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
 

Page 2

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."

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