Down on the Farm

I read submissions for a children's magazine, and about once a month, a farm story comes through my queue. Usually Farmer Brown gets up in the morning to the crowing of his rooster. Happily, he walks through the barnyard tossing grain to six fluffy chicks. He stops to pat his milk cow and admire a family of pink pigs. A typical conflict is a stubborn goat who doesn’t want to join the fun—until Farmer Brown coaxes him with a yummy ear of corn. Then all the animals pile into Farmer Brown's bouncy pickup, and off to town they go for a little fun.

The problem with these stories is their lack of zest. Real life farming is a much greater adventure.

A real farmer doesn't wake up to a rooster, but to a market report. If his vehicle bounces, he should see a mechanic before harvest. A single cow might be kept by, say, an experimenting homeschool family, but a modern dairy farmer can only survive if he invests in an "operation.” Animals going to town are not a subject for a child: they are about to be slaughtered. And a typical frustration is not a stubborn goat, but a thing no man can coax: the weather.

My father has been on the farm 82 years but has kept with the times. He showed me his mobile app this morning. Here is what it said:

Corn: DN 4-6
Beans: DN 5-7
Wheat: Mixed
Rains bring some relief
to central Corn Belt,
trigger profit-taking.

Translation: Last night’s rain could have cost him several thousand dollars. DN means down.

Dad could kick himself for not selling on Wednesday—but how could he know that the Board of Trade would weigh his storm against the drought in North Dakota and decide that his crops weren’t worth as much on Thursday?

The one thing my father shares with Farmer Brown is a cheerful spirit. He says, “You can’t look at it as a loss. You do and you’ll drive yourself crazy.” You wait and hope and, as his 87 year old brother says, don’t plan any vacations to Vegas. A farmer gambles every day.

Dad loves visitors. He will take you for a ride in his pickup anytime. He'll explain the timing of pollination, the optimum moisture in a kernel, why peat ground has its advantages, and the reason an old shed is left to collapse in the weeds. He’ll tell you why you don’t see as many farm houses around the county as you used to--let alone pigs (which are not pink, btw).

Last night’s thunderstorm kept me awake, not because of noise, but because I became like the child who keeps asking for another bedtime story. I knew better. The storm that made my heart beat faster could very well break my father’s.

The atmosphere was shuddering like a troubled brain. I only saw one bolt of lightning strike the earth; the rest was an entire dome of pulsing light, snuffed out to stillness, then reawakened with a shock so bright that it brought an almost prophetic vision: a split-second when the darkness fled and the entire the land was clear as day, green to a blue horizon. The maple tree in the yard was suddenly outlined so that you could have numbered the leaves, if the world had frozen. But it didn’t. It never does.

By some miracle, in that wild weather there were occasional tiny flashes across the field: fireflies. They were ridiculous, really, in their persistent light. But it's July in rural Illinois, and that is what you get, and that is what you loved as a child. Your mother gave you a pickle jar and your father punched holes in the lid, and both let you stay up late. You ran around the yard in the dark, barefoot. You caught those little lights in your soft hand, and they tickled. You knew you had to let them go in the morning. But that was okay, because your father assured you that they would always come back.