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My Father’s Farm

For fifty years the Old Man lived at one with the land, as had his father and his father’s father. It was a way of life we won’t see again.

farm, My Father's Farm

An unidentified field worker bends down to use a short-handled hoe to till land on a farm, Arizona, 1970s.

Cathy Murphy/Getty

Except for the four and a half years spent in the Army, his day began the same way every day for 50 years. He awoke before dawn, pulled on overalls that smelled of the barn, hitched a cap over his dark hair to protect it from the cows’ free-swinging tails, then gathered the milk strainer and one of the pails my mother had washed the night before. In summer he went first to the night pasture to call the cows. C’mon, Bossy! C’mon, Bossy! In the morning silence his voice was loud but patient. The cows understood and ambled home.

In winter, when the cold kept the cows in the barn, he groped in the darkness for the light switch, then went right to work, perched on a handmade stool, swishing milk into his pail. He emptied it into the strainer, a large stainless-steel bowl with a filter in the bottom that he positioned over the mouth of the milk cans. Our cats, always hungry, would leap onto an adjacent can, stretch to reach the strainer and lap the foam, a modest reward for keeping the barn free of mice and rats.

When our knees grew strong enough to grasp and hold a pail, he taught us how to sit under a cow and persuade her to give up her milk, training us on the gentler ones that did not kick. Eventually there were six of us kids and he had all the help he needed, though he always milked more cows and filled his pail faster than any of us.

Even today the Old Man probably could outdo his kids, not only in prowess but endurance as well. His body is still firm, his back straight, shoulders strong, movements filled with vigor. His hair has retained most of its color and his face, a weathered brown except where the cap shaded his forehead, has an undefeated look that comes from keeping faith with the land, living off it on its terms. My father worked his land, sometimes cajoling and cursing it, but he never abused it.

He spent long days in the summer sun, well-worn hoe in hand, chopping at irrepressible ragweeds and thistles, preferring this endless task to the modern alternative of driving a tractor, encased in a plexiglass cab to avoid breathing the fumes of chemicals spewing out behind. I remember in the Fifties when DDT and the other herbicides and pesticides became popular in Michigan. Millions of gallons were sprayed over the land in thick, choking clouds. Our farm was a half-hour’s drive from Dow Chemical Corporation’s world headquarters in Midland, and most farmers could not have been more pleased that Dow’s warehouses were overflowing with DDT and its chemical companions.

But a few farmers, my father among them, disdained the synthetic remedies.

For a long time we kids tried to change his mind. Hoeing was the most tedious and unrequiting of all farm jobs and we could not fathom why the Old Man rejected a more efficient substitute. There came a day when we questioned him about his logic. It was not a confrontation; he did not allow any. But it could be described as a meeting of the generations: the kids sermonizing about the merits of technology and the Old Man listening tolerantly as we sat around the noon meal of roast pork, sauerkraut, corn on the cob and mashed potatoes.

Howard Kohn, who usually writes about crime and politics, hopes to retire on a farm someday. He was as thrifty and careful with his words as he was with money, and he talked as if he were counting them. But when he interrupted, he punctured our spiel.

You shouldn’t believe everything Dow says, he told us. Just because they say so, that don’t mean it’s gonna work. You watch and after a while you’ll see that the weeds’ll get so they like the stuff. Then you’ll have the same thing they had with that rat poison.

The poison had been advertised as tasting so sweet no rat could resist it. But some rats survived it and developed an immunity. They feasted on it and squealed for more. When cats caught and ate these superrats, however, they died because they were not immune to the poison. Soon the corn cribs and barns, with no cats to defend them, were overrun by rodents with technology’s finest toxin in their bellies.

The Old Man figured herbicides and pesticides would bring a similar legacy. He was no scientist; he had dropped out of school after the eighth grade to work on the farm. But he knew nature. The weeds would mutate and endure, he predicted, and the chemicals would remain in the ground until they were siphoned up into next spring’s grass and alfalfa. Then the cows would eat the poison and pass it along to people who drank their milk.

