Trying to Put The Farm Behind Us

THERE are no barn boots lined up on our back porch these days. Mainly it's because we're not wading through manure or walking through pastures of bermuda grass. In fact, just looking out our windows is a daily reminder. We've left the farm. My husband and I spent 10 years learning on the job and in the field how to coax a living from the land. And it is only now, in the relative leisure of life in the city, that I have begun to realize the opportunity we left behind. While we were farming, the opportunity seemed too often like an insurmountable challenge. And the real challenge of farming is to successfully combine a job with a way of life.

In 10 years we mastered the job of farming pretty well by reading books, asking old farmers, and visiting the extension agent. It was the way of life that, for me, proved the hardest to embrace. In the country, acceptance is the secret to living happily. There must be an acceptance of the joys and the disappointments. There is nothing hard about the joys - the newborn lambs which survived and frolicked in the winter sun, the last bale of hay in the barn before a rain, the juicy, sweet strawberry crop picked clean by happy customers, and all the other pastoral elements of farming. These I liked.

But the disappointments were another story. Farming also means dealing with the whims of nature, her droughts, floods, and freezes, the price of corn, the 13-hour days, and no money in the bank. This part of the life just seemed too hard and unfair. But farming life embraces the successes and the failures and keeps on going year after year. We were tenacious for 10 years and for that I'm proud. But we left this winter and, finding myself homesick for the farm, I am trying to remember why.

I was not the world's most enthusiastic farm wife, but I was willing to try it all. I learned things I will never forget - things which city friends find hard to believe.

For example, there was the feeding of pregnant sheep and the endless observations for pre-labor symptoms which might then require the obstetrical help of my husband and me. Or the tending of baby chicks which then became our egg-laying hens and eventually the plucked chickens ready for the soup pot. Then there was the harvesting: hours of peaches, pumpkins, gourds, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, okra, strawberries, and my specialty, the dried flowers which ended up hanging all over our house. After the picking came the chopping, blanching, freezing, canning, drying and finally, eating of everything we grew. This was a life rich with significance and I was eager to try it all. Unfortunately all was not blissful.

At one point or another during those 10 years I grumbled about many things; the ramshackle barns that were unsightly (and they were!), the swarms of flies all over the house and yard (we were surrounded by cow pastures), working outdoors in the heat (humidity in the 90s), chickens who laid eggs where we couldn't find them (and left droppings where we could), and endless other drawbacks of the natural life.

But there was one complaint which my husband heard again and again, especially during fruit market season. This was when we spent hours selling home-grown produce to our more prosperous neighbors who drove up in air-conditioned minivans wearing clean stylish clothes. This was when I would ask, ``Why do I feel so inferior?''

I knew that farming, living close to the land and the cycles of nature, was an honorable profession. We were inspired by the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Wendall Berry, and even Henry David Thoreau. But I couldn't quite get over those incredulous comments of friends and family who would ask, ``For this you went to college?'' I'd look around our small and simple house, our unmanicured yard sporting chicken feathers and groundhog remains the dogs dragged in, our woven wire fences rusty in so many places that the hogs and cows kept breaking through, and wonder myself. Was this a good life? Comparing our lives to the culture around us eroded the satisfactions we were having.

Socially we lived on a kind of island of uniqueness. Our farming friends in this small town were, for the most part, unfamiliar with the world beyond the huge corn or soybean farm. They were more successful than we were. These farmers were the modern, one- or two-crop professionals and they made money. They drove new pickup trucks, huge combines, and lived in new ranch houses.

We had a 200-acre diversified old-time family farm. On our farm could be found a little alfalfa hay, a few hogs, a flock of sheep, 30 feeder cattle, a peach orchard, various vegetables, and lots of old, auction-yard equipment. We also had little money. Our farming neighbors couldn't quite understand our perspective.

