My father and mother bought their farm three years before I was born. A year later, my uncle, who had been farming with my grandfather, was killed in a car accident. Grandpa asked Dad if he wanted to return to his home farm, but Dad declined the offer. He said he had already developed a connection to the land of his new farm.
I can remember driving through southern Minnesota, replaying Grandpa's stories in my head about all of the farms his family lived on during the Great Depression: the Trout Valley farm, the Money Creek farm, the farm with the round barn. Grandpa was connected to the land on all of those farms.
In one of my favorite college classes, The Land in the American Experience, we spent an entire semester examining, among other things, this idea of connection to the land. As a farm kid, stocked with memories of my own upbringing on the land - memories of traipsing through the forests, herding cattle in the pastures, bouncing in a tractor seat over the hayfields - a quote from one of the class's required readings rang true. "The land clings in your blood." (Light in the Crossing, Kent Meyers)
Another farmer and I were recently discussing the plans Glen and I have for the future of our farm. He wanted to know if we had plans to modernize or expand or pass the farm along to the next generation when the time came. I explained that we regularly discuss our dreams for our farm, but we can't make any plans until we have land security. We own 20 acres and rent all of our cropland and pasture. We can't modernize or expand unless we own land and I don't know when, or if, that will ever happen.
"Why don't you look for a new farm, one with land?" the farmer asked me. I swallowed hard. Even though finding a new farm makes sense from a business perspective, the idea seems almost incomprehensible from an emotional perspective. I love our farm, I love this land - the rolling hills, the pasture, the ponds. Farmers send the roots of their souls down into the ground they farm, and I have sent the roots of my soul down into this ground.
Apparently, so, too, has my son.
The kids and I were driving home from town last week. As always, Dan had his head pressed against the window, watching the fields zip by. As we slowed down to turn the corner onto our road, Dan sat up straight and yelled, "Hey, who is that driving on our land?"
I swallowed hard again before starting the explanation I had been avoiding as long as possible.
"Remember, that's not our land, Dan. We just rented it. And we won't be renting it this year. Our neighbors will be farming it," I said as gently as I could.
We have discussed the difference between renting and owning land before, but I've never been sure that Dan has fully understood what that means.
"But that's our land!" he insisted.
As I tried to explain it another way, tears started streaming down Dan's face and all he could say was, "I don't understand. That's our land."
What Dan understood is that for as long as he can remember, his family has farmed that land, cared for that land as if it was their own. Even at 8 years old, he understands the role that land played in supporting our farm and our family; that we have nurtured the soil and the crops; those crops, in turn, have fed our cattle, who have, in turn, provided for our family.
Even more than the land's importance to our farm, the land means something to Dan. This is the land he learned to run on, while running alongside the four-wheeler as we took the long way home. This is the land where he chased butterflies with his mom and learned to trap gophers with his dad. This is the land he has spent countless hours watching out the tractor window. He has sent the roots of his soul down into this ground. Those roots might not be a decades-old tap root yet, but he is connected to the land.
As I wrapped Dan up in a hug and wiped the tears away from his face, my heart sank. Farming is never just business. The animals, the land, they become part of who we are, entwined in the very moral fiber of our being.
But sometimes you have to do what's best for the business, even though it hurts like hell inside. Sometimes you have to sell your favorite cow. Sometimes you have to set a limit on what you can pay for land rent and risk not securing a rental agreement.
Glen and I did the math carefully; with what we paid for land rent the past three years, and with where markets are this year, we can buy hay and corn cheaper than we could grow it. And with current milk prices, we can't afford to pay more for feed than we need to. We figured out what we could pay for land rent while still growing feed affordably, and that's what we offered.
Maybe we'll have an opportunity to farm this land again in the future. Maybe we won't. Regardless, this land will always be special to us, to Dan. We will always be connected to this ground that has grown our farm for the past eight years. Once you put roots down into the land, a bond remains forever.