He was right, though not even scientists knew it then. We accepted the Old Man’s explanation only because we had to and, after sharpening our hoes, we trudged reluctantly back to the rows of corn and white beans. Corn was grown for the cows and pigs, but white beans, along with wheat, was a cash crop. Bay County, which includes the Kohn farm, is part of a five-county complex in central Michigan that produces 92 percent of the country’s white beans, the oblong staple for pork and beans.

At day’s end the fields lay green and serene in the fading sunlight, looking little different for all the sweat bequeathed them. But when frost bit the vines in late summer, withering the bean plants and turning the pods a buttery brown, the results showed up with startling clarity. Each weed we’d missed was dark and bristling against the delicate color of the beans.

Once, on a Sunday afternoon in early September, my father piled the family into the car and took us on a tour of the county. The bean fields were only a few days from harvest, and the patterns of green and brown made the Old Man smile. In many of the fields entrusted to chemical cultivation the weeds had prospered in overwhelming numbers, strangling the crop and obscuring the rows. By comparison, his fields were orderly and vibrant as if touched by some secret beneficence.

The next day we were back in the fields, pulling up the surviving weeds before they spread their seeds on the winds. The Old Man never wavered in his distrust of chemicals, not even when beetles invaded the bean fields in the early Sixties and devoured his profits. In the end his way yielded more bushels per acre than the modern methods and DDT never contaminated the milk on our table.

His way, the old way, however, has just about disappeared. Almost all old-fashioned plow-and-hammer farmers have either left the land or reconciled themselves to the new times. Farms today are big business — agribusiness. More land than ever is being farmed, but by fewer farmers, and the owners are increasingly corporations and conglomerate farmers who do not live on the land or love it. In 1935, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in every four Americans lived on a farm. Today fewer than one in 25 do, an irreversible trend that surely will alter the national personality. Millions of young people born on farms in the past quarter-century went away to cities for school or jobs, and now we come home only for visits.

But today’s exodus is swollen by older men, men like my father, forced out by changing economics. In 1976 the farm population dropped by six percent, down to 8.35 million, the highest annual rate in a decade. But what is happening to these farmers cannot be told by ciphers and graphs. Like aging horses put out to pasture, they are made to wait out their days in idleness.

For several years the Old Man resisted joining them.

Heinrich Kohn, my great-grandfather, was the first of our family to emigrate. He arrived in Michigan about 1877 from Germany, a journey he chose over a foot soldier’s fate in the Prussian army. He settled in Beaver Township, a six-square-mile section at the western edge of Bay County, one day by horseback from the harbor in Saginaw Bay. There he homesteaded 80 acres, devoting his life to clearing trees and brush and exhuming stumps to make way for the plow. In 1904 John Kohn, my grandfather, moved a mile north and did the same.

Grandpa’s homestead had 80 acres fronting on Carter Road, a quarter-mile wide and a half-mile deep, plus a back 40 attached to form an “L” and give access to Siedler Road. My father was born there in 1916. He was named Frederick, and his childhood, like his father’s, was a matter of dawn-to-dusk endeavor. Grandpa earned only about $500 a year during the Great Depression and lost $1300 of his savings when his bank collapsed. But the family wasn’t otherwise affected; they ate what they grew and never went hungry.

The Old Man’s way: 1939 (above) and 1969 World War II was the first real intrusion. My father enlisted in 1941 and was shipped to northern Africa and Sicily, the first time he’d been further than 30 miles from home. The girl he left behind was Clara Buchhage, whose grandparents also had emigrated from Germany and who had grown up on another small farm nearby. During the war she took a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office and saved every dollar she could, as my father did with his Army checks. With V-E Day came a reunion and they married on New Year’s Day 1946 in symbolic tribute to the grace that allowed them their start after so much war and waiting.

Then, with their savings, they bought Grandpa’s farm. The back 40 rolled and dipped and was bordered on one side by a creek where the cows drank. Nearly half of it was still a woods festooned with ash, elm, maple, poplar and oak that gave shade to the cows. The front 80 was flat with fence posts rising up gracefully to form right-angle geometry and fields of ten acres each where corn, beans, wheat, oats, alfalfa, barley, soybeans and the night pasture were rotated.

