Saturday, November 15, 2014

"The Roots of My Raisin'"

I was born for this country. Well, no, I wasn't. Born in this country, I mean. I was born in Joliet, Illinois and spent the first 15 years of my life in a far southwest suburb of Chicago, on the cusp of the black land farm ground where 3 bedroom 2 bath ranch houses without basements cowered under the greenish skies of frequent tornadoes in the spring and huddled beneath the frigid gusts and snowy blasts of the long winters. These were the years when we future baby boomers flooded the existing elementary schools and new teachers were added mid year to ease the burden of crowded classrooms. Our church was a century old but our junior high was brand spanking new. Our family took the train downtown to the Loop to window shop in Marshall Fields or Carson Pirie Scott, or watch the sailboats on the Lake , or stroll the galleries of the Art Institute. We hiked the trails of the Forest Preserves of Cook county or skated the shallow sloughs in the winter. We bought sweet corn from some church members who had a farm just outside town; we pulled the fuzzy leaves of soybeans to use for play money with our friends.

And that's about as much as I knew about farming for many years.


My mom and dad bought forty wooded acres of Callaway county long before they returned to Missouri for good. While my sister and I were very young, we would stay at our grandma's while they spent time on the property. Later on, they acquired another 120 acres just across the gravel road; it had an abandoned house, a good well, and pastures quickly returning to cedar, sassafras, and persimmon. My father tells me his family thought he was nuts for buying land at his age, but he had the heart of a farmer and felt part of his wealth should be measured in acres. By now, Laura and I were old enough to be taught to work, and trips to Missouri meant picking up the little cedars and smaller trees my dad had cut, building brush piles and slowly, slowly reclaiming the pasture. My dad had a big pond built and we spread seed on the dam.

We learned to identify animal tracks; we hunted for fossils in the limestone creek beds that crisscrossed the property; we enjoyed the 'bob whites' calls echoing from grove and fence row and laughed because our neighbor down the road was named Bob White, too. The city kids whose chores included picking trash out of the yard every night before my father got home learned to work side by side with their folks, doing the same kind of work for the same hours, just as farm kids have always done.

Our rewards: floating on the placid green surface of 'Lake Ginger', watching fireflies by the kajillions, following the life cycle of the monarchs, tightlining for bluegill off the dock of my grandpa's farm pond, learning our way around the tool shed, shooting off fireworks in the humid humming twilight of a country Independence Day.

My father grew his female hay crew and tried to teach us how to ride his Honda motorbike (we drove it into a corner post of the corral). We helped rebuild a wind mill into a ham radio antenna. We learned the rules of rural electricity...and a rural water supply. We hiked cross country one snowy weekend to ensure the cattle had water and the house had electricity; we hiked back out Sunday evening. I spun the bicycle on loose gravel into a blackberry patch; I wandered for hours along quiet stony creek beds. My father piped WLS into the second floor so Laura and I could listen to the New Year's Eve countdown and watch our breath from under electric blankets. I don't know how much I learned of farming, but I grew to love our local landscape, its bony geology, its hard won carpet of grass on the gentler slopes, its deep leafy ravines in the woods. Picking up bales, painting gates. fixing fence, weeding, and helping repair and renovate a hundred year old farm house laid the foundation and prepared the seedbed for the conversation my father and I had when I was choosing a course of study for college. He told me that agriculture was a useful, vital, and moral industry...and I need never be concerned about my part in making the world better if I were engaged in agriculture. That clarity of purpose was all I needed. I consigned my love of music to avocation and enrolled in the College of Agriculture at the University of Missouri......

...Three years later two newlyweds packed their belongings in the back of a 1974 F-600 and drove north to become the third generation of Hursts to farm in Atchison county. We weathered the farm crisis of the '80s, three droughts in our first decade, floods of varying proportions in every decade, and years when prices were so low, the government bought everything we grew. We've watched the population of our county plunge more than 20 percent and our schools struggle to field a football team. We started a business when farming was hard. We suffered through the growing pains of that small business and learned to adjust to the vagaries of economic forces outside our control. We raised three kids on the farm, where they worked alongside us, learning responsibility and tenacity: to finish a task not just when it was easy, but despite it being hard.

It has been a whole forty years since my father gave me his opinion of my career choice.

Guess it was good advice.

1 comment:

  1. What a great post! All though I am not a farmer per say, we live in an area surrounded by farm fields. And not that far away from Joliet, IL. I would say great words of wisdom from your dad!