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The Family Farm, Version 2.0

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.

–courtney@newwest.net

For more from the Spring 2008 issue of The New West magazine, and for information on how to subscribe for free visit www.newwest.net/magazine.

About Courtney Lowery

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22 comments

  1. Really great piece Courtney…Thanks for sharing.

  2. Well, I’ve been trying to tell him …

  3. I see where your work ethic comes from. How do I get into farming but avoid the backbreaking toil and the uncertainty?

  4. Jedediah Redman

    If you went into greater detail; and developed the ideas a little more fully, I’d probably buy the book…

  5. Beautiful piece.
    I agree with Jedediah.

  6. great article-it accurately captures what has happened to farming over the past couple of decades and what it’s like to be raised on one. i grew up on a large farm in minnesota where the main crops were corn, soybeans and alfalfa (for the horses). most of the farms there have now been reduced to cogs in an international commodity machine as well. going organic and the “slowfood” movement is helping to reverse some of this, so godspeed jake. you should really consider direct marketing your product like the second post says, you’ll realize a much higher profit as this is just the type of niche market that works well being internet marketed. by the way, i tried calling and your old cellphone number doesn’t work anymore. hi courtney-we haven’t met yet, but you’re one hell of a writer-jake’s lucky!

  7. Brodie Farquhar

    Courtney,
    I’m so hopeful and so frightened for you and Jake. I was newspapering in northern Colorado in the mid-80s, saw sugar beets rot in the fields and many family farms fall under the auctioneer’s hammer.
    We’re entering a time of tremendous upheaval and transition, as I fear we’ll never see cheap oil or food again. Hopefully, going local and organic will work for you and the rest of the country.
    Although I don’t have a farm, I hope to build a small greenhouse and convert the backyard into a garden. You two may well discover that what was old is new.
    Best of luck.

  8. Courtney, this ranks up with your fire story as exceptional. We need more of your work.

    Having a PO Box in both Missoula and big Sandy will make you bi-postal like all the other jet setters.

  9. Bill O'Connell

    It’s the New West, indeed, and I think we’ve barely scratched the changes coming down the pike.

    I grew up not too far north of you, Courtney, and I thought six bushel yields only happened in Kevin! Well actually my wrecks tended to be fifteen bushel give or take, which doesn’t fit the industrialized model any better.
    But through luck or lunacy we stumbled into a similarly homestead-sized parcel in the Bozone, so I guess we’ll see if selling crops from organic rotations sans middlemen works better. Mixed with biofuels and bookings and buffalo it just might.

    Congrats, Courtney. Or condolences, or something, but no, I think these things happen for a reason. At least you won’t be short of material!

  10. Your writing is poetry.

  11. Neva Hassanein

    Thank you, Courtney. Beautiful piece. You and Jacob give me hope for the rural west.

  12. Your writing is incredible! Thanks! (I too would buy the book.)Speaking of your fire piece mentioned above, I wondered what happened to your family cabin? I so hope it made it…

    Look forward to reading more of your work!!

  13. Courntey:

    nice piece. I think things are changing and you two might be able to make a go of it without becoming slaves to the corporations. My undergrad was in Environmental Hort. and we heard a succession of folks come in and tell their stories, similar to yours. In fact, I’ve heard their stories in three states now. If your work with the land is like your work with words, you two will be fine.

    Keep up the good work.

  14. Beautiful writing Courtney. Keep it up.

  15. Courtney Lowery

    Thanks all of you for your kind words and support. It means a tremendous amount when something this personal resonates with so many people.

    We’ll keep you posted on the potatoes.

  16. Good stuff, Courtney.

  17. Courtney,
    Your article was fantastic. Your writing is wonderful. And I don’t say this because I am Jacob’s mother. Our families have an exciting adventure ahead of them. Keep the stories coming. I too see a book in your future. Marty Cowgill

  18. Great writing as I have come to expect from you. Can’t wait for the book!! All good wishes to you and Jacob. Beda

  19. Alexandra Fuller

    Thank you, Courtney. A beautiful, thoughtful piece.

  20. Brittany Michel

    Courtney,

    I didn’t think anyone else could quite understand what if felt like to have the family farm sold and with it all your childhood memories. It was never just a farm to me either. Thank you for sharing those words. Also, congrats on the wedding. I wish you the very best.

  21. Thanks, Courtney, I really enjoyed reading this. Good luck!

  22. Courtney,
    As always, this piece is beautiful. I’m missing the West, and you make me miss it more. Thank you.
    I hope you and Jacob are well.
    Jessica