Out in the cold

Selling the family farm severs connection with place and past


Several inches of month-old snow sheathed the fields, and there'd been a fresh dusting the night before. Ground blizzards swirled across the interstate. I dialed in my hometown radio station. The man who'd owned it for as long as I could remember listed the closings caused by ice and near-zero March cold: livestock auctions, a senior get-together, even I-70. Had I left my home in Longmont, Colo., 10 minutes later, I would not have gotten through.

"But once again, folks," continued the voice from my childhood, "if you're looking for some good farm equipment, drive on out to the Harold Bair farm sale. We had a call from the manager out there and the roads are not bad."

There I was in one of the most anonymous places on earth, inside a car driving down the interstate, and I'd been accosted by the public announcement of an intimate betrayal. My betrayal, of my father. I imagined him bolting upright in his grave. If strangers traveling to places like New York and Chicago had heard that announcement, surely he had too.

"A farm sale," the strangers probably thought. "How quaint."

This is the worst decision I've made in my entire life. That's what I was thinking. But I stubbornly stomped down the thought with logic. Selling was for the best. It was what we needed to do.

Ron, our soon-to-be ex-farm manager, had lined up the equipment in our west pasture. I followed the auction company's orange arrows to the new road he'd bladed. Rimmed in frozen clods of upturned sod, it was a harbinger of further destruction. Thanks to the ethanol boom, our farm's new owners were planning to plow the pasture and plant dry-land corn. It had little chance of surviving the high summer heat and low rainfall, but prices were good.

That buffalo grass had sustained life since the end of the last ice age. Did the new owners know that each square meter of soil beneath it contained up to five miles of roots? Probably not. The extent of the root system had stunned me when I first learned it, although it shouldn't have. Only a fraction of any living thing meets the eye. Our subterranean life is immense, too, and invisible even to us.

I parked my Japanese pickup between hulking Ford and Chevy rigs and took in the line of implements on the block. Tractors larger than the sod houses my parents had first lived in. Combines bigger than the one-room school I had attended for one year and my brother Bruce for six.

Bruce walked over as I got out. Swaddled in a voluminous down jacket and the beard he'd seldom shaved since our hippie days, he said, "Get yourself a cup of coffee." He pulled a tin flask from his pocket and made a pouring motion.

I shook my head. I didn't need a drink. This was not going to be one of those maudlin events where the bankrupt farmer hunkers sadly in the shadows of his neighbors'  survival -- he a loser in the gamble of markets and weather, they still contenders, in thrall of the game. The farm had been doing all right. It's just that my brother and I lived elsewhere and weren't really farmers. Land values had escalated. We worried they'd plummet when the housing bubble burst.

julene bair story
karen mitchell
karen mitchell
Dec 08, 2008 02:34 PM
This is one of the beautifully written pieces I have ever read. She is so gifted, farm or exurbs.
"Out in the Cold"
jane juska
jane juska
Dec 08, 2008 03:44 PM
Julene Bair's essay is so beautifully written that all readers--those who farm and those who never did--can feel the sadness and the dismay over the wrong-headedness of so many now in charge.
Julene Bair's article
Linda Tate
Linda Tate
Dec 08, 2008 04:24 PM
Beautiful work, Julene. Poignant and powerful.
Running a blade under one's self
Melanie Mulhall
Melanie Mulhall
Dec 08, 2008 07:06 PM

My heart nearly leapt out of my skin as I neared the end of your article and was brought up short at the notion of a blade running under you,severing your identity. Your tale is important. Your experience both breaks my heart and gives me hope. You still have dirt under your fingernails and in your soul. So do I. My mother was born the daughter of a dirt farmer. Her father didn't own his land. He share cropped. She worked the fields as a child and as an adult, she grew flowers instead of grain. I grow flowers, too . . . and herbs, and the occasional tomato plant. The earth has a great deal to teach and that is not lost to those--like you and I--who cannot help ourselves, who must ask it to whisper to us.

Farming in Virginia
Lydia Dambekalns
Lydia Dambekalns
Dec 08, 2008 07:22 PM
I'm sitting on a farm right now as I write this in an antique brick farmhouse on our 60 acres in the Shenandoah Valley. When I climb to the top of our pasture and look towards the Blue Ridge mountains,I cannot see even one new house built after we moved here 30 years ago. Remarkable reprieve! Cropland, pastures and small forested patches still dot the sloping hillsides. Julene's poignant writing reminds me of the precious farming lifestyle, when you can still find it.I mull over selling this place because it's a lot of work and it's isolating and I'm the "end of the line"... maybe after reading I can suck up a little more strength and resolve to keep going. Wonderful article! Thanks for making us think!!!
ali schultz
ali schultz
Dec 09, 2008 08:13 AM
Julene Bair is one of my favorite authors. her voice reminds me at once of the great nature writers, and carries the haunting and touching sounds of an emmylou harris song. this is a brilliant and poignant piece -- for anyone who's lost touch with home base at one point or another.
Out in the Cold
Page Lambert
Page Lambert
Dec 10, 2008 02:27 PM
Julene, you are courageous. I know the pain involved with speaking intimately and truthfully about deeply painful decisions. Your essay reminds us that even more important than losing our roots, is the deeply human need to re-root ourselves -somewhere, somehow, someway, again and again and again. Thank you. Page Lambert www.pagelambert.blogspot.com
I am late to this thread but . . .
Joyce Davidson
Joyce Davidson
Dec 16, 2008 10:38 AM
as one reared on the high plains of the West, I find Julene's piece to be the most exquisite writing on the connection to the land that I have ever read. I read it in its entirety on the HCN website, then browsed the other articles. I am so pleased to have discovered this jewel of a publication and have just now subscribed.

We live now in a rural part of northern New Mexico and hope to die here, but are realistic enough to know that someday we may have to run a blade under ourselves. Thank you, mcjoan, for pointing us toward this gem of a piece. And thank you, Julene, for the gift of your story and the painfully beautiful tug on our heartstrings.
Byron Myers
Byron Myers
Dec 01, 2011 07:23 AM
A good story, Julie, and very moving. I left western Kansas and a family business rather than fight over it, and ended up in Nebraska (once a flatlander, always a flatlander, I guess). I like the quiet out here on the plains, but I can't say that I miss Sherman County.