Down the center ran the lane, 20 feet wide and fenced in on each side, for the cows to travel twice a day. At the far end of the lane was a bridge of stone and mortar that crossed the creek at a deep spot. When summer reduced the creek to puddles, the cows gathered here, soaking their legs in the mud, chasing flies with their tails and rubbing against an ancient maple that towered over the scene.

The barn, built from trees that had surrendered to Grandpa’s crosscut, stood at the other end of the lane, a mammoth, unpainted structure with a huge hay mow, separate stables for horses and cows, a granary and a threshing floor. It dwarfed the house, which was nonetheless roomy and comfortable, with red brick outside and flowered wallpaper inside. Lined up in front of the house, like a palace guard, were four giant trees that bent low during thunderstorms and threatened to crush the roof. My mother used them as clothesline poles.

My father and mother took the big bedroom upstairs, and Grandpa and Grandma moved into the big one downstairs. The others filled up quickly over the next ten years. I came first, in 1947, then Ronald, Harvey, Sandra, Roy and Dale. In this undertaking my parents were doing what farm families have always done — providing as many extra helpers as possible for the chores and increasing the odds that at least one of the next generation would carry on the family tradition.

My father believed totally in work, because it was the only way to balance out the caprice of nature, and since he knew nothing else. I remember being three or four and trundling after him in the barn, helping fork straw as bedding for the cows. But my formal introduction to farm work came the first day of summer vacation after my first year of school. I had been looking forward to resuming my carefree preschool games with Ronald and Harvey and I ran elatedly that morning to our toys in the backyard sand pile. I was building a sand barn when my father called me to the toolshed where the hoes were kept.

You’re a big boy now, he said warmly. It’s time you learned how to hoe.

That turned into an annual announcement until there were ten of us in the fields marching in stooped cadence. The women — Sandra, my mother and Grandma — did their share of the field work as well as all the housework, which included washing the dishes in a tin basin on the table because there was no sink. In the evenings the men were recruited to shell peas and pick berries.

Except for the prewar wiring of the barn for electricity, the Kohn farm had not changed much in nearly half a century. So certain improvements were necessary. When each of us was born, my father added another modern convenience to the house: a refrigerator with me, then indoor plumbing to replace the outhouse, a new stove (half wood and half gas), a washing machine, a formica kitchen table and a gas heater for the living room. The gas heater was especially welcome because there was no central heating and the rooms away from the kitchen radiated cold in the winter as if the walls were ice. But he vetoed a TV, which he felt contributed to laziness, and a phone, because we were seldom in the house to answer it.

My father’s philosophy was not to embrace change for its own sake. He was not motivated in this by nostalgia or by a fear that modern advances might surpass his understanding. But thinking for yourself, he felt, started with doing for yourself. Feeling the soil under your feet taught you where it was sandy and needed more manure so it wouldn’t blow away. All the diesel tractors in the world couldn’t grow you a crop once the topsoil was gone.

He proceeded cautiously with the innovations of technology. If something works, he’d say, why throw it away? So my earliest memories are of a farm that time had passed by.

Colonel and Fanny, a pair of sturdy, short-haired grays, pulled a two-bottom plow to the directions of “gee” and “haw” (right and left). Polly and Jessie, sorrels with flaxen tails, were smaller, more fanciful and pulled the lighter implements like the side-delivery rake.

In June, after the alfalfa was mowed and dried, we used the rake to funnel the hay into rows for loading onto a wagon. The loads were divided into four layers with rope-and-wood slings. When closed, each sling formed a bundle that we hooked to a pulley system in the barn. Hoisted in the air, the bundles looked like oversize umbrellas as we swung them into place in the mow. In winter we pitched the hay down to the cows and horses.

We cut the grain and corn while still partially green, then stood the sheaves on end in shocks to finish ripening at a pace slow enough to accommodate us and the thresher and corn shredder. Sometimes the shocks decorated the fields for weeks.

