is lovely for the work that goes on there. Nonfarm people do not, nor ever will, understand it. It’s a place that for anyone who has lived there, is beautiful, and it follows us as a form of aesthetic art wherever we go.
This is the same powerful memory that reminds me of my home in Parkdale, Oregon. Yes, I lived there long ago. But I am still there in my memories, dreams and reflections.
We may not predict who stays and who leaves the farm. I would never have guessed that I would leave the farm, but I did. Others who have a multitude of opportunities walk in the kitchen and declare this is home.
We do know, however, this lesson: These two men raised a family and raised an oldest son. What counts is the choice each son made. If their choices are based on an authentic life (the little voice inside each of them that speaks to the very core, shutting out all other voices), then their life lived is a worthwhile life.
To wit, doing otherwise is squandering life. What a great loss. I would, if I could, tell both fathers that what counts is that each son has scripted out a plan that will fulfill their passion.
The beauty of a farm must include the passion to be there, and as for many of us, that passion is held forever within us – beautiful evermore. PD