My father's hands are big, even in relation to his thick build. They are permanently tan and callused, and, more often than not, one of his fingernails is black or missing. He doesn’t wear rings; you’d be hard-pressed to find a dairy farmer who does. His fingers are like bratwurst, and there was an incident before I was born: he slipped on a ladder while climbing up a grain silo, and his wedding band caught on a rung, ripping the skin off the finger. Once, his gloved hand was sucked into a bale shredder, but all he lost was a fingernail. He hadn’t turned off the shredder before beginning to fix it, reasoning that his finely-tuned reflexes would allow him to circumvent mechanical obstacles. He’s accidentally blowtorched his forearm three times.
During the summers of my childhood, it was customary for my family to take sunset drives through the vein-work of dirt roads spreading across southeastern Minnesota. The four of us would squeeze into an old Ford pickup, my little brother and I sandwiched between my dad, who was driving and spitting tobacco juice out the window, and my mother, who searched for roadside wildlife to point out to us. Our indirect destination always seemed to be a complex system of bluffs and valleys surrounding the Mississippi river. The ten miles or so between my house and what we considered “scenery” was a honeycomb of land plots; red barns, white houses, and fence posts created a rolling patchwork of pentagons. To my brother’s and my amazement, my father could correctly identify who owned each property and provide a few details about their operation: number of acres, milking-parlor capacity, etc. He drove with his tan, hairy arm outside the window, and his eyes spent more time sizing up neighboring crop fields than watching the road.
Growing up, I thought every family was just like mine. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t normal for fathers to wake up at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning to work, or fall asleep face down on the kitchen table after lunch.
When I turned seven, I got to have a birthday party at my house—the first one I was allowed. Girls from my kindergarten class, whom at that point I considered to be different-looking replicas of myself, spent the afternoon chasing cats around haylofts and testing the conductivity of sticks and electric fences. The entertainment I could provide was fun and exciting; my party, elite. But cow shit soon curbed my climbing social status. This substance, which I considered to be an unremarkable facet of my existence, sparked controversy at the party. Daughters of teachers and bankers proclaimed their disgust with livestock odors that I wasn’t aware existed, and I shunned my family for not being appalled after I told them what the outsiders had discovered: manure was gross.
Instead of defending my third-generation family farm, I grew to loathe it—a theme that would stick with me for most of my adolescence. During elementary school, I was convinced that there was nothing worse than being made fun of. Kids who lived in “town” made fun of kids who lived on farms, even if the town wasn’t comprised of enough people to warrant a stoplight. It didn’t matter that Jim Jorgenson’s mom shuffled around in pink slippers behind a gas-station counter; he lived within the city limits and was therefore automatically more popular than me.
Somewhere between learning to ride a bike and learning to drive a car, I shifted my animosity from my peers to my parents. I wanted more from them than their unconventional schedules could allow, and contended that their work ethic was affecting my development. I was victimized when they couldn’t attend my junior-varsity volleyball games that were scheduled in the midst of evening milking time, and the family vacations that my friends dreaded held an exaggerated appeal. These were just two of the many topics that I kept in my arsenal for when I wanted to prove to my parents how much their profession oppressed me.
At a young age, I mastered the art of pushing buttons, peppering my angst-y outbursts with complex vocabulary meant to show my family how much more advanced I was than them. In one of these instances, I was pissed off about something I can’t even remember now, and unleashed a rehearsed, condescending diatribe on my dad. Whatever I said, I crossed the line: I blatantly accused him of an occupational failure due to poor decisions or a lack of ambition. My normally unexcitable father became irate.
“I’m a farmer because I chose to be,” he said. “Not because I’m too stupid to do something else!”
The punch in his voice knocked me backwards, and the look on his face was enough to make tears of shame well up in my eyes. I knew he was one of the most intelligent and practical people I would ever know, but it was too late to repent. He continued to scold me with rage, condemning my attitude, my selfishness. He was right, and I knew it. All I could do was crumble and sob, wishing that I could suck my ignorance back into my mouth.
While I was focused on funneling my energy into vitriolic attacks, my younger brother, Matt, started preparing to take over the family business before he was fully potty-trained. When he was four years old, he would arrange the entirety of his miniature machinery fleet—tractors, combines, corn planters, and balers—on our paisley carpet. Each retro design signified a specific crop, and every pattern was respectively plowed, planted, cultivated, and eventually harvested. Over time, his tractors became full size and his make-believe, reality. I reasoned that his decision to join the ranks of my father and grandfather was due to a fear of change, or possibly strangers.
In the fall of 2003, my grandpa was diagnosed with leukemia. I was shuffling through my senior year of college, and Matt was getting ready to move away from home to study agriculture at the University of Wisconsin. He called me one night to talk about my grandfather’s condition. I asked about the results of his most recent blood test.
Matt paused. “Well," he said, "he’ll never farm again.”
My nineteen-year-old brother measured mortality in the amount of time a man had left to farm. That sentence cleared up any doubts I had that his decision to join the farming succession was anything but honorable. It had always been the only thing he ever wanted to do, for all the right reasons.
My grandfather’s cancer turned out to be a misdiagnosis, and at eighty-five he still occasionally putts around the farm on his favorite tractor, the orange International Harvester. My dad recently had to “fire” my grandmother, who refused to stop showing up to feed the calves every day, after she repeatedly ignored his less-than-subtle hints that eighty-two would be a good age to retire from a lifetime of physical work. My brother got married a couple years ago to a cute little farm girl he met in his agriculture program, and my grandparents moved from their house on the farm, the only one my grandfather had ever lived in, to one in “town,” so that the fourth generation could move in, making the passing of the torch official.
It’s probably only fitting that now, from 1,500 miles away, I’m slowly trying to achieve the kind of lifestyle I spent so much energy shunning during my youth. I have a summer gig schlepping produce at the local farmers market just because I want an excuse to be there, and somehow I turned into one of those people who plans on raising urban chickens. The pendulum has swung so far that I’m obsessed with learning homesteading skills that my own mother doesn’t have time or patience for, like sewing, gardening, and canning—I even make my own granola, for Christ’s sake. No longer looking to escape my family’s legacy, my happy ending looks a lot like their reality. I want self-reliance, a little hobby farm out in the country, and to make a living by selling food I nurtured or goods crafted by my own two hands.
A successful farmer’s pride is immeasurable, but almost impossible to detect. Sometimes when I’m back home, I’ll catch my dad out on the deck, his meaty hand wrapped around a Coors Light, silently watching his cattle graze on a hilly green pasture. A steady breeze blows over the rolling fields, flopping up pieces of his silver hair and carrying specks of silage dust off his scarred, tan arm.
[This story first appeared in print in The Ne’er-Do-Well #3: Working-Class Stories.]