Unionville, N.C. — From across the withered brown cornfields, Jeannette Hinson can hear the clatter of a tractor and see a smudge of dust where her husband, Steve, and oldest son, Tommy, are cutting stunted cornstalks to sell as hay. Beyond the corn are fields of soybeans, still immature, a potential harvest that Jeannette would worry into fruitfulness if she could. Calling her three-year-old son, John, she goes to check the fans and automatic water pumps in the family's two poultry houses, as she does three or four times a day. There, in the heat wave of July, 2,000 chickens ready for market died -- 1,300 of them in one day. The worst drought of the century has taken its grim toll on the Southeast, and the Hinsons are only one of many families whose livelihood has faltered under the empty, white-hot summer sky. In the past week or so, heavy rains have fallen on their land, and they have experienced a rebirth of dogged farmer's optimism. But for the first time, the Hinsons don't know how they will meet the mortgage payments on their land.
The drought is only one chapter in the Hinsons' story -- a story of struggle and perseverance in which an entire family does what it has to do to survive and stay as close together as possible.
``I feel like if a man and woman can work out something to be near the kids, tend to them, it's best,'' says Steve. ``It seems like the children have enjoyed being around us and they've never given us much problem. We're glad to have them with us.''
Tommy, Brian, and John live at home with their parents, while their daughter, Sharon, 24, lives with her husband in a trailer on the farm.
If tireless strength and thrift were enough to pull the farm through, this family would have no worries, for they have poured their lives into their farm, doing virtually all of the labor themselves, coaxing years of extra use out of old buildings and equipment, and trying to pay off every loan before taking out another.
In addition to growing field crops, they feed out 40,000 chickens and raise 180 hogs, and in past years they have been able to offset losses in one area with profits in another. Jeannette delivers an afternoon paper to bring in steady cash, and Steve does some tractor repair work for neighbors.
The family lives modestly, in a yellow frame house that Steve's father built and Steve remodeled. In the summer, the house is cooled only by a ceiling fan; in the winter, it is heated by a wood stove that Steve fuels by clearing with a chainsaw around the edges of his fields. In good years, Jeannette freezes and cans enough vegetables from the family garden to last through the winter. Steve makes it a practice to buy used equipment, depending on his mechanical skills to keep it running. The sprayer on the tractor is homemade, and the manure spreader is splotched with patches of furry rust. The hog houses have been patched repeatedly.
``People like to see nice houses for hogs and chickens -- well, mine aren't real fancy,'' Steve says. ``Sometimes an average farmer who hasn't got fancy tractors, fancy houses, is going to hold on a little better than one who tries to make a show instead of a living.''
Steve and Jeannette feed the hogs and check the chickens first thing every morning and last thing every night. Today, Steve and Tommy salvage what they can of the corn while Jeannette prepares meals and cleans the house. After lunch, she delivers the Monroe Inquirer, with John taking his afternoon nap on the back seat of her car.
``I don't know anything more we could do that would have any profit in it at all,'' says Tommy, 27, who, in addition to helping his father, sharecrops 100 acres in the western part of the county, raises 25 cows, cleans out neighbors' chicken houses, and once even tried raising rabbits.
In the average year, Steve says, the farm clears between $15,000 and $20,000, but this year he has already lost more than that on the seeds, fertilizer, and chemicals that he used in hope and in dust in his fields.
``If we don't get help they might foreclose if they want to,'' he says, even though he has always kept up with payments before. ``If a man has been paying his bills and can do anything at all toward making a payment, and they won't go along with it, it's like they want to kill a man.''
As the sun sinks below the trees and the temperature drops into the 80s, Steve, Jeannette, and John climb into the green truck and drive back to the barns to feed up for the evening. Waiting on the stove in the kitchen is the dinner of pinto beans, beef stew, mashed potatoes, and cornbread that Jeannette has prepared.
When they approach the hog houses, three escaped piglets scoot under the farrowing house. ``I reckon there's a hole somewhere,'' Steve sighs.
Father and son sit on the tailgate while Jeannette drives the truck on to the poultry houses. Wordlessly she checks the house on the right while Steve takes the one on the left, the routine of their partnership worn smooth by constant use.
Back at the truck Steve smiles and says, ``Got done early tonignt -- it's still light.''
It has been several years since Steve or Jeannette has taken a vacation from their 13-hour-a-day schedule, and by now, Jeannette says, ``it would be a vacation just not to be busy.''
This is not a complaint, for the Hinsons, who have farmed all of their lives, want only the chance to continue.
``Our daddies both farmed,'' said Steve, who was born and raised in Union County. ``Once you get something in your blood it's hard to get out.''
Jeannette recalls that in her teens she could pick 250 pounds of cotton a day, and after their marriage in 1959, she and Steve grew cotton while running a small store. Soon they closed the store and turned to farming full time.
Jeannette has worked ``right in there beside me, if not doing more,'' Steve says. The children have been raised to know every detail of the farm operations. Tommy and Brian were driving the tractors as soon as they were big enough to reach the pedals. Steve now carries John with him in the cab of the big Massey Ferguson 1150 tractor, baby-sitting while he plants or harvests.
Tommy has been renting land and buying equipment on his own for the last three or four years, but still works with Steve during the busy times and shares machinery. ``I don't think I could have made it this year without his help,'' he says quietly.
Last year, Tommy rented some poultry houses and cleared $10,000 raising chickens, but this year no poultry houses were available to rent, and the $11,000 that he put into row crops may be a complete loss. The 4-acre vegetable garden that he planted in sweet corn and tomatoes had no irrigation and produced nothing worth selling.
Tommy supposes that he could get a job as a carpenter, but hopes instead to make enough selling his calves and cleaning out chicken houses with the Bobcat to put in another crop next spring. He is raising 12 Holstein calves on a bottle, feeding them discarded milk that he collects from a local dairy. Cleaning chicken houses is his least favorite work, but in Union County, one of the largest poultry-producing areas in the Southeast, it is usually available.
Brian, 19, sells parts at a John Deere dealership a few miles from the farm down Route 601. ``I like farming but I wouldn't want to depend on it for an income,'' he says, ``not after seeing what Daddy goes through and Tommy goes through helping him. I wish I was further out of farming than I am.''
Jeannette, who has never longed for the comfort and convenience of town life, sees it differently:
``You have to hope that next year will be better. You can't just come out of this overnight. This has been our life. Practically all our life, all of us have been farmers. It would be a lot to give up.''