Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Family Farm - the Prequel to the Story

In the comments of my post Building Fences and Wondering What Might Have Been, Pat asked about the long version of how I got from just thinking about farming and actually farming.

My great-grandparents bought the quarter-section (160 ac.) of land that's called the Home Place in about 1925, which makes up part of the land I'm farming. 

A few years later, my great-grandfather died and my great-grandmother was left a widow with 6 young children, of which my grandfather was the oldest at about 11 years old.  Somehow they managed to hold onto the farm through the Great Depression, and the drought years of the Thirties (I don't think the Dust Bowl actually happened around here, but it was dry). 

I have no way of knowing how or what they were farming in that time period, but I happen to have a farm ledger from 1937, (which must have been saved because it was supposedly the worst of the drought years) when they were growing cotton, wheat, oats, grain sorghum, and also baling sudangrass/pea and oats for hay.   They mainly had dairy cows (about 8), broiler chickens (I'm not sure if they sold any of those), layer chickens, and six horses rounded out the rest of the livestock on the farm.  I'd guess that the farm was about the same more or less in 1927 as it was in 1937 (although they might have scaled back in 1937 due to the droughts).

After World War II, Grandpa and a couple of his brothers were still farming in the area, and that's about the time they started buying their own land,  which was when Grandpa bought the other quarter-section I'm farming right now.  

Then, the droughts in the fifties started, and according to Dad, they almost lost everything because back then almost all that they owned was put up as collateral to mortgage any new farmland (I'm not sure if that's entirely true, but I've looked at the deeds and all the land Grandpa owned was used as collateral to mortgage that quarter-section).  

The droughts in the fifties were supposed to have been worse than the Dirty Thirties, and Dad said that they were so desperate that they were baling the ditches along the roads trying to get enough hay to make it through the winter, and the hay was so thin that the baler had to follow right behind the rake so it could be baled before it blew away.  It finally started raining in the late-50's and the worst of the droughts were over.

When my great-grandmother died, my grandfather inherited 1/6 of the Home Place and then he bought the rest from his brothers and sisters. At that point, he owned 800 acres and was renting at least 320 more acres.   

We lived close to the farm until I was about 8 years old, with Dad still helping around the farm, then we moved about 25 miles away when he got a new job.  Dad still helped on the farm even after we moved, but by the late-70's, Grandpa was starting to think about retiring due to health reasons (his knees were going out, etc.), the price of cattle and grain had been going down for awhile, his equipment was starting to wear out, and he didn't want to spend a bunch of money at that stage of his life replacing everything.  

He semi-retired in about 1980, renting out most of the farm, but keeping a small herd of cattle, which were the cattle I was mostly exposed to as a kid on a hands on basis.  Then his health got worse, and he sold the last of the cattle about 4-5 years later.   

He and Grandma still lived on the farm, so I was still around the farm even after he retired, but I was mainly interested in hunting and fishing instead of farming.  I was more interested in managing land for wildlife, planting food plots for deer and turkey, leaving wheat stubble for dove hunting and quail habitat, planting a field of alfalfa so I could grow big deer instead of baling piles of hay, etc. One of my life goals at the time was to own my own piece of land and manage it for deer, turkey, quail, and whatever else I could hunt.

I went to college, then Grandpa died soon after I graduated, and Grandma still lived on the farm. 

I liked college and engineering, but always had a nagging feeling that I was somehow getting farther and farther away from owning any of my own land, or just being able to just go outdoors any time I wanted to.   

I graduated with a Mechanical Engineering degree, wasn't really satisfied with the type of work that was available, so I went back to get a Master's Degree. Then at the start of my second semester, I decided working the rest of my life as an engineer didn't really suit me, so I just quit college and engineering completely.  One of the happiest days of my life was the day I walked off of that campus, never to return (I swear the sun shone brighter, I had a bounce in my step, and I was grinning ear to ear on that day). 

