Musing on Dad’s mistakes

By Jim Van Der Pol, Kerkhoven, Minnesota — I was raised to farming. Most of my “indoctrination” was carried out by my father. He truly believed that he who could farm certainly would, and that others would just have to be satisfied with a lesser lot in life. When I was a little boy, three or four perhaps, the instructions given for locating me were to “find Jake and look down.” The barn my parents built to replace the one that blew down on our former farm a few miles down my road still bears my three-year old footprints in the concrete.

Dad is gone. So is Mother now, and I have been amazed at how very intimidating it has been to find myself in the predicament of being the oldest, at least in that my generation is the oldest. The idea that I am or ought to be speaking from experience is confusing. How did I get so far so fast? My confusion is worsened by the knowledge that I do not in any sense “know” what my parents knew, even though all of us are, or were, farmers.

Last year, I put up a perimeter fence. I hired a contractor to do the installation, but it was up to me to pull down what was left of the former fence and prepare the site. The former fence was my father’s fence. I have just the faintest recollection of his building it. It was his in more than memory, for the posts spaced one rod apart in a ramrod straight line, and the three strands of barbed wire installed “just so” on the post, spoke of him. Dad was a reserved and quiet man who could not be bothered to wash a car, tidy up the inside of a truck or worry about a tree branch scratching the paint of a tractor. But his posts were straight, and his wires were accurately spaced and tight. The posts were bought new, of the “ranger” U-shaped style and about six feet in length so that, when installed, the wires would be about the proper height to control the herd of Hereford cattle he planned to graze each summer and then feed in the winter. It would not be inaccurate, though perhaps a little risky, to say that I have never felt closer to my father than the week I spent tearing down his fence. I spent the week talking to him. I will leave it up to theologians to decide if he could have heard me or not!

My memory is that later there were bloated cattle laying out in the field that fence surrounded, and from then on I cannot remember any cattle grazing on the farm except the little dairy herd in the continuously grazed, wet pasture. The cows were sold when I was about 14, in favor of purchasing mid-weight cattle each fall that were fed through the winter. The land was put to crops, with just a small planting of alfalfa for hay to start the feedlot cattle on each fall.

But times change, and so do prospects. My feeling is that my father was right the first time. The crops that actually did pay the bills for some farmers for a few years in the ’70s have become a government sponsored, corporate welfare activity, an idea he would have sneered at were he operating a farm today.

If that generation of farmers had not totally bought into the technological revolution that disrupted the biological and economic cycle of their farms in favor of purchased solutions to greatly oversimplified farm production problems, where would our generation of farmers be today?

The idea that cattle could be grazed in summer and grown into readiness for grain finishing could have morphed into a plan to try to finish some of them in late fall with planted annual forage crops. If that had happened, would turnips and rape (and who knows whatever else?) have gotten the same academic attention and increase in average yield that corn has seen over the past 50 years? And what about corn grazing? What would the corn plant look like today? Or the cattle? What improvements might have been made in pasture grasses? Can you imagine a situation where we were not marketing against a common perception that beef is bad for our health? And how about the thought that university research might have been responsive to farmer needs, because farmers had the money?

Hindsight is 20-20. And it is likely that it will be just as easy to critique the grazing movement in 50 years as it now is for me to find fault with the cropping system I see around me. But it is tough to be objective. I look at the black desert that my tan and dusty green pastures are surrounded by each November. Some of that soil will come loose in the winter prairie wind and lodge in my dead grass. And I will make my annual joke about sending the neighbors thank you notes!

Jim Van Der Pol grazes and direct-markets pork, chickens, and beef from his farm near Kerkhoven, Minnesota.