The New Small Farmer

Updated: Nov 11, 2019

Walter and Jane Brick - Stewards of the Earth.

Uncle Walter pushed his hand into the soil, pulled up the black stuff and grated it back down through his fingers. He bounced thoughtfully on his haunches gazing across the newly plowed field. Abruptly he stood and brushed the earth's crumbs from his hands. He found his tobacco pouch, pulled his pipe from his bib overhauls, packed it, and struck a "farmer's match" against his zipper, The flame was drained through pungent smelling shreds of tobacco. Puffs of smoke hurried away with the breeze.

"OK boys, let's go."

My cousin Tommy, Walter's son, and I followed him back to the car. We were both 12 years old. I was on my annual trek to the farm to help out with the chores. We were touring the fields this early morning looking for what, I wasn't sure. My uncle seemed to know. We drove slowly along dirt roads in a '51 Ford, a cloud of fine dirt clinging desperately to the back bumper. The windows we’re rolled down with my arm hanging out just like Walter's.

"It's going to rain this afternoon." He said between puffs. I squinted into the bright, hazy sky. Really, I thought. How does he know that?

It was the 1950s. He was a small farmer near Green Leaf, which was near Brillion, which was near Appleton, which was near Green Bay, Wisconsin. He and my aunt Jane owned 80 acres there and 40 milkers. She also ran the Green Leaf federal post office that was just a building along a road.

The word "farmer" can be such an inadequate word. Yes, they cultivated the soil but they were really stewards of the earth. They understood how everything was linked together: How the rock was linked with the soil, and the soil to the beetle, and the beetle to the plants, and the plants to the air, and the cow and the pig to the water, and the the manure to the yield. Everything was locked in step. Even the swoop of the barn swallow had purpose. They saw all of it at once. It was one painting.

The language of the farm was the call of the rooster and the chirps of the chicks. the buzz of the bee, the whisper of the hay in the fields, the baying of the lamb, the bellow of the cow, the roar of rain on a tin roof and the screech of the evening crickets. They knew it was just one song.

The smells, of course, carved out their own place; the livestock odors, the newly mowed hay, fresh milk in buckets, the rain and its ozone, But it was just one smell, that of the earth.

They were not alone. They would gather with neighbors to bale the hay and fill the mow, one farm then the next. You could hear them across the fields calling out to each other over the sputtering of the tractor while stacking the bales to incredible heights on a wooden wagon, pulled by the baler that was pulled by the tractor.

At noon they slammed their bale-hooks into the hay and headed to the farm house. Twenty or more talked and laughed and feasted on the noon day meal: sweet corn, and beef, and fried chicken, and sausage, and salads, and vegetables of every kind, and coffee, and milk, and breads, and muffins, and jams, and pies. Each day was a celebration. Meanwhile, a dozen pair of boots and farm shoes, bejeweled with barnyard remnants, rested at the back door and waited.

For all the hard work, they seemed so very happy.

Eventually Walter and Jane grew old, sold the farm and died. They had fulfilled their compact with the community having tended to the earth and its creatures. They were content to pass on their legacy to a new small farmer, but there were few of those. They had been replaced by the hired hand cocooned in the luxurious cab of a mammoth machine powered by computers and guided by satellites. They had been replaced by the chemist, whose job it was to kill the bug, and figure out how to get more ears per stalk and more stalks per field. They had been replaced by huge, automated wheels of cows being milked and bird packed cages of floating feathers, and pig farms that drain millions of gallons of fresh water. They had been replaced by the engineer, manager and the corporate farm owner who grate coinage back down through their fingers.