Most of my clients and friends have heard me tell stories of growing up on a farm in Minnesota. I think they are amused by the image of me tromping around in workboots, covered in dust, hands dirty and greasy hands from working on the machinery. Or the vision of a grain bin so filled with dust and chaff that you can’t see that there’s actually someone inside until I come out – the only part recognizable is my ever sunburnt nose.
The life on the farm made me who I am. The ability to problem solve and think outside the box are essential for a farmer. Working hard and seeing the rewards of your own labor too are part of the farmer’s life. These and more are part of the fabric of farm life. These stories are part of my heritage and I hope to share them with you.
Truth be told though, I am not an authentic farm boy. While we did indeed farm full-time we actually did it part-time – which means we had to work even harder to get everything done. Let me explain.
As my Grandpa (Dad’s Dad) was phasing out of farming, my Dad started taking over the farm a little bit at a time. We lived in a northern suburb of Minneapolis. My Dad was teaching Industrial Arts in the Public Schools while my Mom taught Home Ec. Grandpa’s Farm was just 50 miles away but a very modest farm (that is another story) for that part of the country. In fact he he had mostly farmed with mules. So on the weekends, my older brother and younger sister and brother went with Dad and Mom up to Grandpa’s mostly to visit but of course Dad was helping out on the farm that he grew up on.
At some point in my early childhood though, our visits to Grandpa’s farm (Grandma had died when I was 3 or 4) became more frequent and at some point we were not visiting but going – not to Grandpa’s farm but to the farm. I don’t remember how it happened but the next thing you know we were farming that farm. I remember riding with Dad on the tractor (by then had 2 small Ford tractors). When Dad would plow the field with a little 2 bottom plow, I would sometimes run behind in the furrow (the 12″ trough that the plow made as it turned over the soil) looking at worms and how smooth and cool that clay soil appeared as the plow turned it over.
I remember riding along in as we combined the soybeans or oats. (Is there anything as satisfying as seeing a wagon fill up with grain? It is a feeling of abundance and security and grace). The next thing you know, I was driving the tractor myself, bouncing over the plowed fields as we got them ready for planting. I really don’t remember how old I was – 10? – except that I had to hold on to the steering wheel to keep from falling off. My older brother must have been on the other tractor in another field and maybe my Dad was busy getting the planter ready. I don’t exactly remember what age we all were but on the farm, everyone starts young. Everyone had a job according to their ability. Weed pulling starts very young.
By the time, I was in 5th or 6th grade (we went to school in ‘the cities’), we had horses which meant we were baling hay. I also think we had 3 tractors by then – including a larger Case tractor. And at some point, our whole summer was spent on the farm as well as every weekend and holiday in the spring and fall. And by the time I was in Junior High School we had bought more land and could be considered a small full time farm. Years later when we started calculating the time spent on the farm versus our time in the city, it really was half time in each location. Sometimes we would even head up to the farm right after school to check on the horses and pigs and then come back that same night since it was only an hour commute each way.
Every Friday, right after school, we got in the car and drove to the farm where we unloaded the car and went right to work until Mom called us in for supper. Saturday morning started early since we essentially had to cram a weeks worth of field work into 2 days. My Dad, older brother and I would go out to the shop to get ready or work on some piece of machinery before breakfast. Saturday morning breakfast was almost always cornbread with butter and syrup and lots of milk from the farmers next door. And then out to the field or the shop to work.
Because my Dad is a talented mechanic, he bought used and often broken down machinery which he then fixed up. Sometimes it did seem that we spent more time fixing than using. But the life of any farmer is not for the faint of heart. Any romantic notion of daintily gathering eggs is quickly squashed when a tractor gets stuck in the Minnesota spring mud and you’ve tried to rock back and forth to get the tractor out only to sink deeper into the ruts. Then you have to unhook the piece of machinery you’re using and you slip and fall down in the mud and your hands are covered in mud because the hitch is down in the mud. And still you’re stuck. So you have to walk home through that mud as it sticks to your boots which get heavier and heavier and it’s starting to rain. That’s farming.
There were many, many times I hated that farm. I wanted to be doing what other kids at school did in the summer. I wanted to go to summer school and work on art projects or build something or just play. I wanted to not have to work. I wanted to sit around and read. And yet. And yet here in my middle ages, I tell people that I grew up on the farm when that is only partially true. And the stories I tell are the stories from the farm. I remember school of course but I actually have very few recollections of the city outside of school.
My memories are of working the fields, singing to the horses, baling hay and harvesting the soybeans or oats. There are vivid images of my sister and I pulling mustard and thistle from the oats field. We had lots and lots of big elm and cottonwood on the farmstead itself. But we often had dinner – which is at noon on the farm by the way – under this big basswood tree right near the house. These are memories of a whole family working together in both strife and harmony. All of these are rich and rare memories that made me who I am today. The varied and ever changing life of the farm was hard and hard work. But I wouldn’t change it now for anything. The uniqueness of that life is maybe more striking today since I’m a ‘big city boy’ now but it is a story of a lifestyle that really is mostly gone. And I feel lucky to have been so close to the earth, the seasons, that cycle of life and the hard work that becomes the life of a farmer.