Wheat and the other grains were harvested in the torrid days of July and August and, when ready, were brought to the barn where the thresher had been moved into place. The sheaves had to be fed between spinning rollers in the thresher’s maw, at peril to hands and arms, to separate the kernels from the chaff. The straw that blew out the rear went into a pile for the cows and horses.

With corn we hoped for the bright skies of Indian summer to last through October and we often had to race the first snows of winter before we were done. The shredder rattled and shook like the thresher and was also equipped with spinning rollers, except these peeled husks from the cobs. The corn stalks and husks went for fodder and the cobs were shoveled into the granary.

Both threshing and shredding were community affairs, and as farms grew bigger neighbors had less time to share. The thresher retired first, in 1951, along with the weary Polly and Jessie. The thresher had been built before the time of frictionless bearings and, despite countless latherings of grease, it began to balk and turn unmanageable. In its place my father brought home a gleaming red Ferguson combine with dragon teeth and a long belly that cut and threshed the grain where it stood in the field.

In 1956 he added a Ferguson hay baler, though he kept the slings and pulleys and we rode the bales up into the mow like we had the unbaled hay.

In 1957, when I was ten, Colonel and Fanny departed after nearly 20 years of service. I remember it as a bleak, drizzling day in the fall, and I remember Grandma crying softly as the slaughterhouse truck drove away. The horse stable seemed eerie that night and the wind whinnied in ghostly reminiscence. After that, my father converted it into a home for our bull, who previously had shared quarters with the cows, and storage for straw, which we now baled.

In 1959 a red Ferguson corn picker arrived and a junk dealer took away the corn shredder.

We kids gazed at the new machines in worshipful awe and calculated the hours they were going to save. But our exuberance didn’t last. Machines created their own work, we learned, and broke down more often than horses.

Our combine conveyed the grain or beans into burlap bags, rather than into the convenient hoppers of later models, and one of us had to stand next to the bags, shrouded in heat and noise, swallowing dust as we tied them shut with rope. The bags were then heaved onto a wagon, driven to the granary and brought back for more.

We had to hurry because combining succeeded only when the kernels were ripe on the stalk and had to be finished before they popped to the ground. When a stone mangled the combine’s insides or a gear snapped from too much strain, the harvest was jeopardized. Since the Ferguson dealer was 90 minutes away, over bumpy gravel roads, my father often improvised, fashioning new parts with anvil and ball peen hammer in the blacksmith’s shop where he once shod horses. For the combine’s sake we picked the fields clean of stones, tossing each round discovery onto a flat wooden barge, then hauling the pile to the creek to shore up the bridge embankment which the cows had eroded.

Aside from the new machinery, the Kohn farm preserved its ancestry. Instead of replacing the manure spreader, hay mower, rake, disk, spike-tooth drag, wagons and the other horse-drawn implements, my father remodeled them, removing the wooden stays and leather grips and installing long metal tongues that could be bolted to the back of a tractor. He continued to use a scythe for trimming the undergrowth next to the barn and sheds, sharpening it to the song of a whetstone as the Macedonians and Babylonians had done.

We shelled corn by shoving the ears down the chute of a wooden contraption and turning a crank attached to a metal flywheel that stripped off the kernels. Each winter Saturday we gathered on the old threshing floor, where the winds blew razor-sharp through openings in the walls, and mixed corn and oats in a primitive, grinder as feed for the cows and pigs cooped up in their stalls.

In spring and fall we butchered the pride of the pigpen. Grandpa led the protesting pig into the backyard, yanking it along on a rope tied to a rear leg. My father stunned it with a sledgehammer blow, then quickly sliced the jugular, scrupulously avoiding the windpipe which, if severed, caused hysterical inhalations and a wild bloody spray. Performed correctly, the surgery produced a red stream that my mother caught in a large crock, stirring it as she squatted next to the dying pig to keep the blood from coagulating. Combined with minced meat scraps, the steamy liquid made a spicy sausage.

