Current Issue

Father’s life as a farmer

McReynolds family in 1954

The McReynolds family--pictured in 1954--made a go at farming but eventually moved back to town. Photo courtesy of Douglas McReynolds

My father was not a farmer. I’m not sure he even wanted to be one—whether he bought the farm east of Manhattan, Kansas, simply to prove a point to his own father, or perhaps to provide my older brother and me with a private fairyland for acting out the adventures missing from his own childhood.

Surely he never thought he could make those 80 acres of rocky pasture and wooded creek beds pay, and it is too late to ask him now.

It isn’t that he did not make a heroic attempt at farming, only that his various schemes and projects tended not to work out, or he lost interest in them.

It was great fun for us children, for example, to have 500-odd baby chicks to play with in the living room one January because the brooder house had not been made ready for them when they arrived from the hatchery.

Mother was a bit more edgy than usual during that week, though. She didn’t seem to care much for the egg business that Father set her up in, either.

When the egg business didn’t work out, he decided maybe dressed chickens were the thing, but they weren’t. It is true enough that trying to catch and kill the birds involved the whole family, but never in a particularly constructive way. Shooting them didn’t work because even a .22 slug does serious damage to the meat, while birdshot would barely penetrate the outer feathers and served only to rile them up. Chopping heads was entirely too gory for anyone’s taste, and eventually we just kind of called a truce and left the chickens to fend for themselves. There may be outlaw bands of feral roosters terrorizing Potawatomi County yet today.

The cattle feeding business was, if anything, even less successful than the chicken enterprises. Our thin pastures didn’t produce much hay, and such tillable acreage as we did own was completely unsuited to corn. Anyway, the family dogs were so fond of herding cattle that the poor beasts never got the chance to laze around and fatten up. It was with something like bitter pride that, long later, Father made me a present of his income tax statement for that year, itemizing the loss accrued on each marketed steer.

One spring he decided that at least we could grow all of our own produce, and we did. I don’t remember how long bean-canning season lasted—probably I have repressed the memory—but I do recall that when we finally sold the farm, the basement shelves were still lined with row upon interminable row of glass jars full of green beans.

Father had decided shortly after we moved to the country that a 10-inch table saw would be of assistance in any number of farm-related projects, and so he had bought one. “A man could build a house with one of these things,” I remember him saying. Doubtless it was a handsome piece of machinery, and it cut excellent points into the wood lathe swords my brother and I fought the Dietrich brothers with, but I can’t recall its ever being used for anything more complicated than that.

After five years even my father had had enough. He took a teaching job in another part of the state, and we moved back to town.

Some 20 years later, I drove past the place late one night, really just to see whether I could find it. The farm didn’t look any more prosperous than it had been in my childhood, and the house itself was plainly deserted. But now, the land has been given over to upscale townhouses with a rural, rustic flavor.

Douglas McReynolds (PhD English ’77) teaches literature and creative writing at Upper Iowa University.

Comments are closed.