Meanwhile, Back on the Farm…

…it’s been a great year, one of the best my father can remember. The Fox family farm brought in over 90,000 bushels of wheat, including about 30,000 bushels of our high-protein dark northern spring (averaging about 80 bushels an acre for the latter, a particularly good crop). Some wild oat grass got into part of the farm, cutting down on the yield from about 400 out of our total 1800 acres, but otherwise there is little to complain about. The Amoths–a Mennonite family that have managed and farmed land for our family for three generations, and soon four–have every reason to be proud.

What kind of farm is it? It’s a dry (non-irrigated) farm, located several miles from Bonners Ferry in the Kootnai River watershed in northern Idaho. It’s great land for farming–sheltered, well-watered, with a rich sendiment having been built up over the centuries that the Kootenai has flowed through that narrow glacial valley just south of the Canadian border. Unfortunately, it was also subject to a good deal of flooding over the years, and being rather remote, that made the land less then highly desirable. Much of it laid undeveloped for many years after the surrounding land was settled. Then in the 1930s the Army Corps of Engineers came through and built dikes to protect some of that bottomland from floods, dividing the land up into districts. (The dikes aren’t really necessary anymore, since the construction of Libby Dam in 1972, but they’re still there.) My grandfather’s father, seeing the opportunity, traded some apartment houses he owned in Spokane, WA, for 388 acres of land in one of the districts; my grandfather worked on the farm during the summers, thus settling our family’s connection with agriculture–whether farming or trading or feeding livestock–for life. He in turn passed that land and that connection onto his children. My father expanded our family’s holdings with a purchase of 1467 acres in 1995 (about 1100 of it is tillable), but the basic operation of the farm hasn’t changed much–and to that, we have the Amoths to thank.

The Amoths are one of the oldest and most successful farm operating families in the area. Our association with them began with old Grandpa Amoth–that’s what my dad always called him–who worked with my great-grandfather and grandfather out in the fields. (You can still see the Amoth’s old homestead, which my father remembers visiting as a boy, built where the ferry used to be before there was a bridge over the Kootenai.) The work was taken over by his son Victor, and then later by Victor’s son Dallas (another son, Chris, also farms some of our land). Dallas’s son, Vance, has completed the 8th grade, which is all the formal education he’s interested in or his parents care for him to get, and he’s ready to take over from his father, whenever he gives the word. It’s a good relationship–they get 2/3’s of the crop, we get 1/3, we pay the taxes plus 1/3 of the fertilizer and other maintenance costs, and our families plan together what gets planted (almost always wheat, but sometimes barley, lentils, or other grains) each year. We aren’t the only landowners the Amoths farm for, but we might be their favorite, at least if the fact that they often come to my father first whenever they hear about available land in the area is any indication.

Last summer, when we were all gathered together over the July 4th weekend, two of my brothers and I went out to check out the farm with my father. The wheat was tall and green, though already beginning to turn slightly yellow. Dad, who has been around wheat and corn and barley and oats and alfalfa his whole life, would point out the contours of the land, then drop down on his knees, run his hand along a stalk, separating out kernels, talking about the kinds of diseases they have to guard against, pointing out how full the head was. My father is a businessman, and considers himself a hard-nosed free-market conservative, but when he starts talking about growing things other aspects of his personality peek out. We could, of course, build homes all over the land we own–it’d make a wonderfully scenic location for vacation cabins, seeing as how the farm follows the curve of the Kootenai, with plenty of room for docks stretching out into the water (the Amoths–remember, they’re Mennonite, not Amish–sometimes take their family boat out and waterski right alongside the farm property). There are members of the extended family in favor of that idea, looking to make a quick dollar and get out of the slow, often unpredictable income that comes from farming. My dad has considered that possibility, and perhaps will continue to consider it, but as of that day on the farm with my brothers, he backed away: no, development would bring too many people down into the valley, messing up the land, getting in the way of those who make their living there, throwing litter and cigarettes out their car windows, maybe sending the whole place up in flames; far better just to keep it things they way they are. Which just goes to show that being conservative and being an enthusiastic free-marketer aren’t always the same thing. (More on that topic here.)

My father does not primarily consider himself a farmer, but farming has marked him, as it has marked all of us–we’re familiar with what it means to “tend to” things, to nurture them. Perhaps it has made us less masculine, more tractable: as Wendell Berry has written, a good (male) farmer is at once “a husband and husbandman, the begetter and conserver of the earth’s bounty, but he is also midwife and motherer. He is a nurturer of life.” In light of the ongoing discussion of priesthood and motherhood I have to say that if, as I sometimes think, the priesthood exists primarily to get men to do and feel the sorts of things–service, empathy, patience, tractability, compassion, and so forth–which women, as mothers, are biologically and sociologically obliged to feel and do, then the kind-hearted patriarchy my father has long manifest must at least in part be a function of his life-long grounding in an economy and society that respects the natural world. Surrounded by business deals and blueprints and lawsuits and lines of credit for most of his life, he still has never gone too far away, professionally or just in the places we’ve lived, from God’s good gifts of food, land, and children (and now, grandchildren). What could be more humbling, and more encouraging of a proper understanding of service in the church and the home, then to always be reminded that, in the end, we are merely stewards? One bad season–a late frost, a drought, a plague of locusts–and you can lose it all. That’s not an especially hard lesson to learn, but in this world of distractions, it nonetheless remains a lesson which farmers of all people are, perhaps, a little less likely to forget.

