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The Work of a Farmer

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“You heard that there’s a for sale sign on the farm across the road?”

Sunday morning light slides in through glass, pools in my pot. Phone cradled to my ear, I stir porridge.

“You’ve got your offer in, I hope.”

How could Dad say anything but that? The sign went up two days ago.

I smile, shake a bit of salt into boiling oats, a handful of ground flax, and stir.

“Oh, we’d like to. 200 acres, 150 workable. But there’s no way. In these kinds of markets, we simply don’t have the money to buy another farm.”

“It’s land, Ann.”

What else is there to say?

I look out the corner kitchen window. Autumn weds countryside. Maples down the lane blush, silently disrobe. Fields roll east, the land gold. Our field of corn witnesses.

“How often in your lifetime will the farm right next to yours come up for sale? Not more than once or twice.” I can see him shaking his head, him sitting there eating breakfast, looking out on his own fields of corn, land he raised me on. “It’s an investment for your children . . . in your children. The banks will lend it to you. It’s land!”

Like he can shake sense into me with those two words.

Sun lays out long on the farm across the road, across its honeyed wheat stubble, and this feeling barbs, burns.

It’s land.

Coming home from wheat fields one afternoon, just before lightning had forked across the western sky, my daughter Hope said the same. One hand on the steering wheel, I turned and caught the tilt of her head, the tone of her words. She had brushed the tangled hair out of her face, smudged her cheek with dirt from the back of her hand. She’d glanced at her tired, grimy brothers pressed in around her, looked up at the mirror, and then turned toward me.

After combining wheat with Dad, we’ll need to go home for baths, won’t we? We are all like . . . dust.

I couldn’t speak. My fingers fumbled to slip through Hope’s dirty hand. Dirt met; we squeezed tight. Heavy raindrops pelted the windshield. We drove home from fields, dust in a rainstorm.

That dirt is what I sweep off floors, wash from jeans, scrub off hands; the same dirt that frames up the soul; the same dirt that grows our food to sustain our limbs, that nourishes our bodies.

When asked what we do for a living I always hesitate; there’s no grand title and I can read their eyes. Farming requires no specialized degree, no impressive wage for menial labor, the primitive work of any civilization. We’re farmers. We just grow food. We just raise pigs. It doesn’t get more rudimentary.

The children read it aloud once from their history text, how the most denigrated class of people in ancient Egypt was the swine herders. They’d looked at each other, at their dad and I, we pig farmers.

I had held the book in my hand, smoothed the page out flat, and the words had come slowly, like bent backs rising, but they had come and we all stood taller because of them. How can growing nourishment for temples wherein Christ dwells be dirty, base work? If it isn’t fish at the end of a fork, it ultimately came from dirt, from the bowed back of a farmer. And this dirt-tilling, isn’t it engaging in Genesis work, stewarding and cultivating his creation? Some say that there are only two kinds of people who brush very God. The priest in the sacraments. The farmer in the soil. We’ve known it, standing at the end of a field, the wagons filling with yield: working earth touches God. Working humus feeds humanity. We are dust farming dust, preparing food for men planting food, living this circular dance: from dirt, through dirt, until the return to the dirt; for from him and through him and to him, all things. Need we be ashamed?

The children had all nodded.

It’s land. The land, she’s kin.

I hang up the phone with Dad, stand long in the kitchen, looking out across to that section of earth with the for sale sign. Across my chest, this unexpected kindling, a yearning. I want her. She’s of my lineage, kin I know. I want to walk her dirt, open her up, spend the seasons with her.

The wind rustles corn; the field whispers.

The back door closes softly and I can hear the water running. Farmer Husband always washes his hands in the mudroom sink, washing away the smell of his stock and his work. I glance at the clock. He and our six kids have made good time this morning. Six hundred and fifty sows fed and watered, afterbirth from newborn litters collected and laid back out on the land, nearly a thousand piglets carefully tended to, the mothers’ milk-full udders checked, the heavy sows prepared for the birthing—all while the moon still lingered. Now the sun begins her arc across the lid. They’re in for breakfast, to wash up for church.

“Dad thinks we should put an offer in.” I ladle bowls.

Farmer Husband, with hands that grew a couple hundred acres of wheat this year, cuts bread. I ground those kernels yesterday. Weeks ago, those kernels waved in the wind. I am cooking sausage from our own pigs. We are not eating commodities for breakfast, packaged food yanked from its context and source. We know the paths of this food: we picked stones off the land in May, the rain came in June, hail pelted the wheat in late July. We speak of the frost that browned the squash vines, the corn we raised in the field then fed to the pigs in our barn. We tend the hens in the coop that puts meat and eggs on our plates. Six children sit at the table and a son grins at the food, the colors, the tastes. We eat of the earth and chew summer’s sun and swallow down the late August rain. We live and know the circle intimately, from death and a seed, to earth and a bed, to stalk and a yield, to table and a meal.