We carried the pig to the butchering house, slid it into a huge rusty tub of boiling water, then stretched it out on a platform laid over a pair of sawhorses. We used cone-shaped, dull-edged scrapers to remove the hair the hot water loosened. When it was sleek as ivory, we slipped hooks behind its leg tendons, latched it head down from a high beam and opened it up. Almost nothing went to waste. Even the intestines were washed out, the fatty tissue sliced away and the straightened tubing used for sausage casings.

Undoubtedly it would have been simpler to buy casings. But some long-ago farmer had perfected this method, holding the knife so it didn’t pierce the intestines as he cleaned them. There was nothing wondrous or aesthetic about this; its value was entirely practical. That was why it had endured, and that was precisely my father’s point. If I don’t show you, he told us quietly, then you’re not going to know how. And then you’re going to have kids who don’t know how. Sure, maybe you’ll be smart in lots of other ways. But being smart doesn’t mean you know how to do anything.

So he did things as Grandpa had taught him and we learned by observing and following. He remained resolute as a callus in resisting the temptation of chemicals and work-saving devices like fancy chrome milking machines. He figured he was helping us a lot more by putting us under a cow with a pail between our knees.

The cows were Holsteins, their faces and backs splotched with white and black, their eyes the midnight blue of pansy blossoms. They were bulky and large boned, heftier than other dairy breeds, built to withstand winter’s austerity. Each afternoon, just before supper, there was a ceremonial ushering of the cows home from the back 40. Their daily journeys cut grooves in the lane, unhurried, meandering paths that expressed their stoic personalities.

Usually there were 16 full-grown cows heavy with milk, plus four heifers and four calves skittering through the crowd waiting for the time they’d replace their mothers. In the barn the cows lined up from two sides in individual stanchions — like schoolkids, they learned to take designated spots — and they fed facing each other from a long wooden manger.

In winter they stayed inside except for brief ventures to a crumbling cement trough for water. That meant having to clean the manure trenches every day, placing sodden forkfuls on a wheelbarrow, piloting it up a plank and dumping it in the manure spreader, then taking the load to the fields where it became fertilizer.

Sometimes the snow drifted in glittering mountains against the barn doors. We had to take shovels and move the mountains to the back of the barnyard and, if the trough was crowned with ice, we had to trek water in pails to the bawling cows. On those days, though, school was canceled and we spent the afternoons in the mow, constructing forts from hay and playing war with bows and arrows made of willow sticks and baler twine.

Because of the cows, we started each day at five o’clock, before dawn tinted the horizon. When we finished milking, my father lifted the cans into the trough to cool while we slopped the pigs and collected eggs from the henhouse. Then came breakfast of sausage, eggs, pancakes and thick slices of homemade bread toasted with a fork over the fire in the wood half of the stove.

Afterward we climbed aboard the old black Ford pick-up, its running boards ventilated by rust, and carted the cans to the cheese factory in Willard, two miles distant. Willard was the only commercial center in Beaver Township, if a beer garden, gas station, general store and cheese factory can be so categorized. The cheese factory belonged to Gottlieb Raber, a kindly man with white, gossamer hair. His skin was white, too, from years spent indoors skimming whey from the milk and helping the remainder curdle into deliciously mild cheddar.

Out back Raber kept his coon dogs penned behind a tall chicken wire fence, tall to discourage their frenzied leaps for action. We sidled up and set them to howling until the cans in the black pickup were empty.

Coon hunting was pure recreation, and we rarely indulged. But we had other pursuits. We tracked muskrats in the creek, looking for tunnels they dug in the banks and channels they left in the grass when they invaded the corn fields. In one night they could destroy a quarter-acre with their scissored teeth and impatient appetites. So we set traps, camouflaged with dead leaves, at the intersections in their highways. We had read that muskrat skins were worth $2 apiece to certain big-city furriers, but we never sold any and did not get rich. Once, we pulled a trap out of a hole and found a skunk caught by the leg, spitting and spraying. We went home, preceded a half mile by the smell.

