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Know the West

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.

And I didn't trust the weather anymore. We'd had five years of drought. In my mind, the phrase "global warming" morphed to "global warning." I didn't want to be in the farming business when this century's Dust Bowl arrived.

My brother and I had anguished over the decision, while our mother, seeing the panic on our faces, tried to reassure us. "It's all right. Harold and I talked about it many times. He knew we might have to sell." The realism and forgiveness my father had adopted as death approached didn't fool me. I'd been steeped in the advice he gave his whole life.

Hang onto your land!

I hadn't seen the farm covered in this much snow since my childhood. Every so often what would have been a soughing breeze in summer -- ripe with smells of wheat and corn and with meadowlark song and doves cooing in the windbreak -- sent sparkling flurries along the drifts. The farmers huddled around the implements in their insulated coveralls. But the auctioneer and our farm manager had it cushy, riding in a heated, glass-sided hut mounted on the back of the auction company's shiny pickup.

This conveyance looked so much like a circus wagon that I wouldn't have been surprised to hear calliope music. I didn't want to see Ron, who'd loyally served my father and my family for over 15 years, reduced to this seemingly elevated state. He was proud, I could see, of his position as the expert on all the equipment, but he was being paraded almost, a specimen of know-how behind glass. His age and ailing health had influenced our decision; he would go to a comfortable, well-earned retirement. Still, he'd been against selling, and now he'd been conscripted into doing it.

"Tell us about this coyote-getter, Ron," said the auctioneer.

"Well, it kills the coyotes where the sheep are at. All it is, the boss would stuff a rabbit skin or somethin' else dead in the tube. They pull it out. Shoots 'em in the mouth with a blast of cyanide."

Dad's enmity toward coyotes had always had a zealot's edge, as if in eating his lambs, the predators intended him personal injury. He'd built a little empire by mustering all technology had to offer against coyotes, invasive weeds, insects, and low rainfall. When I complained that we were irrigating unsustainably out of the Ogallala Aquifer, the fast-depleting groundwater reserves underlying our High Plains, he told me that the cost of farming would empty out the country long before we ran out of water.

He was right about the costs. The country was emptying. But the water in the Ogallala and the topsoil were more threatened, not less, as farms grew larger. The huge family corporation that had bought our farm specialized in irrigated corn, a thirsty crop and a heavy feeder.

The corporation farmed one hundred sections in three states. That's 100 square miles. Each farm they'd subsumed had once been a little ecosystem, approaching completeness within itself. When I was a child, our sheep had grazed our pastures in the summer. In the winter, they'd eaten ensilage made from my father's sorghum crops. We fed all our livestock our own grain, grew almost all our own meat and vegetables, collected eggs from our own henhouse. Rosebud, the Holstein cow my brothers milked each morning and evening, had kept us in milk, butter and cream. Then came the "green revolution."

Ammonia fertilizer increased the soil's productivity twofold. Poisons evicted all manner of weeds, insects and diseases. Irrigation made possible 200-bushel corn. And President Nixon's Ag secretary, Earl Butz, sprayed his own fertilizer over everything, entreating farmers to plant "fencerow to fencerow."

Down came the pasture fences. In went the plows. Out went many farmers. As Butz put it, they had to "get big or get out."

Eventually, only a few of these mega-concerns, with a sprinkling of odd holdouts here and there, would own the High Plains. There would be no 4-H clubs, county fairs, family farms, or July Fourth get-togethers to remind the people who they once were  -- dry-witted, dry-skinned, far-seeing, hard-working, stoic individuals who'd absorbed the sun and distance into their cores.

The coyote-getter sold to one of the few remaining stockmen in the region, and the auction truck continued down the row of other antiquated tools. The auger that my father attached to the rear of his loader tractor to dig postholes. The cable reel he mounted on a flatbed trailer to string barbed wire.

Were I, like my father, a child of pioneers who came of age during the Great Depression, I wouldn't be dismantling his farm. I felt like a spoiled kid who didn't appreciate her parents' sacrifices. We got ours by going without! Dad had said a thousand times. But the farm I'd formed an attachment to, growing up, was no longer there.

The circus-like conveyance bearing our farm manager before the wool-hatted farmers might have been something in a film by a latter-day Plains Fellini. Ron was playing his final role on the stage where his boss was still the star, even now, even in death. Everyone here knew Harold Bair.

The auction rounded the corner. My brother watched intently, his face slack-jawed, as bidders snapped up the new equipment he'd bought. The seed drills and chemical spray rig sold for nowhere near their worth.

