Between the Rows: Broken Fences

Published online: Mar 09, 2021 Between the Rows Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This column appears in the March 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

Brent sighed as he pulled up and parked at the edge of the field. There they were, the telltale signs that the neighbor kids had once again forgotten to properly put the chain on the twice-broken, jerry-rigged gate that (theoretically) separated their 4-H calves from his field of barley: meandering trails around the edge of his just-turning-gold crop, four-wheeler tracks, a trail that looked like it was charted by a drunken butterfly. It looked like there had been quite the little rodeo in the early morning hours. 

This was the second time in the last week. Brent felt the anger and frustration start to rise up in his throat. Though he knew he had every reason to be upset, he couldn’t muster up more than a touch of redness in his cheeks. He thought of how those kids must have felt when they went out to feed their steers in the light of dawn, only to find them gone. Then the panicked glance at the derelict gate; the rush to grab the four-wheeler and retrieve the itinerant livestock before either Brent or their parents noticed; the desperate race to turn them toward home; the chagrin when they looked back to survey the damage and realized there was no hiding it.

Brent let out a sigh and surveyed the damage. Ah, well, it wasn’t that bad. Truth be told, he had been in those kids’ shoes a time or two himself, when his own carelessness yielded less-than-ideal but predictable results. He had known he’d screwed up then, and didn’t need anyone else to tell him so. The neighbor kids knew this was their fault, and they didn’t need a lecture to drive that point home. But, Brent mused, perhaps they could use a hand fixing that gate.

They say good fences make good neighbors. I suppose that’s true to a certain extent. In suburbia, it’s nice to have a fence high and strong enough to keep the neighbors’ nut job of a dog away from your kids. It allows you to walk past the kitchen window in just a towel when you forgot to grab a pair of underwear from the dryer before hopping in the shower; and it prevents you from witnessing Doug, the backyard neighbor, doing the same thing. 

In farm country, good fences keep rogue livestock out of gardens and grain fields. They keep Bruce’s amorous but questionably bred bull out of John’s heifers. And they provide a home for the sign informing out-of-town hunters that, no, they may not shoot anywhere near your spud harvest crew, no matter how big that buck hiding in the creek bed may be. 

Good neighbors just pull on their gloves and throw a shovel, a come-along and a half-full can of red diesel in the back of the pickup. Then they go and fix whatever needs fixing.

Good fences make good neighbors, but your standard crappy fence has its merits, too. There’s something about mending fences that develops more empathy and love for the person on the other side. The fact of the matter is, most fences aren’t all that great. But the act of fixing the fence is perhaps just as important as having the fence in perpetually good shape.

Some (allegedly) grown men gather with their buddies to drink cheap beer and play video games all night. Some women call up their girlfriends to arrange a trip to the mall, where they will buy gorgeously uncomfortable shoes, which will find their way to Goodwill in five years with the price tag still on.

But in Benton and Cassia and Gallatin and Aroostook counties, neighbors develop real and lasting relationships over broken-down fences and blown transmissions and washed-out gravel roads. They lend a backhoe to help bury the old kid horse. They plow each other’s driveways. They race to get Phil’s beets out of the ground before the temperature drops below zero on a Wednesday in November. They don’t assign blame or prattle on about what they would have done differently had they been in charge. They just pull on their gloves and throw a shovel, a come-along and a half-full can of red diesel in the back of the pickup. Then they go and fix whatever needs fixing.

Rekindled friendships, newly off-the-rocks marriages, buried hatchets, faith in humanity—they’ve all been the collateral damage of busted fences, oughta-be-good-for-another-week spud harvesters and burst hydraulic hoses. After we finish cussing the problems in front of us, we would do well to thank the Good Lord for every one of them.