Home and Shop Companion 0140
Home and Shop Companion 0140

Rural Ramblings – Fall 1983
Ralph C. Miller

We make a low and well deserved bow to Alex Haley for his well documented efforts to trace his “Roots.” He didn’t invent the preoccupation, but he certainly lent it credence and sent thousands scurrying to genealogy records and old family Bibles. My own search goes back perhaps even further than his publishing date and as earliest readers can testify, I was writing about personal roots in 1976.

On the East bank of the Delaware River, there stands a stone farmhouse built in 1733 for that first John Holcomb of Mother’s family to arrive in the New World (1700). As an historical note, in 1777 its owner and occupant was John’s youngest son Uncle Richard, if we dispense with all the great-greats. One General G. Washington rented the strategically located farmhouse twice in that year as headquarters for two campaigns into New Jersey. Richard, it seems, was no more patriotic than many others of his time, despite the glowing accounts we learned in school. There is a document in existence where he wrote to Washington, billing him some excess charges for breakage and for the loss of a couple of teaspoons.

On the other side of the family, I have been unable to document the line beyond 1800, although I am certain from family lore that the Millers were in Pennsylvania long before the Revolution. Roots are both intriguing and important to me – and probably more so as I get older.

I suspect that a great many others find themselves in like case. I should think that it is the pressing onrush of progress (Toffler’s “Future Shock”) that conditions us to reach for the true solidity of our backgrounds.

What led to this current spell of peering over my shoulder was a jaunt we took in late May and early June. 50 years ago on June 1st I graduated from the small high school in Hayward, Wisconsin. This was our class reunion – Golden – it should have been, although it was mostly cold and damp.

I wouldn’t have missed it, but it was a mixed blessing. 20 of us, of the original 50, answered the bell this time. Of the others, more than a dozen were dead, plus some incapacitated. That in itself was a dampening prospect. Of those of us who made it, the years had definitely not left us unmarked. Honorable scars for the most part, although a tendency to linger overlong at the trough was apparent.

I suppose my chief claim to fame was that I had “come out on top” a little more than any of the others. I tried the old saw that “grass doesn’t grow on a busy street,” but they had known me too long and too well and could counter with the presumed density of the pavement.

Weather or not (pun intended) it was a most enjoyable trip, although there were some shocks; not only to us in fact. The graduating class of 1983 (more than three times our original numbers) and looking smartly confident in caps and gowns, seemed a little taken aback when we reminded them that they, too, would someday look much as we did – if they survived.

One of the retiring teachers, who had done his homework, introduced us with some appropriate remarks on the changes run in those intervening years. In 1933, aviation was only six years down the road from Lindbergh’s historic solo flight to Paris. Now the skies are not only filled with daily such flights bearing thousands, but men shuttle regularly into outer space and can look back 15 years to the moon landing.

There was more in a similar vein that was a sobering reflection to one old Rambler. There are almost a frightening number of changes encompassed in the last 50 years and I’m not referring entirely to the nuclear threat either. It would serve little purpose to rehash some of the ills I have often deplored in this column. A gloomy, wasteful, heedless period certainly, but with many bright spots, too.

We started out to talk of roots – when John Holcomb got his farm in Amwell Township in New Jersey – even some hundred years later when Great-Grandfather John Miller started farming in Columbiana County, Ohio – the strength of this country was rooted in the land. In spite of certain evidences to the contrary, I still believe that to be true. Much of the wealth and the bulk of the population may have shifted toward great metropolitan areas, but there is a fine and stable foundation, the source of whose strength is in their close ties with the earth and the soil through farming.

This is no less true of those who are only part-time farmers. In fact, some of these may well be drawing more essence for their soul’s well-being than full-time farmers (often that is their sole reward).

I won’t deny that some Agriculture has recently been in trouble – and in the newspapers, much of that has come to those who blindly follow the concept of agribusiness. Buy, Borrow and Get Big – then Agribusiness finished the motto with: or Get Out! There are a number of ex-farmers out there today who would change that to: AND Get Out!

To coin a phrase, “It ain’t nice to mess with Mother Nature.” If you have treated her fairly and haven’t been greedy, she probably carried you through the shoals; at least you shouldn’t have missed too many meals. I have not seen the figures to prove it, but I suspect a great many of those who lost out on the assembly line or the marketplace found their way back onto the farm or are planning to shortly. When ‘pie in the sky’ fades out, beans on the table smell mighty savory again.

We are supposed to be on the road back, praise be, although to some it may still be a long road. It is to be hoped that we learned some lessons. I propounded on a theory sometime since: I hold that we have not too little, but too much ‘employment.’ Overall, the economy, the nation and individuals would be better off if they worked no more than part-time in a (quote) real job (unquote). If a bigger percentage were at least partially self-sufficient and with a capability of increasing that part, the gap wouldn’t be so wide or so deep when paychecks stop.

Lest some think it wouldn’t be fair for us to raise our own and cut into their market, I also wonder if they wouldn’t be happier in the long run if they didn’t try to feed the world. Many of these same people claim to be losing money on those huge government supported crop yields anyway! $10,000 or even $2,000 over and above a living for one’s family is a lot healthier all around than $50,000 or $100,000 added to the farm debt.

It won’t make me any friends among the implement, tractor and fertilizer people, but I admit I shed no crocodile tears at the published reports that those folks were and are in considerable pocketbook trouble. Nine out of ten of these farmers being foreclosed on could trace their woes to borrowing the equipment, fuel and chemicals. The horse and oats market may be slightly off, too, but not a patch on these diesel guzzling behemoths.

