Out in the cold

Selling the family farm severs connection with place and past

  • Sale day at the Bair family farm.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
  • Life on the farm, c. 1980s.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
  • Life on the farm, c. 1980s.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
  • Life on the farm, c. 1980s.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
  • Life on the farm, c. 1980s.

    Courtesy Julene Bair
 

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.

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