In spring the creek swelled with melted snow and provided a spawning bed for carp, suckers and an occasional pike that swam from Saginaw Bay down the Kawkawlin River to our back 40. Grandpa had crafted eight-pronged spears with ten-foot handles of unmanicured sapling, and with weapons in hand we crept through the evening dusk to where he knew the fish lay in the quiet current at the creek bends. We selected the biggest ones, aimed at their heads so as not to spoil the white meat, and flipped them into burlap bags. The others scattered in confusion and we rushed after them, sliding in the mud and watching for waves where their backs broke water. Stuffed with my mother’s special dressing, even the carp were tasty.

Grandpa also showed us how to handle his scarred, one-shot 12-gauge, a relic that once had claimed a fat whitetail deer in the woods further north. We combed the back 40 with it, taking turns on the trigger, hunting ring-tailed pheasants for autumn dinners. Shooting at the kill-deer and other songbirds with our BB guns, however, was strictly forbidden.

My father did not hunt at all, having seen too much killing in Africa and Sicily. But he used the shotgun when necessary. As he had to with Stub.

Stub was born without a tail, an unlikely mistake since his mother was a bushy-tailed husky brought to Beaver Township by a neighbor who’d visited Alaska. He came to us as a pup with soft brown hair and grew into a wide-shouldered dog with a deep chest and a stamina that could keep pace with a tractor at full throttle.

He was my dog and liked to wrestle with me on the lawn and mock-attack me from his lair under the back porch. He became an apprentice cow herder and, one spring, a stepfather to ten orphaned mallard ducklings, whose mother had refused to leave her nest in the hay field and paid with her life when the mower came. He tried to play with them, however, and accidentally killed two before they learned not to encourage his romping.

Still, he was obedient and trustworthy until the summer he joined a pack of mongrels and became their leader. At night they prowled the neighborhood with primeval curiosity, barking madly and panicking everything they encountered. Stub had never been leashed and now he ignored my entreaties to stay home. Then one morning he returned limping, his hindquarters pocked with bird-shot from the gun of an angry neighbor. Stub’s pack had surrounded the man’s hogs and Stub had slaughtered them one by one, leaving canine gashes on their throats.

My father paid the neighbor $20 apiece for the six dead, ready-for-market porkers, splitting the reparation with the coowners of the pack. But that was not our greatest anguish. We’d been told that somewhere in Stub’s recent lineage was an ancestral wolf, and we worried that this episode had awakened a bloodlust. My youngest brother was then a toddler of three, an age when teasing dogs comes natural, and my father decided Stub could no longer be trusted.

So my father loaded the shotgun while I coaxed Stub from under the porch and led him behind the barn. We buried him in a sandy spot near the creek that was the resting place for all the farm’s victims.

In 1961 I graduated from an eighth-grade class of 14 and moved on to a high school of 3000 in Bay City, 25 miles away. The bus picked me up at six in the morning and, though I still helped with the milking, I was glad to escape the other chores. High school introduced me to the lure of new places, and my brothers and sister took up the same search after me. It was years before we understood what we had left behind.

After the war my father had briefly gone looking for the shorter hours and larger pay of a factory job, commuting to the Monitor sugar beet factory where he stacked 100-pound bags in a warehouse. But the time-clock ambiance reminded him of his Army years and ossified his dislike of hierarchies.

On the farm he was his own man in his own place, at one with the land. There were no foremen or sergeants telling him what to do.

At least, that was the way it had been. But in the Sixties old verities seemed to founder and my father’s life became more demanding and complicated. Perhaps I noticed it because I was getting older. But it was more than that; it was, in retrospect, a changing of the times.

My father had always resented the government as an incompetent meddler. Federal farm subsidies and price-support payments, he felt, benefited mostly gentlemen farmers and agribusiness operations such as the Mississippi outfit that Reader’s Digest said got $1.2 million from the government in 1960 alone. My father found that the artificial marketplace the government set up only helped the small farmers get poorer.

He chose not to vote in the 1964 presidential election as an anonymous protest of increasing governmental interference. He voted for George Wallace in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972 because they claimed to favor a Jeffersonian government and thought it a lesson in modernity that neither had a chance to win.