"It's the weather," Bruce said, gripping his Styrofoam cup of spiked coffee so tightly it collapsed. He tossed the cup on the ground and crushed it beneath his hiking boot.

That he had signed his name on the proverbial dotted line was bad enough. The equipment going for so little was a personal insult to his business acumen, the way a coyote-gutted lamb used to be to his father's herd stewardship. An insult to the son was an insult to the father. That was the tightly wrapped burden every successful father's son shouldered, even after the old codger's death.

"Now how many hours did you say this tractor had on it, Ron?" asked the cheerful auctioneer.

"Twelve hundred and forty-seven," Ron twanged with customary accuracy.

"That'll be a hundred, who'll gimme a hundred?"

One hundred thousand, he meant. I never thought this circus would come to our farm. I always assumed we'd be the last to sell out. Last, hell. We would never sell.

"Whaddayasay, Ron? Think we started a little high. I got eighty-five, eighty-five…." The auctioneer milked the bidders for a long time, but the tractor sold for only eighty-six five.

"Got his number, Sally?" The bidder held up his number, and the carriage trundled on, my brother staring after it.

I glanced around to see if anyone was watching Harold's kids' faces. Either they weren't interested in our emotions, or they were practiced in seeming detached. This was the final unraveling of loose ends. The withering of relationship. Not just to people, but to land.


Now, literally, this groundlessness. I spent the remainder of last year and the beginning of this one in bewilderment. Why do they call the line dotted, I wondered? If it had been dotted, that would imply gaps in it, possible ways out. It was solid, as bold and indelible as tautly strung, electrified barbed wire. It marked a boundary between then and now; between me and whom?

When my father was a child, there were over 6 million farms. Today, the Census lists about 2 million, half of them "residential/lifestyle" or "retirement" farms. Do the descendants of all those farmers who sold out feel an inexplicable longing for land that they don't even realize they lost? I am a latecomer to this divestiture. In me, the rupture is new. I know the source of my longing too well.

Who am I if not Julene of Kansas dirt? We've always farmed, back unto the dark beginnings of my father's Germanic and my mother's Scandinavian past.

Our family owning the farm created an identity cloud that I've lived beneath my whole life, my parents' success sprinkling onto me like nourishing rain. I was born while they were still poor, but due to their thrift and resolve -- Don't buy it if you can't pay cash! -- I was guaranteed title to many acres. It is no accident that the word "title" forms the center of "entitlement." Both branches of my family rose to the top in the New World, relative aristocrats despite being, in ancestry, peasants.

Searching for the German roots of my surname, thinking that it ought to mean "dirt" or "farmer," I learned only that I am a beast, a bear. Like a blinking bear emerging from my warm den, I am out in the bright, more realistic open now that the farm is no longer ours. Another landless schmuck, I am no longer entitled or empowered by that land. I am no longer an extension of it, or it of me.

One false identity has fallen away, although a whole set of other false assumptions, those born of the privilege granted me by my parents' sacrifices, remains. I will probably never know what it's like to live without a safety net.

Anyone can farm, my father said many times. You just have to be willing to do a little work.

Guilt is common in people whose security derives from a previous generation's labor. I even feel guilty about my guilt. Why should my heart bleed for the price the High Plains paid for my ease? My parents couldn't afford to pause in their battle for a living to think of the irreplaceable groundwater that went into growing crops on semi-arid plains. They embraced poisons and chemical fertilizers because these made the difference between success or leaving broke, as wave after wave of homesteaders and other descendants of homesteaders had done.

Yet I can't help remembering that my privileges came at the expense of the place itself. Even the drought might be partly our own doing. In plowing the prairie, my father and grandfathers released up to half the carbon stored within the grass's massive roots. Now the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that higher temperatures resulting from atmospheric carbon dioxide will cause "increasing drought in mid-latitudes and semiarid low latitudes." The world's grasslands. Today's croplands. The High Plains.

I certainly am not the first Plains landowner to sell due to drought. But I am among the first to sell fearing human-caused drought in which my own family has been complicit. According to the promises that lured us here in the first place, rain was supposed to follow our plows, not drought.

As soon as the money from the sale hit my bank account, I talked the man I live with into going in together on a house and barn on a little under two acres on the Colorado Front Range. We were buying, I argued, a tiny fraction of connection, a bit of what I'd sold.

It was indeed pretty here on the plains below the mountains. But just owning 1.7 acres in exurbia seemed to satisfy nothing. That Felliniesque image, the auctioneer's wagon, rode through my subconscious all winter.

