“Despite all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.” ~Anonymous
This was the quote that ran through my mind on the drive out to my parent’s house this past Sunday afternoon. It was the perfect Midwestern spring day—seventy-five degrees with a light breeze and plenty of sunshine. The kind of day that begs you to jump in the car and take a drive out to the country with the windows rolled down. As the kids and I crossed over the St. Joseph River and took the scenic route to the west side of town, I gazed out at the endless rolling fields and the familiar rows of mounded earth stretching far off into the distance. The comforting smell of freshly tilled soil wafted heavily in the air and we waved at Mr. Schutze, ambling down the road perched high atop his trusty tractor—the same one that’s carried him down countless rows and the last few decades. It’s planting season in my little hometown, and this time of year has a way of reminding me just how essential those folks are whose livelihood depends on the soil and the sun, the temp and the rain.
I grew up in this town, yet my personal farming experience is limited to my failed attempt to plant and tend a garden a few years back (“Oh, you have to water the plants…like, regularly?”) and that one time I grew a tomato (yep, just one). Yet, I have always been drawn to the process and revered its practitioners from afar. Farmers hold a place of honor in the legend and lore of pure Americana, and for good reason. What other profession is more responsible for the continuation of the human race than farmers? Despite this position of importance, what other group is more humble in their role than these same men and women who sacrifice sleep for our sustenance and only quit when the job is done. It’s kind of hard to “punch out” when the sun is your time-clock.
The agrarian backbone of our community is tied to every aspect of life here. As children we take field trips to the School Farm, a real-life working farm with animals and crops maintained by a local family who live on site and ran by Mr. Mark Nixon, the longtime principal of Moccasin Elementary School. Every October, the kindergarten classes pick out bright orange pumpkins from a patch planted at the farm and 1st graders visit twice a year to learn a lesson about decomposition by burying trash in the fall and digging it back up in the spring. In April, the School Farm hosts Old Fashioned Plow Day, a well attended event for the community that boasts of a pancake breakfast, demonstrations by early tractors and draft horses, a petting zoo exhibit, tractor parade, 4-H projects, sawmill and quilting demonstrations, and hayrides. The sponsors of the event are local families, businesses, and farmers who love to support the preservation of agriculture within our community and our school system.
In the summer you can find a showcase of the fruits of their labor at our growing Farmer’s Market located downtown next to the library. It’s the main reason I stopped trying to grow my own garden—it is much easier (and tastier) to buy my produce fresh from the source every Saturday. My kids love helping me pick out red potatoes and green beans that are pulled straight from the field, loaded into a truck, and displayed on wooden stands just low enough for their little arms to reach. We round out our shopping trip with a fresh jar of honey, a quart of blueberries, and a loaf of freshly baked apple bread. If I’m feeling generous, I even let the kids pick out a cookie from the church bake sale stand. On our way home we drive out to Red Bud Trail and make a quick stop at Vite’s Greenhouse for their famous sweet corn. No summer cookout is complete without it; it’s a homegrown treasure that has become a weekly staple on dinner and picnic tables throughout the county. I like to serve it on the side, right next to a juicy grilled pork steak from Strefling Farms. A person could get spoiled with such easy access to all of the goodness that comes from our local fields.
But if you want to get a handle on the farm culture during any season, all you have to do is make a visit to the McDonald’s in town every weekday morning for the early riser coffee crowd. Rumor has it that the old guard meet up there to talk seeds and weeds and discuss the weather and the state of our world. Man, the collective experience of that group and the stories they could tell. One of these days I’m going to meet them for coffee and ask them the secret to growing a successful tomato plant.
My three little blonde-haired, blue-eyed nieces are growing up as Farmer’s Daughters and living every part of a country song. Their Daddy plants and plows for a living and they love visiting him at work where he gets paid to breathe in the fresh air and play in the dirt. Just a little more than a week ago, he and my sister welcomed their third baby girl into the world. The next day, while Mama and Baby Allison were recovering in the hospital, Donnie decided to take the girls to the farm for the day instead of dropping them off at school. That night he posted a picture of the sisters walking side by side out in the field with a big red barn and a split-rail fence in the background with the caption, “Probably not getting the education they would’ve gotten if they’d gone to school today, but still learning something nonetheless.” Isn’t that the truth—such value to a day spent connecting with the land.
But I guess it doesn’t matter if farming is in your blood as long as its roots are in your soil. I can already tell that my own kids have inherited a fondness for farmers. They love watching ‘Farmer Matt’ (as they call him) bring his big machines out to our field to cut the alfalfa and roll it into giant bales of hay. They sit on the porch and wave to him as he passes by in the hot afternoon, and, in the evening, they gaze out their bedroom windows and watch him load up the last of the bales unto his trailer as the sun sets low over the horizon. “We sure have a nice view,” my son will remark as he looks out across the freshly cut field. It’s moments like these that I am thankful for the land and the bounties that it produces and glad that my husband and I made the decision to raise our little ones in the wide-open spaces of farm country where there is always enough room to stretch their legs and always enough dirt to cover their toes. And I’m thankful that Farmer Matt, and the rest of the Warda crew, continue on the traditions of their grandfathers.
In the arena of farming, the few serve the many. So the next time you run into one of these hardworking folks around town, either searching for a replacement part at the hardware store or driving their John Deere down Front Street, shake their hand or give them a nod and say a simple thanks. And if you see them in a corner booth at Hilltop Café, buy them a cup of coffee or pay for their eggs and bacon. Chances are they’re responsible for more than a few breakfasts served on your kitchen table.