Hugh Nibley, citing D&C 26:1, called farming part of the “Great Triple Combination”: “studying the scriptures…preaching…[and] performing your labors on the land.” There are, to be sure, many kinds of labors, and given the fact that my father hasn’t personally hauled a load of grain in decades, much less driven a combine, it might seem a bit much to balance a significant part of my estimation of him, and what he has given his children, on farm work. But I think the connection holds–whatever the direction our paths take us, if we can, in one way or another, get back to the land, to our gardens, to its gifts and its work, it will make us better people, perhaps even better priestesses and priests. Back in the garden, we will meet good people (like the Amoths, who have never left), and we can sit down and share in the bounty, prepare for the winter, and then await spring, when we’ll be able to learn and grow all over again.

15 comments for “Meanwhile, Back on the Farm…

  1. “One bad season?a late frost, a drought, a plague of locusts?and you can lose it all. That?s not an especially hard lesson to learn, but in this world of distractions, it nonetheless remains a lesson which farmers of all people are, perhaps, a little less likely to forget.”

    Perhaps. On the other hand, most farmers purchase crop insurance precisely so that these sorts of reminders are a little less intense, and it is a good thing to. A world in which people can ameliorate the risk of poverty and destitution through the wonderous and transformative power of conventional rather than natural arrangments is better than one where they live close to nature but are unnecessarily at its mercy. Of course, insurance is only possible because there are large markets with the liquidity made possible by the world of contracts and letters of credit that you somewhat sheepishly admit that your father also inhabits. There is virtue in both of his worlds.

  2. I watched a program the other night on the Learning Channel about the Old Order Amish. (They gave some historical background on the divergences of the Mennonites.) It was quite fascinating. They are very in tune with nature and the earth, and have a tremendous sense of community. In search of land, they have spread out from their historic locations in Pennsylvania and Indiana and Ohio; for instance, there is a substantial population in Wisconsin now.

    My Dad grew up on an Idaho farm, and my father-in-law was an Illinois farmer. I’ve never had the experience, but I’ve always had a bit of the Green Acres sacred envy for it.

    Great post, Russell.

  3. “But we shouldn’t get confused as to which is fundamental to the other.”

    It is by no means clear to me how this shakes out. Farming of the kind that you describe exists only because of national and international commodity markets. (How much in the way of cereals is consumed by the Kootenai watershed?) Agriculture — as you have described it — does not strike me as being prior to commerce either historically, economically, or spiritually. Don’t get me wrong. I think that you are right that there are spiritual benefits associated with husbandry. What I want to resist is the way in which you construct your hierarchies — particularlly when I suspect that they are based on an imaginary view of economic realities and a willingness to gloss over or ignore the extent to which the “natural” world that you valorize is thoroughly emeshed in and made possible by a conventional world that you are generally hostile to. All forms of human activity have their virtues and their vices. Having identified that virtues of farming does not make it any more fundamental other activities that have their own virtues as well.

  4. “Farming of the kind that you describe exists only because of national and international commodity markets.”

    I suppose we could get into this argument again, Nate, but all I really meant in my response to your comment is that the function of the “conventional world” presumes the exist of a productive one. Farming is, in that sense, fundamental to farm markets. It is not impossible to imagine a productive wheat field in absence of a contract to sell a crop of wheat. It is impossible to imagine a contract to sell a crop of wheat in absence of a productive wheat field. That’s all I’m saying. As for the (pre)historical question of which began to significantly influence which first (commerce or agriculture), I don’t know, but I’ll put my money on the premise that we gardeners before we were salesmen. (And even if that isn’t actually true, the language of the Garden of Eden story suggests that God wants us to act as though it was.)

  5. Apparently my wife stands to inherit 800 acres of North Dakota wheat-farm land from her parents (who inherited it from my mother-in-law’s parents). There’s a tenant farmer who has worked their land for 20+ years. I hope to go and shake his hand someday.

  6. Oh, you are fortunate to have a family like that and a father like that.

    My husband loves to garden and he takes such satisfaction out of our (relatively speaking) small garden. I recognize the personality from your description of your dad.

    You know, we had the best garden we’ve ever had (in 24 years) this year. The tomatoes and beans were perfect, just wonderful. It makes me wonder about that seven years of plenty and seven years of famine thing.

  7. Is this post really about the international wheat market and whether Western agrarian beneficiaries of federal water projects are essentially living on government welfare?

    I mean, we could certainly take up those topics. But that didn’t seem to be RAF’s point.

  8. I think the finest extolment of the spiritual value of farming I’ve read was in the latter pages of Whittaker Chamber’s Witness. Recall that he lived and worked on his Maryland farm (part of which he bought with his friend Alger Hiss, who famously denied knowing him before a congressional committee) while he commuted to his job as a Time magazine editor in New York City every week. If I remember correctly, he would take the train from Baltimore to NYC and work four days, including straight through one night, and then return to the farm. After his trials he settled there full time to work it with his wife and children.

    Russell’s is good too.

    I was raised on a Wisconsin farm, though we didn’t work it for a living. It never occurred to us to try to raise Mennonites.

  9. Russell,

    Your writing is a pleasure to read.

    It reminds me of the summer I spent moving pipe on a farm in a small town in Idaho (I grew up in the “big city,” Boise). At the beginning of the summer the land and plants were simply things to allow me to earn some summer money and I remember the farmer getting all excited as the plants began to grow. I thought, whats the big deal? But by the end of the summer when the grain was tall and we would finish placing the last pipe and the pump would be turned on to have water spraying over the field, I started to understand the beauty of farming. I’m no farmer today and mostly grow flowers in my garden, but that small connection to the land is important to me.

  10. That was interesting to read. In my development econ class, we do a lecture on sharecropping.

    The punch line is that it lowers production below the optimal level, but mitigates the risk inherent in agriculture. Do you know if your sharecropping 2/3 – 1/3 split is unique or is that the common method and fraction in Northern Idaho? Just curious.

  11. Nice post, Russell. I had no idea that your family had this connection with the soil. I loved your comments about the feminine qualities of a farmer.

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