The moment I can’t escape, that our family farm story must start with, took place on a quiet summer evening in my rural Iowa hometown in the mid 1980s when I was 18.
As was common in those days, I heard a knock at the kitchen door at the back of the house. At our house friends knew to come to the kitchen door. I opened the door to the county sheriff. We all knew him, of course. He had gone to high school with my parents, and his children went to school with my brother and me. He didn’t ask for my parents or even ask if I was officially an adult. He just handed me a folded up packet of papers and had me sign something.
As he walked away, I opened the thick pages. FORECLOSURE. I could see that this was a foreclosure notice on one of our properties. In a moment’s notice the world completely changed but it was an utterly ordinary interaction, one that resembled so many others at our back door. I didn’t really know what it all meant. I handed the papers to my dad in another room, knowing that he would know what to do. Dad always knew how to make everything okay for us. He grumbled and said something like, “I talked to the bank about this. This wasn’t supposed to happen.” My mom was at work, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him to tell my mom about this. The next day while talking to my boyfriend on the phone, I could hear his mother saying something in the background. The boyfriend relayed this to me, words I will never forget: “Did Angie see that their house was foreclosed on? I saw it in the paper.” If I could have crawled through the phone to strangle the woman I would have. What possesses an adult to say something like that to a teenager? I suppose she couldn’t have known (but she should have guessed having been a native of the area) of the years of struggle and debt and family inheritances and ineffective farm policies and bad corn prices and broken down combines and everything else that can kill a farm.
As I later learned, the world of a farmer rarely changes in just one moment, unless it’s an act of Mother Nature like a hail storm or early freeze. This foreclosure was only one in a whole series of events that takes place over months and years. I also would learn that our family was hardly alone in this crisis. Thousands of farmers were losing their land and their livelihoods. Some lost their lives to suicide or in shootings like that of Dale Burr in Johnson County, Iowa in 1986. Burr killed three people before killing himself after months of struggle on his farm. Years later I learned from my dad that on two separate occasions, individual farmers had come to him, gun in hand, ready to walk into a bank and enact some justice of their own. Both of these men were my dad’s friends but they weren’t especially close. Somehow they both knew that my dad was the one who could talk them out of hurting others or themselves, and indeed he did.
This one family story can’t be told in one blog post, or twenty, but pieces of it are worth telling. My family came out okay in the end, better than okay. My parents were well educated and resilient, and they had an opportunity to thrive in another city. However, we were all so busy doing different things, my parents preparing to start over, me going to college and then getting married, my brother going to college, my sister changing schools from our hometown to the much bigger school in Council Bluffs . . . that we didn’t stop to grieve or process what this all meant.
My dad was a fourth generation Iowa farmer and raised corn, soybeans, cattle, hogs, and kids on land that had belonged to our Swedish ancestors. My parents had intended for the farms to be their retirement. They had expected us kids to go to college, but I’m sure my brother, sister, and I would have had to decide whether to take up the family business if it had continued. And even though our family was among the lucky ones who moved on successfully, the transition was painful. Other families in our small community, most of whom were being threatened with the same fate, backed away. It was as if those victims of the farm crisis had a contagious disease, and others feared getting too close lest they catch it as well. Fear drove so many behaviors and relationships during that time.
Sometimes I feel like someone died and we didn’t have a funeral. We didn’t even acknowledge that anything died. We didn’t have the time or the emotional capacity to do so. Survival is exhausting that way. My dad told me years later that he didn’t miss farming, but as my brother said in his eulogy for my dad at his funeral, he remained a farmer all his life. He loved the land. He was independent and invested in the well being of something bigger than himself. When I divorced I finally figured out what the sadness was about. My marriage and my parents’ farm life had dreams attached to them. We had visions for our future that wouldn’t materialize. In both the marriage and the farm, their loss meant something better for all of us. But still, it meant that a dream and vision of the future had died and we all had to develop new ones.
This idea of having been a part of a farm family is so powerful to those of us who lived it even when we are separated from it by many years. It’s not necessarily a romantic idyll we indulge in because much of that way of life isn’t terribly romantic, and we know it. There is just something about being part of a long line of people who engage in the same struggles and joys on pretty much the same pieces of land year after year. And your own long line of people are neighbors to other long lines of people who have done the same. There is a rootedness in that way of life that seeps into our DNA.
I started this blog three years ago as a way to explore all of this, but I can still barely talk about the loss of the farms. When I read the newspaper articles about the shootings and farm foreclosures of those years I tear up and ache for those families all over again. I will persist, however, from the story of losing ground to gaining ground, both in our family and in American agriculture. This is a story worth telling.
Image of Farm Aid Rally from http://historyrat.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/farm_aid_rally1.jpg.