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 3

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.

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