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Borderlines: Sketches from the Empty Quarter: Family Farms, RIP?

By GK Harkness

June 21, 2023


Please disregard those obituary notices that you often see, the ones lamenting the passing of the North American family farm or ranch.

2023 marks year 78 for our place, and this summer day finds three generations working together in adjacent fields. Once upon a time there were four, but the old Marine, CW, has ceased his labors and gone on ahead to scout out new fields.

There’s the other “old man,” who at 71 should probably be sitting on the deck of the family mountain cabin listening to Alvarado Creek flowing by and contemplating what to BBQ. But he’s not. He’s planting grain sorghum to the tune of 38 acres per hour in a two mile long field. He’s a little out of step with the technology surrounding him but enjoying the benefits and comforts afforded by it.

Following behind him is the thirty-something middle son. He’s running the 120-foot wide sprayer and applying chemicals and fertilizer to the newly planted milo, enabling us to no-till this year’s fall crops into last year’s wheat residue without plowing it under, preventing soil erosion, saving precious moisture and sequestering carbon. He makes the majority of the agronomy and machinery decisions and gently steers us in new but necessary directions. He probably wishes the “old man” was sitting on the cabin deck even more than the “old man” does but he’s patient and knows that his turn to call all the shots is coming soon. Very soon.

And finally, there’s the teenage grandson, operating the huge four-wheel drive unit and preparing the stubble fields of last fall to be planted to wheat in about two and a half months. Most likely he’s wishing he was far from here and catching cutthroat trout at timberline in a high mountain lake, but instead he’s stepping up and doing his part of being a vital member of this outfit and helping to keep the wolf from the door.

I’m sure the spirit of my Dad shows up from time to time and looks things over with a quizzical eye. I can almost see him, one pantleg draped over the edge of his boot with the other still tucked inside, pushing back his old stained cap and saying, “I don’t understand much of what you’re doing here, but it seems to be working. Wait, what the hell have you done with all my one-way plows?”

(Just go back to your cloud, Pops. It would take too long to explain it. I’ll fill you in one of these days when you’re riding in with me again at quittin’ time.)

There’s serious teamwork in play here, as well as an abundance of the proverbial blood, sweat and tears. Nothing on this place happens successfully without the other essential team members: the spouses, mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, daughters, granddaughters, grandsons, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, outlaws, shirt-tail relatives, friends and neighbors and all those who all assist in making it happen. Everyone chips in. Everyone knows what’s at stake.

Tradition. Faith. Family. Hard work.

Those traits aren’t exclusive to agricultural pursuits, but they are the cornerstone of endurance and long-term success.

Attitudes like these baffle most of the urban media. But we’ll still be here long after their talking heads are forgotten.

We’ll see you again in another 78 years.

Be sure to bring your dirt workin’ boots.

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