What was so compelling about owning, anyway? And what was it about not owning that could cause such sickness to arise in me? The word "property," it surprised me to discover, was first defined as a "bundle of rights." What we gave up in selling was not the thing itself, which will last far longer than us, but our rights over it.

This made sense to me. Land is one of the four traditional elements. Air, Fire, Water, Earth are nature, its essence. We naturally grasp onto land, the only solid thing among them, but land belongs to all life, not, ultimately, to any individual or family or species.

Tracts on property theory often quote the Enlightenment thinker John Locke, who proclaimed that what man "removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property." The idea that mixing with the soil makes it ours appealed to my body's reasoning. Farming is an intermingling of self and soil. My father mixed himself, his labor, into the soil he owned. To morally earn the farm, I would've had to do the same.

Another theory, "libertarian socialism," holds that owners lose their rights if they abandon property or try to reap benefit from it while not living on and working it. This also made emotional sense to me. As an absentee owner, I should have felt just as empty, if not emptier, than I did having sold. I had no moral right to that land.

Why did anyone have to own it? I would rather have liberated our property from the annual assaults waged on it by plows and irrigation pumps. The Nature Conservancy would not have been interested in our denuded fields but the law requires that it belong to someone. Had I the means, I could have held the deeds, paid the taxes and put my father's land all back to grass.

That romantic return to wilderness would have soothed my ache, but it would not have healed it. The cover of one book I ran across, The Philosophy of Property, featured an idyllic white clapboard house and red barn surrounded by golden wheatfields. I longed for what we'd had, the way we'd once had it, for how the land had nurtured us with the produce and livestock we grew. Right relationship.

When the spring thaw came at this new home of mine, I began working as if my livelihood depended on it, the way I'd seen my father work every spring of his life. It was visceral, this need to put down roots again. Each weekend I would bound out of the house after my oatmeal and begin digging and double-digging, uprooting old posts, sinking new ones, pulling wire, building wood frames for raised beds, trucking in dirt, and mixing it with the fortuitous pile of dung left by the previous owner's horses.

Walking back to my house after a glorious morning sowing the first cool-season seeds, I noticed an affirming statement playing in my head. I think it had been repeating there for weeks, then had begun to crescendo. I heard it now because this was the moment when seeds had touched dirt, opening morning on the farm, my farm, no matter how insignificant in size.

I removed my mud-caked shoes and rushed to write down the refrain, so startling in its naked hope. This will save me, the voice said. I had a fundamental belief in the power of spring dirt, a faith I'd absorbed growing up.

It will save me from grief over the farm. The one true cure, actually growing food in my own soil. There was no going back, but I could go on.

John Locke was partly right, I decided. Mixing our labor with the soil earns us something, although it is not ownership. The goal is oneness. And sometimes, when we're not too tired to notice, even joy.

Later, when I'd suffered back spasms from spading all day; when I'd made my first mistakes and had to re-dig a bed, removing manure and replacing it with topsoil to get the nitrogen level right; when my broccoli transplants burned in the sun and my drip system blew out from too much water pressure and my compost pile forgot to heat up and I had to re-collect grass clippings, remix them with dead leaves and put in a ventilator pipe; when bindweed covered the old manure pile and, unwilling to follow my father's policy of sterilizing the soil wherever bindweed grew -- Because it's rooted all the way to China and if you don't get it, it will get you! -- I hoed it and it grew back and I hoed it again and it grew back again; and when the weather got hotter and gardening was insinuating itself into my work week and making it almost impossible for me to make my mark in my "real" work, as my father had in his, another refrain entered my head. No one knows! These were my father's words when he had trouble with his help and he'd been working a month straight without taking a day off and his kids wouldn't come home and lend him a hand. He was right. We didn't know, but I have an inkling now.

One night, I sat up in bed with this realization stabbing me in the heart: He helped Grandpa break that land out with horse-drawn plows! My aching back, callused hands and fatigue are penance, a little offering in recognition of the years of toil that he put in.

Each week from late spring into early fall, my labor bears vegetables and fruit, culminating in warm, orange-meated melons. Eating their juicy flesh, I imbibe summer. I join my flesh with my adopted soil. But this satisfaction does not silence the calliope that plays in my dreams as, each night, the auctioneer gavels off my father's tractors and tools.

Five miles of roots! I keep thinking. Ever since I left our farm, at age eighteen, my home there has been abstract. I never would have moved back. Still, in signing that line, I ran a blade under myself, severing access to my identity as adroitly as the new owners' plows severed the roots beneath the remaining buffalo grass.

Selling the farm, no matter how many times I rethink it, no matter how unavoidable or rational, will always be the worst decision I made in my entire life.