“An offer?” Farmer Husband nods, lays the bread in for toasting. “You think we should take out a loan and buy another two hundred acres?”

I carefully count out eight spoons, eight cups, set them slow around the table while I think. Isn't it always a question of numbers, a question of sustainability? That though we own the hundred acres we live and raise these pigs on, and rent my mother’s four hundred acres and the hundred acres that backs our farm, working six hundred acres is a pittance in an era of industrial farms. How many times do we sit down to eat the food we’ve grown and ask: do we buy more land, fall deeper into debt? Do we invest in bigger equipment, more hired help? Do we grow genetically modified seeds? How many times have we laid in bed and talked late, the vast black night hushed low over fields? And we've wrestled hard: do we apply fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides? Do we plant the conventional rotation of corn, wheat, soybeans? Or do we plow a new path, grow kidney beans, flax, strawberries, and cucumbers?

Though we farmers are producers, the consumer determines how and what we produce. It is the consumer’s lifestyle, nutritional interests, and ethical values that determine how a farmer produces food. And it’s their hunger that determines the value of a bushel of wheat, a ton of beans, a pound of ham, the price the middleman will pay us at our farm gate. We farmers have always been beggars of sorts, taking whatever the middleman will give us for the nights we didn’t sleep, the holidays we worked, the prayers we begged for rain, to bring a crop in, to feed our stock. I ask myself constantly: do our children want to live as we have lived, at the whim of markets and middlemen?

The Farmer and I, we've laced the fingers together in the night and made prayerful, considered decisions for our farm individually, but there is only so much that farmers, less than three percent of the North American population, can do to effect real change in the way food is produced, the way agriculture and the land shapes itself.

“When farmers are going broke, it’s wrong to expect them to reform the system,” asserts the poet-farmer Wendell Berry. “In fact, there are too few actual farmers left to reform anything . . . . Reform is going to have to come from consumers. Industrial agriculture is an urban invention, and if agriculture is going to be reinvented, it’s going to have to be reinvented by urban people.”

How can handfuls of farmers alter monolithic agricultural infrastructures, change the way whole nations of consumers eat?

“Oh. I didn’t say I wanted another loan.” I pour milk. Children and chatter stream in from the barn. A million dollars for two hundred acres of crop dirt? A lifetime of toiling under sun, of praying to heavens to favorably wield skies? And we’d never see the end of the payments. These kids, piling in for breakfast, they’d inherit the dirt and the debt—and in their lifetime, after a lifetime of our work, they might tear up the mortgage. But does this matter? What if working the land is a calling?

Farmer Husband carries toast to the table. Our four boys, two girls, they talk, stir their bowls while they wait for us to pray. He and I butter toast. We say nothing. We’re thinking of the value of land. I think of Thoreau who said, “You must love the crust of the earth on which you dwell more than the sweet crust of any bread or cake . . . . You must have so good an appetite for this, else you will live in vain.”

Do I live in vain?

How much do I love land?

We lay down our butter knives, take hands, and pray over bowls and bread. We eat the fat of the land. We’ve an appetite and we eat and live, and we pray this living is with purpose, intent, rooted to earth, looking to heaven. Yet even as I eat, eating to live, there is this inextricable sense of death, of what Alexander Schmemann’s startling suggestion that "eating is the communion with the dying world, it is communion with death. Food itself is dead, it is life that has died and it must be kept in refrigerators like a corpse." I often think of this, sitting at the table before food.

Eating is a miracle of transformation—from seed to soil to food—but there’s no denying it: what we eat from our tables, succulent and sweet, this is food of a dying world. Though we may carefully select each piece of fruit for its perfect firmness, food never satisfies. It rots, it molds, and we hunger again. We who combine wheat, beans, corn, when the plant has lived its entire life cycle, when it ripens and dies, we too who eat the meat on our table, we will die. Tilling land may be hallowed and essential work, but we make no idol of it. There is Bread who gives real Life, flesh that asks to be eaten who will eternally satisfy the cravings of the spirit.

Joshua asks me to pass the jar of honey. I watch him drizzle it on his toast. I can sense it, taste it—this food is sacramental. Though what we raise may be dying food, it too is symbolic of the Christ who chose agricultural elements such as a kernel of wheat, bread and wine, vine and lamb, to name and speak of himself, the Living Food. Did Christ choose to identify himself with food, because in the process of eating the dying, entering into dying, there too is renewal?