I burned every bridge in sight, salted the earth, and never looked back (well, I might have questioned my sanity a few times), then I started trying to figure out once again what I was going to do with my life.  It was both one of the stupidest and smartest things I've ever done in my life.  Take my advice and don't try this at home, I'm not a professional.

By that time, I had a vague idea that I wanted to be self-employed, and I began to think that I might be able to make a living raising cattle and farming, so that I could be self-employed and could also still do all the things outdoors that I wanted to do.  But, for whatever reason, it never occurred to me to try renting land from my Grandma because as much of a screw-up as I was at the time, I didn't want to screw-up her life by failing at farming and also failing her.   So, I continued to stumble through life, doing this and that to make a little money, stayed out of debt, somehow managed to save some money, and started to think more and more that maybe I should have toughed it out as an engineer (after all, you gotta do what you gotta do and all that).

About this time a tornado hit the farm, which was at least a half-mile wide and it destroyed every building on my grandmother's farm, including her house, two hay barns, three equipment sheds, loafing sheds, a lot of the trees, and most of the fences in its path.   I spent almost a year off and on cleaning up the debris, fixing fences, and finally figuring out that I might actually be able to make a life for myself as a farmer.  That was easier said than done, so for a few years, I spent a lot of time observing, reading, saving, and learning how to do as much as I could.

A number of years later, my grandmother died.  All the land was divided up among my father and his sisters, and after my father bought part of the land from his sisters he owned 400 acres of the original farm. At this point, I was almost desperate since I thought that any chance I might of had of ever farming was slipping away, and then I actually talked to my family about farming this land (which I hadn't really done up until this point).  

It was harder than I would have guessed to ask for that help, but with some probably undeserved help and some work, I eventually went from thinking about farming to being a farmer. Although I still don't know if I should call myself a farmer, rancher, stockman, gamekeeper, or something else (which is a whole other story).

The ending to this long rambling post and this part of the story is that I'm able to farm because I'm leasing the land from my parents (FWIW, I'm also renting another quarter-section down the road).

Some people might argue with me, but farming either inherited or family-owned land has certain disadvantages from my experience.  My great-grandparents, grandparents, great-uncles, and parents all had to struggle through farm-ending droughts and some of them spent a lot of money to keep the farm intact so that I can have a chance at farming it today.

Sometimes there's a lot of pressure to live up to the unprovable expectations of people long gone.
When I get around to it, I'll try to explain how I went from having access to some land and actually farming it.    


  1. Excellent story. Funny how our paths were similar but not the same. I had the Mechanical Engineering degree but I gave it a go for 15 years before giving it up. Although with dumb luck, I was able to use it to retire early, I can't say I really enjoyed my livelihood. The family farm which my dad now owns will someday be mine although my dad has hinted that he wouldn't mind me helping him out before then. Right now I'm focused on getting the children old enough to be more independent and then perhaps I might get back into farming.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your story. It brings back a lot of memories for me.

    1. Before I starting reading a number of blogs and interacting with the people on them, I never would guessed that there were so many people out there that had similar backgrounds or thought more or less the same way about things as I do.

      The older I get, the more I wish I had started doing the stuff I actually want to do much sooner, so my advice (which is usually worth almost as much as you pay for it) is don't wait too long to do something.

  2. Thanks for posting the start of your story. It's very interesting, and I'm pondering the questions that I'll come back and ask.

    1. A few questions might make it easier and quicker to share more of the story, so ask away.

    2. When they get too annoying, or personal, go ahead and just don't answer.

    3. I wouldn't worry too much about that.

      If I don't have a good answer, I might not answer either, so then you'll have to guess if the question was annoying, too personal, or I just couldn't come up with an answer that made any sense.

  3. I found it interesting that your first inclination towards the land was via your love of hunting and fishing. Indeed, that strikes a cord with me as my interest in agriculture, while its always been there, was probably strongly secondary to my love of hunting and fishing. At some point, starting while I was in high school, but really rising strongly my last year as an undergraduate student, agriculture really started to rise up to take a really strong place in my order of priorities, but it was probably hunting fishing and nature that lead me there. Interesting to see that at work in others.

