I spread my sleeping bag on the floor and crumpled my coat for a pillow. I put the bag where my bed used to be.
The room still smelled the same. Aside from the echo, there was something homey, something warm, the smell of a vanilla candle still lingering in the empty walls. My brother and I were at the now vacant house for the night. It was Thanksgiving, and we wanted to stay somewhere familiar. The land had sold, but the house hadn’t yet, so we would stay the night on the floor in my old bedroom.
Facing me, in the wall, was a small hole about the size of a heel. My brother and I had been fighting about something teenagers fight about and, in a tantrum, my foot connected with the wall. My brother had laughed. I was 16 at the time.
I had forgotten about the hole, hidden by a dresser long ago. As I ran my fingers over it one more time, my brother walked in, shaking his head. He always told me I was too sentimental about this place. It’s just a house, just a farm. They’re just walls. It’s just dirt.
He didn’t believe it either.
I was 22, then, just home from Washington, D.C., where I’d been making good on my promise to get off the farm. My brother was 25, preparing for dental school in Missoula.
We had just weathered our parents’ divorce and the sale of our 1,500-acre farm, an expanse that held our childhood.
There was no way to separate the failures of the farm from my parents’ divorce. For a long time, I blamed the economy, wheat prices, land prices and drought. Then I blamed farming altogether. When my parents asked my brother and me if they should keep the farm after the divorce — in case either of us wanted it — we both said no.
I said so without hesitation.
Visions of my children living the way I did were frequent and vivid. They would hold hands in the grass with their mother making animal shapes from clouds, or they’d curl up in the seat of a dirty tractor going around and around with their father, talking about nothing in particular. They would learn to always help a neighbor, never buy a tool if you can borrow it, and always offer coffee. They would learn how to put in a real day’s work and how to keep themselves entertained with only dirt, a bike and a brother.
Their youth would reinforce the best stereotypes of the West, just as mine did.
Farming was a great way to make a life, but it was a crappy way to make a living, and I had seen how quickly the latter could destroy the former.
Then came Jacob, an artistic, intelligent non-farm small-town boy I met at a track meet in the 6th grade and re-met when we both moved back to Montana.
Early in our relationship, but late enough that I was too in love to run, he walked into our cozy urban home and told me he wanted to farm. I knew all too well that what happened on the farm, happened to the family. I couldn’t bear to think of another piece of ground breaking up a marriage.
When I was little, we farmed the way my Dad grew up, growing things you could eat or sell to the neighbor or the local butcher. It was good for the family and the bottom line.
But somewhere things changed. Farms like ours went from local, social businesses to being part of a global, commodity-based industry. Wheat, then barley. Wheat, then barley. It worked for a while — and well enough that when we could get a new pickup, my parents had bearded stalks of wheat painted on the sides. (My dad still drives that pickup, though the wheat is long worn off.)
But operating costs rose, prices dropped and the land responded to tilling and mono-cropping by giving up a measly six bushels to an acre. What we grew got dumped on a train while we made weekly trips to Great Falls to buy Nebraska beef and cases of Sweetheart bread for our freezer.
Like so many small farmers, we were trying to maintain traditional farm values while competing in the global farming game. It is an impossible combination for most.
Jacob told me things would be different this time, and for about a year I nodded and went along with the plan, waiting for him to come to his senses.
But when he started working a piece of dry land near Big Sandy last summer, I saw the kind of farming that must have made my dad start at 15. I saw a return to listening to the markets around you and the land beneath you — instead of a government agency or a herbicide company.
He’s working with 320 acres — the amount of land granted in Western states in the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 — discovering how to make that size of farm viable again: local food, high-value crops, organics, diversification.
Last summer, Jacob and I had dinner in Fort Benton and asked the waitress where the restaurant got its potatoes.
“A young farmer in Big Sandy,” she said, and Jacob smiled.
I might just paint a potato on the cab of our first pickup.