Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Farmer John died

My father died suddenly almost two weeks ago now. He looked like he was asleep when he was found on the couch in his farm clothes. The only difference was that his farmer's tan went missing and his body was cold - probably because his heart was done.

Some of what we can piece together is that he had planted soybeans in the field in front of the house, that he had purchased 10 bags and planted 9 1/2 of them some time within the 24-hour period before his death, that he died with a packet of soybean inoculant in his overalls pocket and that his hands were black from mixing inoculant in with the beans to help with them grow.

If there was a year to grow beans, this is the one. With grain prices topping new levels, there is the hope, this time, Dad's beans may do more than break even. Farming is a risky enterprise, so even with fantastic prices, there is no guarantee of profit.

He has always been dependent on custom harvesters - the guys who run the combines to harvest crops - and because he has a relatively small farm, he would have to wait until they decided to harvest - often losing grain to weather or other conditions deteriorating the quality of the grain.

Today I went with my mother to the local farmers' co-op and then to the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) office - now the Farm Service Agency under the Department of Agriculture that oversees farm programs including conservation plans and crop insurance. We needed to cash out the tiny Southern States stock he owned and determine the amount of acreage planted to turn in to the Farm Service Agency. The crop acreage figure was due at the end of the week and had something to do with his "approved" farming plan with the Feds. Whatever happened to the independent farmer?

I saw farming friends at both agencies. Just hanging out with these guys almost made me want to farm again. I grew up as my father's "son" and learned the lingo, the rhythm and the lifestyle these guys live. Plus marrying into a farm family, my understanding of community has been deeply tied to the farming community.

These men all looked older and exhausted. Some of this is because they are older. Having turned 50 years old myself this past year, these folks were ahead of me in school or 4-H. But the exhaustion could be from the heat wave and the trials of a nasty storm that hit the day after my dad's death. And, I'm guessing that a lot of the fatigue is from the sheer amount of hard work and long hours they put in.

Some were still dealing with a recent storm that disrupted power for several days, downed trees, and with wind, hail and hard rain that destroyed crops ready to harvest.  Running several generators to milk cows is an expensive proposition with the high cost of fuel. The heat wave that struck effected both crops and animals. In addition, a neighbor talked about caring for his elderly parents and disabled sister nearby in between milking and crop farming. Another farmer talked about a neighbor in hospice.

While I enjoyed catching up with my old neighbors and friends, I knew that my dad's little farm could never make for a sustainable way of life - not enough land at 97 acres; it certainly isn't organic; and, it has rocks, ridges, wet spots, and clay-type soils - some not tillable, many not terrific for high yields. What will happen to this farm?

My mother swears she is done farming. She was done years ago, really. I sure do hope those beans amount to something - not just for her, but as one last try from Dad.