Roots and Wings
Roots and Wings

Roots and Wings

by the family of Hugo ‘SJongers of Agonges, France

One day in May, I got a call from my father. As a big fan of the Small Farmer’s Journal, he asked me to renew the subscription via internet (technology is not yet his thing). He took the opportunity to tell me that he would like to write an article for the Journal, as he previously did (see photo essay, Volume 40, Number 1), but that the work on the farm limits his time. With my brothers and sisters, we had the idea for his 60th birthday to give him this surprise: to share with you our story and our most beautiful memories we had during our childhood on the farm.

We are a family of eight children. Together with our parents, we have a warm family life. They were farmers since 1981 but our father questioned himself a lot and realized that we were destroying the Earth with the use of chemicals and air pollution from engines. In 1988, he bought his first Ardennes workhorse: Olga. The farm was too big and the cattle were too important to do everything on horseback. So they bought a new, smaller farm and in October 1989, our father gave up tractors for good when his second horse, Fanny, arrived.

« He bought machines for his horses from retired farmers. Retired farmers who started to shine when they heard and saw how determined that young guy of 30 was and to give him carefully set aside tools for a new life. And, they already knew that when you walk behind a plough pulled by a couple of horses, you taste and smell so much more of the ground. Thanks to our father’s dedication and perseverance, he managed to have a well-run and well-kept farm. In these circumstances I also got the love for small-scale farming and working the land with horses. It still gives me a warm and grateful feeling that I was a part of this. That I too was able to taste and smell the soil in front of my feet while ploughing with a three-ring spanner. » (Corneel)

« He has always been, and still is today, in search of perfection regarding his crops and this implies not only the search for new farming techniques but also the modification or design of equipment. Our father is a man of the field, I always have this image where he goes to the beet field in the morning, a straw hat on his head, a hoe on his shoulder and a bottle of water in his hand, we knew he would not come back until evening. » (Johan)

Roots and Wings

From maintaining a large vegetable garden to bringing in the hay and harvesting the other crops each contributed in their own way to ensure that there is a meal on the table three times a day and that the wood burning stove keeps us warm during the winter months. With twenty cows, fattening the young cattle and selling potatoes and cheeses, our parents made sure that we were not short of anything. But we can say that our farm was a lot different from the others and so was our lifestyle. It needed a lot of handwork, teamwork and independence.

« I have to admit that it was not always easy as a kid, my childhood was far from a “normal” one. I call it today a “special” one. My free time was limited, my little hands were needed for working the land, to cook, to feed the animals… we really did everything that was needed to be done for the well being of the farm and the family. These challenges in my childhood shows that our parents trusted us, and that is a great gift. Having seven siblings was one as well, such as having mummy always there for a good meal after a big day of harvest or daddy telling great stories or singing farming songs while working sometimes until 11pm. I didn’t realize it then, all the useful things I’ve learned were preparing me for the rest of my life. It was a simple, sometimes challenging, life but it taught me so much of working hard, appreciating what you have and loving your family. » (Astrid)

We are very proud of him for his courage in maintaining this agricultural practice in this industrial society. We feel lucky to have been able to grow up in such an environment, where we were taught to respect the people and the nature around us, to respect the instructions of nature.

« When I tell people about my youth, what I mostly feel is pride. I am proud of what I learned, and I am glad of the environment our parents gave us. Now I can say I am happy that I learned to work hard and that I discovered the satisfaction of it, the healing of it. I am happy that I learned about real contact with the whole being. I am happy that I can see the beauty in small daily things. And I am so happy that I can bring over to my own children all I learned through the way of education of my parents. » (Alice)

We are grateful for this education and the choices they made. Thanks to this, we learned many things from planting potatoes to maintaining horse harness.

« When I started working for other farmers, I felt that everything I had learned at home didn’t count as it was very different from what I knew, but I soon discovered that it was very important and gave me a solid foundation on which to build more. When I was four years old and my two older brothers could go to school, I was unhappy because I was not allowed to go yet. Our father thought of taking me to the morning milking to teach me to milk by hand. I remember very well what the Stiner cow looked like. Today, 30 years later, I’m still milking and it’s one of the things I like to do the most. » (Cecile)

Roots and Wings

They also taught us about the great satisfaction after a job well done. Our neighbors always finished the hay long before us. In one day, they had harvested all the wheat whereas at home it took us 2 weeks for the same number of hectares. But we didn’t mind, because we had a greater satisfaction from the work done.

« This value that they passed on to us: the happy satisfaction of the reward for the work accomplished, I apply it today. Working in the garden gives me good vegetables, cutting wood allows me to have a warm house in winter… Self-sufficiency seems now essential for me! » (Klara)

The summer period was a very friendly time for our family. Many of us keep good memories:

« My best memory is the hay time … loading the hay wagons until the deep night, hurrying before the storm that shows its black clouds in the horizon, and when the hay was dry, enjoying the refreshing wind and rain! » (Lisa)

« One summer day, in the evening, after having milked and fed cows by hand, we go to load grain sheaves, my parents, me, my brother and two sisters. The sun is still well above the horizon. Next to the distant roar of a tractor somewhere in the countryside, I hear the grasshoppers, the crickets, the swallows flying on the swarm that hangs around the horse-drawn carriage, the chatter of the swings against the wagon knives and the crackling of the grain stubble under the wagon wheels and the horse’s hooves. Together with my father, I raise the sheaves, each one side of the wagon. My mother and my brother stack them, and my sisters make a corridor between the sheaves on the land. The cows graze in an adjacent meadow, look up when we pass by and graze undisturbed again. Birds sing. Meanwhile the first wagon is fully loaded. The sun is approaching the horizon, and the sky turns red in the West. The pack stands in front of the second wagon. Every now and then something is said or my father points out the beauty of the setting sun. After dusk comes the fresh air of the night that does us all good. There is singing by my father. We sing along a bit. The second carriage is full and with a satisfactory feeling of accomplished work I walk behind the carriage to the yard. » (Corneel)

All these memories will stay with us forever and make us who we are today.

« I currently work and live in a big city. When I have a few days off, I rush home to help my parents pick hay or cherries. This farm gives me a sense of well-being that I can’t find anywhere else. Even though I grew up on this farm, I am still fascinated by the beauty and how our father manages this, all alone today … This year, he bought six new young horses. They are already in line and already know how to work properly. In my eyes, his strength and intelligence is unique. I enjoy listening to his stories and the knowledge he likes to share with us. I love when he sings with all his strength at nightfall, the songs he created during the springtime. I even accompanied him with a melody on the piano for one song he made about the environment and the protection of nature. His convictions have brought him to where he is today and this is a value that he has been able to pass on. » (Dorine)

Roots and Wings

To conclude, we see our education as a global present; an environment which was presented to us and in which we could take along what we would need in further life. And I admire how both our parents managed this way of working in our society. I hope they both can be and will stay happy with the choices they make!

Happy Birthday Father…

Corneel (38), Johan (36), Cecile (34), Alice (32), Astrid (29), Lisa (29), Klara (29) and Dorine (24). We also thank our mother, Simonne (63), for always being there for us. She also contributed to this article.