Family farms are amazing places.
You notice the barns, first (there’s always more than one barn), and, in Wisconsin, they tend toward the standard red. There’s usually a big barn, thirty or forty feet high, and then a smaller one, maybe around 20, 25 feet, and maybe another outbuilding, used for the farm equipment; there’s often a chicken coop thereabouts. If there’s not a silo, then there are a number of large cylindrical containers, and it’s not unusual to find a gas pump on the property.
The family farms I knew were dairy farms, and the milk-barn, where the cows went into their stalls twice daily for milking, tended to be low-ceilinged in the stalls area, although where the hay was kept there was, actually, a loft.
The farm house looked big from the outside, but it was usually quite cozy inside. The first floor would have the kitchen, a den, then maybe a formal living or dining room; the parents and kids’ bedrooms—and on these farms, there were usually a lot of kids—were on the second and third floors. Depending upon how large the family was, the younger kids would share rooms, and the older ones might have their own, or, they were all shared, divvied up by sex and age; maybe there were two full bathrooms.
Any trees on the property were near the house, or maybe there’d be a small stand to mark the edge of the property or on some spot where crops wouldn’t grow. Two-lane highways might cut through a property or serve as the dividing line between families; shoulders were gravel and often pitched steeply toward a ditch. If you came upon a tractor driving on the shoulder, you still had to swing wide around him, as the tractor usually trailed some equipment that spread across both lane and shoulder. It was rarely a problem; there’s not much traffic out on those country roads.
And there’s the smell. It’s almost always smelly on a farm, but it’s a clean smell, of manure and hay and dirt and animal, the kind you get used to and reminds you, simply, of country.
I’m thinking of one farm, in particular, as I write this, but it was the thought of another which prompted this post.
Jon Katz at Bedlam Farm posted on a 4-H visit to his mini-farm, for the kids to watch his farrier take care of his donkeys. Katz notes (correctly, I think) that urban and suburban parents today are over-protective of their kids, but that In farm areas, most families can’t afford to do that and don’t believe in it. In this and many other posts, he celebrates the hard and necessary independence of those farm kids.
Such hardy independence, however, has its risks.
As I read Katz’s post, all I could think of was RW. R. was in my brother’s class (two years ahead of me), and oh, was he a honey. He was popular with the guys, very popular with the girls, close to his younger sister J, who I later knew through theatre and track.
Word was she had to be sedated at his funeral.
R. was hit in the chest with a piece of farm equipment, and, being out in the country, was far from any hospital; by the time the ambulance got there—word was it got lost on its way to the farm—it was too late.
I think he was sixteen.
R. likely wasn’t doing anything on the day he died that he hadn’t done before, and, at sixteen, was certainly old enough to be doing anything that needed doing on that farm. He was one of those kids that Katz and I would both admire.
But as much as Katz wants to thrust the sweat and peeling paint and oh yes, the smell, into his viewers’ understandings of the family farm, as often as he cautions that there’s no such thing as a “no-kill” farm, as much as he wants us to see the hardness and the beauty of these places, the admonitions themselves often serve to turn that hard beauty into its own kind of light.
There is light there; he’s not wrong to see it. But not everything hard is beautiful and not everything beautiful is light, and sometimes what matters most of all falls beneath a heavy sight.