The United States Dept. of Agriculture’s bandaid, the so-called PIK program, might have made some better sense if they had paid those same people to improve the land lying out of production. Trouble was, most of them merely idled the land (not their best acreage either, by all accounts). In the Winter 1978 issue, this column contained a book review on Eugene Poirot’s “Our Margin of Life.”

His proposal and one which I heartily endorse, was for all parity payments, including, one supposes, PIK, to be made as a means for and to stimulate soil restoration. About the plowing under of sweet clover or other green manure crop, he says:

“If you want soil restoration to compete with the production of food and fiber… provide a market which the farmer can turn to when other prices are too low, a market which will buy at a predetermined price, so many tons per acre of a suitable crop which by its growth and yield accomplishes soil and water restoration, and support this market at a price high enough to balance the amount of plant food returned each year to the crop-land of the nation with that used and lost in agricultural production.”

Naturally that makes too much sense to impress Washington.

Going back – looking back – feeling for roots, only reinforces my belief that we need more farms on smaller acreage, watered well with the sweat of the owner, fertilized (as Edmund Morris, a.k.a. Richard Roe wrote) with brains; then and only then will the roots of America spread out and grow strong again. Farms in Europe have been cultivated continuously 1000, 1500 or even 2000 years and still some of them are in better shape than some here in the breadbasket of America after a mere hundred years.

My beloved wife has a well-earned reputation for her green thumb – particularly with house plants. I am always impressed when she takes an obviously sick plant and nurses it back to vibrant health. Too much or too little water, does it need more or less light or a change in temperature? Does it need a leaf-by-leaf detergent bath to rid it of pests? She always knows exactly what to do – and does it – accompanying the TLC with frequent admonitions, “Don’t die on me, baby.”

The most impressive thing, I find, is her instant and accurate diagnosis when a plant is potbound. “Its roots are choked,” she announces confidently, and surely enough repotting is the answer. Give the roots room and the conditions needed and they bloom for her as for no one else. Nor does she hesitate to give them a rest. A little sojourn in a darkened corner or a cold room does wonders. And overfeeding is often worse than too little.

Now I’m not pretending that her methods and skills with houseplants are any panacea for small farmers (except perhaps for the labor intensive personal care concept), but more importantly I see it as allegorical and not confined to small farms.

Agriculture does need occasional TLC from government, broadly speaking, but what is beneficial to one segment is not necessarily helpful in all cases. Individual areas of concern need room to grow – to spread roots and sometimes may thrive on a little benign neglect. What helps the rubber plant may not be best for the African Violet, nor should the larger be allowed to shade the smaller. A world with nothing but aspidistras and rubber plants might require less constant care, but not all of us want to live in hotel lobbies. Don’t fool with Mother Nature!

Well, we did get a long way down a lonesome byway again, didn’t we? To get back to our trip back home: we flew into the Twin Cities – 10,000 Lakes is the proud boast of Minnesota – and from the sky you think you can see about half of them right there. We were met at the airport by my charming, patient and helpful sister-in-law who couldn’t have realized what she was letting herself in for.

We not only imposed on Carol and Brother Dale for a couple of days, when we left we high-handedly appropriated their big fifth wheel travel trailer AND his pickup to pull it. I had aspirations to knock around that whole area for a bit, maybe even drop in on one or two of our correspondents. Alas, this has not been the year to count on clement weather. After one all too brief afternoon of sun, the rains came and stayed as long as we did.

Of course, there are always silver linings. The campground is in some young trees up along the river. I say young trees – they weren’t there when I lived there, but have certainly come on rapidly since. There in the trees that first sunny afternoon, we were greeting by the concerted, not to mention threatening, hum of thousands of hungry mosquitos! When we were in camp, we didn’t linger long outside the trailer, you can believe.

I may have been stretching it a bit when I claimed they rocked the trailer trying to get us, but not too much. The silver lining? Well, all those long days of cold and rain, not one mosquito. Only on the morning when we were hooking up, and the sun broke through did the hordes come back to cheer us on our way.

Possibly a half dozen of the girls of my graduating class married local farmers and are still on the same or nearby farms, but it was a small percentage. There is still some farming mostly to serve the local area, but the bulk of it has given way to forestry and the recreation business. You don’t have to wander very far south, though, to get back into the farm belt for which the Dairy State is justly famous. It isn’t all dairying anymore, either. Beef, sheep, hogs, plus a good diversification of crops for market.

Between the farm belt and the recreation area is a gray area; they’re not all quite ready to give up on farming, while others are into the transition stage. Heading north out of Spooner on the way up, I spotted a beautiful old red barn on the left that had obviously undergone a facelift – new paint, spruced up prosperity was written large on the whole place. On the way back down, I had a look at the other side of the story – “Antiques & Handicrafts” said the sign and it occupied the whole north side of the barn. I admit to a twinge or two, but consoled myself with admiration for the enterprise that could combine the two worlds. Anything to save the barns, the farms and our valuable farm families.

We did make another trip a bit earlier back down in Florida and Puerto Rico, but what I will remember best, for all its brevity, was our expedition in search of more of my personal roots. In memory at least, for a brief moment, we were able to prove that you CAN go home again.

Home and Shop Companion 0140

Home and Shop Companion 0140