    1. Eventually I'll probably write a post about how hunting and farming go hand-in-hand for me because there's too much there to sum it up in a short comment.

      But, I don't think I'd be farming if it wasn't for the hunting, and I'd stop farming before I ever stopped hunting.

    2. I've always been a hunter myself, and a lot of the reason that I've made choice about where I went and what I did career wise were based on that, consciously or not.

  4. I also noted that one of the things you commented on was the appreciation of being able to set your own day.

    That's something that I've always envied in full time farmers and ranchers and I've wondered to what extent that they realize its really a gift. That certainly isn't the case for most people with "town" jobs, including those which people envy.

    1. I don't know if I've ever thought of it as a gift, but I could see preferring to work a 9-5 job if you grew up on one of those "working from dawn-to-dusk" type of farms.

      I've always worked on the farm with myself as the boss, so I also might have developed a "work ethic" that some farmers might disapprove of. I'll work hard when I need to, but I'm not going to work hard just for the sake of working hard.

      I've met some farmers that seem to work harder than they need to, like they are trying to impress the "boss" that they don't even have.

      Maybe I could have gone farther in the engineering world if I had worked with a lackadaisical attitude, never tried to impress the boss, and didn't work too hard or too long. Just be glad I'm not your kid's guidance counselor.

    2. I don't know. I often tend to find that people who have lived on farms their whole lives and have had low exposure to urban jobs, or at least to professional jobs, don't really grasp that some of those jobs are very extensive labor indeed. I've met a lot of farmers/ranchers who didn't want their kids to be farmers or ranchers as they had the illusion that a college degree was a money pipeline, and that people in town don't really work.

      If folks in that category get an exposure to what some of this sort of urban job is like, they're often quite surprised by it, even if they don't really ever grasp it. If they find you working every weekend, etc., thir view does alter, although you'll still get the "nice to be indoors on a day like this" comment, or things of that type, that make an assumption about your views and what you do. Having had a foot in both worlds, I've come to the conclusion that its impossible for either group to really fully understand what the other does, but the biggest misconceptions tend to be on the agricultural end.

  5. Replies
    1. That's a good question that I've asked myself before.

      The simple answer is that I liked designing and building stuff, engineers build and design stuff, so I thought that I might be suited to be an engineer.

      I had the idea that an engineering degree would be useful in a lot of different jobs, that I could easily find a job in a lot of different parts of the world, I could make a decent amount of money in the process, and I had a vague hope that I might be able to start my own business with an engineering degree.

      I never thought about the part that I would probably be working 80 hours a week on some fiddly doo-dad for a project that I didn't really care about. Or, that I would probably need to move to a more urbanized part of the country with a higher cost of living and a bunch of people all around me. Or, that I'd have a boss telling me what to do all the time.

      I think engineering was the right type of degree for me, but I don't know if the typical work environment that exists for engineers suited me. Finding the "right" engineering job for me (if it even existed) was the harder part compared to getting the degree.

    2. It's often occurred to me in our modern age that many people know what they like, but as that doesn't seem to readily match a career, they have to sort of guess what they'd like for that, based on inadequate information. They the may study for years to obtain it, but when they go to put that into application, the application may not meet their expectations.

      It's an interesting situation. I don't know how anybody knows what most careers entail, unless of course they were directly exposed to them as children, which in many cases, they are not.

  6. Did your father always have an off the farm job?

    1. He worked on the farm from the time he was old enough to help until he graduated from college and got an off-the-farm job. But he still helped occasionally whenever help was needed up until Grandpa retired.

      He's played an important role in my being able to farm.

    2. What sort of career did he occupy?

    3. Even though he didn't have an engineering degree, he basically had an engineering career.

      When he retired, it took a bachelor's degree (BSME) to get an entry-level job.