In his poem, “The Man Born to Farm,” Wendell Berry poignantly, precisely, writes of our lives as farmers, “He enters into death yearly and comes back rejoicing.” The agricultural act of eating food, like eating Christ, is no different: we eat, entering into death, and come back rejoicing. The daily eating of food is but a way of remembering death, a way of experiencing resurrection.

The living dead, we eat of the dead, and the miracle happens again: we revive.

It’s after the Sunday services. When we leave our little country church surrounded by hay fields, pasturing cattle, fields of corn, we drive past the land for sale. We see how she lies. If she calls our names.

“What do you think?” I ask Farmer Husband, his eyes scanning the gentle rolls, the acres laid out. The children are quiet, surveying too. They know this is about them.

“She sure needs some tender love and care.” The fences are overgrown, the ditch neglected.

“Could we clean her up, Dad?” My oldest son asks from the back seat. He must feel it too, in the veins like a pulse.

“We could . . .” He’s driving slow, scrutinizing, figuring. “Clover’s growing up through the wheat stubble. “You’d need to drain her right away so you wouldn’t have compaction getting the crop off in the fall.” He’s talking more to himself than me, already making a list. He’s listening to her. “I think you could make a real farm of that piece of property.” He’s smiling. Grandchildren with that same glint could work this dirt.

Two crows cackle on hydro wires. I read the sign on the hydro pole in the field’s far corner. He misses it and I wish I had.

“She’s sold.”

The words leave my mouth involuntary, punched from the gut.

Oldest son grabs the back of my seat. “Sold? Really? It only went up last week!”

I can only manage to point to the sign. Crows take wing. Who can speak?

Silence falls, a sadness, like watching kin drive down the lane and away. We turn around, down our gravel road, turn up our lane.

“We don’t need to buy anymore work anyways.” Farmer Husband cuts the engine. No one moves for a door. All eight of us sit still, looking out at our land, our corn. She's gold in light.

“More land would just be for the kids.” His voice is soft, wistful. “And who says any of the kids want to farm?”

“I do!” At least one child jumps in, adamant. The others only watch corn.

Now I’m the one speaking. Head leaning against the cool of the passenger window, these are words to myself, words murmured, words nearly soundless in the quiet, us all quiet.

“I guess I had thought I wanted them to go on. For the kids to go and get degrees, be pastors, doctors, engineers.” The waking to what I have done, what I have inadvertently done, to us, to them, to our collective future — it stuns. My eyes sting. I can hardly whisper, “That’s how I’ve made all their priorities, their education, their plans. About them all going, to be power changers, culture makers, in marbled halls. All somewhere else.”

That barb, that burn again in my throat.

I turn to face Farmer Husband. He was born on a farm, was smart enough to go but wise enough to stay.

“Why have I thought a good education was about sending our children away?" My voice is gravelly now. Every word squeezed past the lump in my throat hurts. "Why do we teach that dirt doesn’t matter and growing food is menial?" Haven't I, farmer's daughter and farmer's wife and mother to the next hope of farmers—haven't I done just this? The words choke out, "Why do we think success is measured in the distance we travel away from the land and its crops that our very stomach craves three times a day?”

And I remember it then, how my dad once stood in his farmyard, my childhood farm, and read to me the words on the back cover of a book about farmers, “'No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.' Booker T. Washington.”

I’d smiled. I’d told Dad how our fourth child, third son, had had to copy out that same quote a few weeks earlier for penmanship. Levi had been disgusted, called us all to come listen to this quote he was sure was all wrong.

“With his brow furrowed,” so I tell Dad, “Levi had clarified. ‘Don’t you see what’s wrong? Anybody who is smart at all knows there’s a lot more dignity in working a field than in writing a poem!’”

Dad had slapped his leg, howled laughter ringing off barn and shed. His grandson had dirt in the blood. Then the laughter had dammed up into a swell of sentiment.

He’d pointed his gnarled finger. “You tell Levi.” He shook his finger to punctuate every word.“You tell that Levi . . .” He struggles to grab the words in this flood of feelings, “that for real farmers . . . that for me . . . . Tilling a field is poetry.”

Dad had turned away from me looking straight in to him.

He had looked to his land.

The farmer’s daughter is the farmer’s wife who looks to the land on a Sunday morning home from church, before she goes to her pots and her pantry. I look out to that poem of wind and light and humus waiting for weathered hands and prayer-worn knees and my chin trembles. The corn blurs in rain of my own making.

And the words spill, water for hardened earth.

“Who will stay and dwell in the land?”

This article is a reprint of the chapter "The Land that is Us" in the book The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God.