Uninvited bureaucrats began stopping by the farm. My father prided himself on delivering milk with far less sediment and bacteria than state standards allowed. But one inspector insisted he trim the matted hair from the tails of our cows because in their anxiety to swat flies they sometimes flung mud into the milk pails. A clipped tail, however, would have left a cow’s shoulders covered with flies, and since the inspector’s alternative was a fly sprayer filled with DDT, my father scorned the advice.

But that response did not dissuade other government men from following with more suggestions. No longer, one said, were our cows supposed to drink the brownish creek water that allegedly harbored infectious germs. The creek should be fenced in, he argued, and replaced by a corrugated tin trough and a long hose. My father obliged him with a trough but not with the fences since we knew the cows would only slice their udders trying to outwit the barbed wire.

We would have had to tear down the fences anyway when still other bureaucrats brought in a dredge a few years later to dig the creek deeper and prevent flooding on the Kawkawlin. The dredge left mounds of flinty clay in the fields and my father was levied $1800 as his share of the excavation bill.

At the same time the cost of machinery was rising faster than wind in a storm. Farmers sell their product wholesale and buy their equipment retail, an economic discrepancy that meant the price on the new combine and tractor my father needed was as much as he grossed in a year.

So during the early Sixties my father expanded the amount of land available for tilling. The woods had shrunk over the years. Some trees had been felled and sold for cheese boxes, others used in our kitchen stove, and an unfortunate number had been victimized by Dutch elm disease. He plowed odd-shaped fields, contoured around the remaining trees and came upon a deceptively soft spot in a marshy area where we heard him wishing aloud for the horses as the tractor mired down. But he planted enough beans and wheat in the extra land to buy the new combine and tractor.

My father also added to the size of the garden to help Ronald, Harvey and me earn money for college. We planted a half-acre of cucumbers, which didn’t seem that much until we started to pick them three times a week, right after breakfast while their prickly skins were still soft in the dew. We sold the cucumbers for $1 to $5 a bushel, depending on their size, to a middleman who shipped them to a cannery.

In our spare time we solicited jobs from neighbors — 50¢ an hour for shoveling manure so tightly packed it was like pulling at tar and 25¢ an hour more for makeshift carpentry on ramshackle buildings. Inexorably our bank accounts inched upward, toward what we thought was freedom.

In March 1967 a National Farmers Organization (NFO) organizer visited Beaver Township. He was maybe 30, with a talent for the language of persuasion and primed with slogans about unions and boycotts. The NFO is the most radical of the farm unions and the organizer exhorted us to withhold our milk from the market until the price went up. Prices were staying down, he explained, because other farm union officials were profiteering for themselves and disregarding the farmers.

My father agreed with his analysis of the problem but not with his solution. Boycotting was a notion as foreign to my father as government regulations. But there was nothing he could do to stop the strike.

Gottlieb Raber had retired five years before and my father now had to rely on a truck driver to haul his milk cans 15 miles each day to a cheese factory in Linwood. When the Teamsters opted to honor the NFO picket lines, our milk was stranded and left to sour. My father churned some into butter, but after three days he loaded his milk cans in the pickup, and shortly after dawn, before the pickets arrived at the cheese factory, he defied the union and delivered the milk himself.

The NFO strike lasted a month and when it was over the price at the cheese factory had not budged, though the price for Grade-A milk increased slightly. But since my father’s milk wasn’t eligible for the Grade-A supermarket cannisters — because he did not use milking machines and a refrigerated tank — the strike lost him money.

This had been a decade of hard times. The sky had turned menacing one afternoon in September 1960 as we were forking the ripened beans into rows. Within minutes a small cyclone had whipped through, rolling the rows against the fence in tangled clumps to rot in the rain that followed. The next year the beetles encroached and then a hailstorm swept over, leaving the corn leaves irretrievably ravaged, as if a giant shotgun had been fired from the ozone. My father recovered from this vagary, but the burden weighed on him and made him look older.

What compounded the difficulty was the discouraging price the grain elevator paid for his harvest. Wheat, which sold for as much as $3 a bushel in the Fifties, plunged to $1.75 a bushel in the Sixties. The reason was simple: there was a surplus of wheat and other farm commodities. Mechanization had been so successful that by 1959 a year’s supply of wheat had been stockpiled and the government had begun telling farmers to grow less.