      His job probably played a role one way or the other in my getting an engineering degree, even though I was never really pushed in that direction.

  7. 1925 was during the last few years of homesteading, but your great grandparents purchased the farm. Had they been farming elsewhere prior to that? Why the farm in that location?

    1. The way I understand the story, my great-grandparents lived on a farm about halfway between here and Kansas (where my grandfather was born). I'm not sure if they owned it or rented it, but I assume they were farming it. I saw it when I was about 13, and it was a perfectly flat, open 160 acre wheat field with an old well house marking where the house used to be.

      In 1925, my great-great-grandparents owned 320 acres right across the road form the Home Place (which they had bought sometime between about 1900 and 1925, I'm not exactly sure). When the Home Place came up for sale, my great-grandparents bought it and moved down.

      My great-grandfather died a few years later, and part of the reason they were able to keep the farm was probably because they had family living so close. I'd imagine that Grandpa and his brothers were taught a lot by his grandpa and uncles.

      When the great-great-grandparents died years later (in the late '30's??), some of the aunts and uncles wanted to sell the farm immediately and some didn't want to sell, which apparently caused a major rift in the family when the sell off was forced on those that didn't want to sell.

      It was such a major rift that I didn't hear the story until after the tornado hit.

  8. Do you, and have you always, felt a special attachment to the land?

    1. That's a tough question, I had some sort of attachment (not sure how I'd describe it) to the farm back when I was only hunting on it. I felt I "owned" it in a way, because it was my deer hunting grounds.

      When I started farming the farm, how I felt about the farm changed. I controlled more of what went on on the farm, so I could improve and fix it for the better. I have a different sort of "ownership" now because I can influence how things will be on the farm for a longer time (if that makes sense). Would that be called some kind of "generational ownership"?

      Of course, I've hunted this farm since I was about 13, so that has to have influenced how I feel about it now that I'm also farming it.

      FWIW, I do know that I look at the land I rent in a much different way than the land that my family owns.

  9. Interesting story, Rich. I can imagine the sense of responsibility that would go along with taking over a farm that had been in the family for many years.

    I figure every mode of work has its pros and cons. There are things I liked about being an employee (regular paycheck, limited responsibility), but there are things I didn't like too.

    Nowadays, I'm so used to setting my own schedule (for the most part) and managing my own resources that it would be tough to adjust to someone else doing all of that for me. Especially if I felt that they took that responsibility less seriously than I do.

    Anyway, it's interesting to hear about the sequence of events that pushed and pulled you down the path you've taken.

    1. It's nice to hear from you, I was starting to wonder where you went.

      In the period of time between when I quit engineering and when I started farming, I never would have thought that anyone would be interested in any part of my story.

      There's still more to the story, I hope it's also somewhat interesting or useful in some way.

    2. Ron regularly takes time off from blogging. I've been reading his past blogs for many years and have become accustomed to the absences. I think of it as him needing time to recharge because when he gets back into the blogging saddle, he always has lots of good posts full of information.

      I have many blogs linked so that I can read them easily that have gone silent over the years. Almost all were regular bloggers and then one day, they never posted again. I always hope for the best but I suspected the worst happened. I've always felt that blogs need some sort of goodbye post option that you could write ahead of time. Kind of like your own obituary. Then if blogger doesn't detect any activity from you for a set amount of time, it could post it so everyone knows. Since they don't, I'm thinking about putting something in my will so if I check out, if anyone wants to get their inheritance, they need to log onto my blog and post my obituary so others don't have to wonder why I don't write!

    3. Until I started writing these blog posts instead of just being on the comment side of things I didn't realize how hard it can be at times to post something on a blog.

      I understand why you would want to take a break once in a while and then start up all over again.

  10. I'm glad I came back through and read all the comments and answers. Lots of good things in there.

    1. What?! You haven't gotten into the habit of reading each and every comment?

      Half of the time, that's the best part.