New Beginnings: A Posthumous Interview with My Farming Father

by Darrell Petska

DARRELL: Another record snowfall last night! I knew the farmer in you couldn’t resist a look. Are you all settled in up there?

EUGENE: Yes, everything is perfect. I just finished my morning reading. Farm Journal and Farmers Weekly—we get all the farm mags here.

DARRELL: Soon, winter will melt away. I remember how springtime always energized you. Once the pasture grasses reappeared, the March calves began to be born, and the fields dried, you were unstoppable.

EUGENE: Certainly, spring proved the most exciting season, but farm life is grounded in all four. Spring’s hopefulness stretched into summer’s fulfilling labor. Autumn’s reward was the harvest. Winter’s snow and cold offered time to plan and contemplate. Regardless of the season, I woke to the calls of cattle, chickens, and horses. Every night I slept well, tired from honest labor. That succession of days, colored by the seasons and amplified by the years, held me happily in place.

DARRELL: Some might find your description of farm life almost idyllic, but you experienced your share of disappointments, frustrations, and sorrows. 

EUGENE: Farmers don’t make good saints. In winter I froze. Cows miscarried at springtime. In summer, I dripped sweat. Animals sickened and died. Hail storms, drought, or insects damaged my crops. Machines broke or got stuck in snow or mud. Markets fluctuated beyond my control. Nothing idyllic about all that!

DARRELL: As the weather warmed, I remember waking in the morning to find you already out in the fields, as if you couldn’t wait. Many days you worked into darkness. Through all that, you seldom complained. You clearly drew satisfaction from all that hard work.

EUGENE: I enjoyed rising early, eager for that first look out the window. Did it rain overnight? Could I see the barn through the fog? Was the day dawning sunny or cloudy? Our dogs greeted me in the morning, wagged their goodnights come evening. Our milk cow hurried to the barn at my call and stood patiently while I milked her. Cats crowded around, eager for a squirt of fresh milk.

I enjoyed the symmetry of corn planted in long, straight rows, and at harvest the riches of grain filling our bins. And what could smell sweeter than freshly-mown hay? To relax, I walked among my cattle, listening to their gentle voices and watching the young ones gambol through the grass. My animals saw me as a rightful part of their world. 

DARRELL: Some people refer to farming as a career. Does that word adequately describe your farming experience?

EUGENE: I never thought of farming as a career but more a way of life, embellished by four glorious seasons. It’s a qualitative difference, don’t you think?

DARRELL: I guessed that would be your answer. Having farmed more than 60 years, you must have seen that way of life change considerably. How would you compare your life as a young farmer with your experience as you grew older?

EUGENE: Early on, neighborliness ruled, and not surprisingly, because we had neighbors all around. Farms then tended to be smaller. We helped each other and visited back and forth, but tightening markets forced farmers to farm more land and incur more debt. Gradually, many small farmers began selling out, unable to compete with the large corporate farms you see today.

DARRELL: I caught that edge in your voice. Just the words “corporate farm” sound at odds with farming as you approached it.

EUGENE: It all depends on how you define “farm”. I think of corporate farms as factories driven by managers who view the bottom line as all-important. If I couldn’t be my own boss and choose what crops to plant each spring or which livestock to raise, I wouldn’t feel like a farmer—more like someone’s hired hand.

DARRELL: You carried on, long after many of your neighbors sold their land and moved away. What enabled you to outlast so many others?

EUGENE: Quite simply, the seasonal faces of the farm held me in thrall. For like many others, I also bought more land, worked hard, diversified my crops, adopted new approaches—thankfully, our land provided for us. Sometimes, luck played a role. Why should hail wipe out my neighbor’s crop yet leave mine virtually untouched?

DARRELL: Raising a family of five farm kids also had to be hard work. Though you’ve never mentioned this; surely you sacrificed much as we grew into adulthood.

EUGENE: Your mother and I didn’t think in terms of price tags on your heads. Giving you the opportunity to be close to nature, roam freely, and experience the rewards of your efforts—that’s what we wanted to ensure for you children. Who can forget running through the meadow, climbing haystacks, swimming and fishing in the river, petting and feeding the chickens, cattle, horses and dogs?

DARRELL: If you were given another life today, would you farm again?

EUGENE: For a horse to run, it has to have legs—or in this case, money. If I had enough to proceed, the scale of my operation would be likely much reduced. I might contract my farm’s products—whether milk, grain, fruit or vegetables—directly to restaurants, supermarkets, or wholesalers. Diversification, adaptability, niche marketing: those require a new way of thinking.

DARRELL: Could you be happy farming in that manner?

EUGENE: I’d like to think so, as long as I could experience the continuity of seasonal crops and have time to know the animals under my care. I believe this new breed of adaptable, tech-savvy small farmers can flourish alongside corporate farms. Farmers are a tough lot, as you know. I’m pulling for them to build lives for themselves as rewarding as the one I knew.

DARRELL: It’s always great to chat. What’s the rest of your day’s agenda?

EUGENE: Next up, we’re discussing how biochar production systems for soils can mitigate farming’s carbon footprint.

DARRELL: I’m impressed! Who’s “we”? 

EUGENE: This place is full of farmers! You ought to know by now you can take the farmer off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the farmer. Talk later, Son!

photo credit: Federico Respini