Between the Rows: Free and Not So Easy

Published online: Jul 02, 2021 Between the Rows
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This column appears in the July 2021 issue of Potato Grower.

Why do you farm? Is it because your parents did it, and your grandparents before them? You can probably get away with saying that most of the time. But that’s not really the reason, and we all know it. Plenty of people grew up on the farm and didn’t pursue it as a career.

Is it because it’s all you know, and you can’t picture yourself doing anything else? Or that you don’t think you could do anything else? Well, I call malarkey on that. If you’re doing something as challenging as running a farm, you can probably manage to land a decent job in a zillion other fields.

Is it because you like the view from your dining room window? I grant you, that’s a great reason to live there, but not really a great reason to be a farmer. It might be a piece of land that’s been passed down for generations, but I bet you could find a willing buyer for most of the ground and equipment, keep the house, and live out your days with that same gorgeous view and considerably more flexibility to go on that Caribbean cruise or to the grandkids’ softball games.

So why do you do it? Is it due to some inborn sense of honor? Because you’ve been given stewardship over those fields, that water, those people who depend on your production to feed their families? Yeah, maybe you feel a little bit of that. Maybe you feel a lot of it. But that’s not really why you do what you do.

I grew up in agriculture. Almost all our neighbors were farmers or ranchers. My current occupation has given me countless opportunities to talk with and get to know producers from coast to coast. And I can tell you for a fact that not one of them (at least no one I’ve met) has to be a farmer. Every single one of them is there because he or she wants to be. Every one of them has made the choice, over and over, to live and work and sweat and bleed and forgo a lot of the comforts others crave (regular work schedules, cute little coffee shops, proximity to a five-star restaurant).

Why? Because they all love being a farmer. They love the soil. They love planting into a bare field, watching it green up, and bringing in thousands of tons of beets or spuds or grain in the fall. They love watching their kids’ arms and necks darken in the summer from days spent checking water, taking soil samples, and scouting for aphids. Every one of them has the freedom to do something else — anything else — but they do this. Because they love it.

I heard it said once that freedom entails a certain amount of unfairness. Despite rampant rumors to the contrary, we in the United States are still blessed to live in the world’s greatest bastion of freedom. Does that mean everything is fair all the time? No, it doesn’t. Most of the time, the unfairness is pretty subtle: a little sleep deprivation, a two-hour drive to the closest airport, a big fortieth birthday bash floated until that last truckload of spuds is safely in the cellar. Fred in Fargo has to endure winters the likes of which Bert in Boca can’t fathom, try though he might. Seventeen-year-old Ben didn’t get to see the seventy-ninth installment of the Marvel movie franchise with his buddies because he was helping his dad fix a flat tire on a pivot. Inconvenient, yes, but not terribly harrowing.

Sometimes, though, freedom’s accompanying inequity punches you right in the face. Dan and Jenny may have made every sacrifice to pull the family farm back from the precipice of the financial insolvency other family members drove it to, only to see it careen over the edge anyway when Old Man Winter sets up shop six weeks early. Shawn and Shelley might be the most honest, most generous, most devout people in the county, but God may still call their 12-year-old home way too early.

The moments and days following the unfairness are where everyday heroes — patriots, if you will — are made. When, through tears of frustration and fear and heartbreak, they utilize their freedom to bow their heads in prayer, then lift them up in defiant, joyful determination. They know that the only thing freedom guarantees is freedom itself, and that it’s worth every risk it entails.

People might say you’re a slave to the farm, but that’s not true in the least. People walk away from the farm all the time. You could, too, and it wouldn’t be some unerasable, unforgivable black mark on your sterling reputation. But you don’t. Because no matter how hefty or meager the paycheck may be in a given year, there’s no payment on this earth that would feed your soul like the old place does.

Now that’s freedom.