Our college friends were also successful. They were lawyers, doctors, CPAs, engineers: the pillars of any small-town society. We talked as they did and on Sundays we might even dress the same, but it was obvious we were different. We had gotten off to the right start by going to a respectable Ivy League college, but somewhere we had made the wrong turn. Instead of climbing the ladder of success described in every alumni magazine, we had apparently embraced the life of poverty. We were, to those friends, a bit embarrassing, and so we were also not socializing too much with anyone.

But farm life is above all a life of no leisure, so we really wouldn't have had time for weekend tennis or after-work golfing. We kept on planting more peach trees in early spring, and harvesting more and more green beans in the summer, and selling the best pumpkins in town in the fall, and bottle feeding weak lambs in the winter.

One by one our babies were born, and we brought them home to the small farmhouse that was rapidly filling up. And one by one they learned how to make animal sounds from the real thing instead of picture books. They saw how mothers give birth to baby animals and would cry out, ``Look, the balloon is coming out!'' When our Arab lamb customers would come to slaughter sheep they also learned about death.

They watched seeds sprout and crops die from lack of rain. They ate more strawberries in two weeks than I had eaten in a lifetime. Our third daughter, who to this day insists she will always live on a farm when she grows up, spent many mornings as a 2-year-old in the wooden sheep feeder surrounded by the ewes while Dad finished the barn chores. And the two oldest girls were known by classmates as the ones who gave hayride birthday parties to the pumpkin patch in the fall and to the strawberry patch in the spring.

The six of us lived a life full of wonder as much as of work. Why was I still complaining? I noticed, whenever I left the farm, how everyone we knew was living. I let the differences creep up on me until they became a constant source of dissatisfaction. Where were our tangible signs of success? We worked hard enough, often more hours than the average doctor, lawyer, or businessman. They even took vacations. Yet while they bought new houses, new cars, and moved into new positions of professional advancement, we stayed the same.

How does the farmer measure success? Today, perhaps, by merely staying afloat. Yet we looked for some sign of success within our ever constant cycles of plant, cultivate, feed the animals, harvest, and sell. We tried different vegetable varieties, less of one crop more of another, new cattle feed schedules, efficient fertilizers, and other agricultural battle plans. We were producing, which is after all what a farmer does, but not phenomenally. We could have, judging from farm magazines and other farm businesses, done better. We looked for reasons.

In 10 years we had every weather extreme possible. Out of five peach crops we lost three to late spring freezes. A drought killed our pastures and forced us to sell our cattle too early and also lose our hay crop. Flooding delayed corn planting and drowned vegetable seedlings. Dependable farm workers were hard to find. All of these took away our profit. We broke even year after year while adding the expenses of new family members. A year ago we began to think of our future.

Could we stay on the farm just breaking even? Did we want to work the same long hours, doing the same manual work with absolutely no chance of extras like ballet lessons for four girls, family vacations, or even meaningful friendships? Could we do something else, perhaps more dependable and scholarly? It seemed to be a now or never turning point. With mixed emotions we decided to leave the farm and that way of life.

And so this winter we moved to a city. The sheep, cattle and hogs were sold, the fields are rented out to a local soybean farmer, the peach orchard (which froze again this spring) and strawberry patch are also rented, and our farmhouse no longer rings with the voices of four little girls.

We decided to do the sensible thing, our friends and family tell us. Perhaps the influences of the ``successful'' culture were too hard to resist or maybe we just weren't tenacious enough to be content with the farming way of life. My husband has gone back to school. Someday he hopes to work in less developed countries as an agricultural consultant. Maybe our vision of farm life will bear fruit in a more receptive environment. But, meanwhile, we are in the city. Our backyard is small and neat. There are no crops, no flocks, no ramshackle barns. Not much to complain about.

But why is it I keep dreaming about the sheep, and wooly faces I have known by name, the strawberry plants heavy with fruit, the peach blossoms thick on the limbs, the baby pig's squeal, and my children running unafraid through fields that were ours? And I've noticed how so many weekends when we wonder what to do with our leisure time we end up driving wistfully through the countryside and just looking.

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