Between 1960 and 1968 a third of all American farmers gave up the struggle. In Beaver Township the figure was closer to two-thirds. They sold their cows and leased their land to agribusinessmen — who leveled the fences and loped in with behemoth, self-propelled combines, 28-foot drags, 12-row cultivators and $25,000 tractors with airconditioning, radios and tires too tall to negotiate most toolshed doors. To survive until retirement, the rural refugees took on jobs at Dow driving hi-los.

With three sons in college my father also was facing a deficit for the first time, an unnerving prospect for a man who always pays cash. In October 1967 the Old Man applied for a job at the Monitor sugar beet factory where he had worked 20 years before. He went there because it offered seasonal work, five months of processing beets into crystalline sugar, and allowed him to resume full-time farming in the spring.

Otherwise the job had nothing to recommend it. He was paid little more than the minimum wage, the working conditions included scalding steam and stifling heat intermittently interrupted by icy drafts, and he had to get out of bed an hour earlier to milk the cows. By late winter he had a cough deep in his chest and he looked so exhausted my mother grew alarmed at the damage to his health. But his stubbornness saw him through, and when the farm income didn’t substantially improve the next year he doggedly returned for another five months. In addition, he hired on as a janitor at Beaver Zion Lutheran Church, which he also served as an elder, tending the boiler, sweeping the floors and digging graves when the ground was hard with frost.

In 1969 he fared better with his wheat and beans. But then his property tax bill jumped from $289 to $484 in one year, and with other expenses mounting (a U.S. Department of Agriculture report for 1970 showed that farmers in my father’s income bracket grossed an average of $9207 and incurred expenses of $5944) he had to go back to the factory for one more winter. Even he had to admit his fatigue the following spring.

By then the Old Man was one of only seven farmers still milking cows in Beaver Township, where there had been 40 a decade before. The Michigan Water Resources Commission had closed down the Linwood cheese factory because of the smell from whey unsanitarily dumped in nearby ditches. For years farmers had brought this milk residue home for their pigs. But my father and most other small farmers had boarded up their pigpens because the new economics demanded raising piglets by the hundredfold and pumping them full of hormone catalysts to fatten them at an artificially early age.

Cows were also being energized with chemicals now and most herds numbered 40 or more mature milkers. A herd of 16 was economically obsolete. But the Old Man persevered and arranged to have his milk cans trucked 35 miles to an ice-cream factory in Saginaw.

Meanwhile, the scientific future to which most remaining farmers subscribed was beginning to display its darker, science-fiction side. In 1969 Michigan had become the first state to ban the use of DDT as a danger to the ecology and a suspect in a growing list of cancer deaths. The action, unfortunately, was belated. Decade-old DDT persisted in the fields and continued to infiltrate the root systems of anything planted there. And though most cows were now corralled in barnyard-size loafing pens and never saw pasture grass, they were fed corn and hay silage from these fields and their milk was still contaminated with the chemical.

People went on drinking this milk, since the ban could not be retroactive, while scientists quested for an antidote. Michigan State University researchers devised one solution: feeding cows charcoal and phenobarbital to help them excrete the lingering DDT. But it also acetized the taste of the milk and turned the cows into drug addicts.

In 1971 the Food and Drug Administration drastically restricted the use of hormone catalysts after they too were found to cause cancer. In these developments, which the Old Man viewed as an awakening stir of common sense, was the first hint of his vindication. They were followed two years later by more fallout from the chemical explosion. A fire retardant known as PBB, a pernicious poison, was accidentally mixed with cattle feed commercially distributed in Michigan. More than 500 farms had to be quarantined, scores of cows died and people who unwittingly drank their milk suffered memory loss and nervous disorders. My father was spared this plague because he had continued to grind his own corn and oats for feed.

But he soon realized that the governmental afterthoughts and chemical disasters were no impediment to the forces that were eliminating everything he had lived by.

In May 1971 Grandpa died in his sleep at age 82. Until then he had continued to help with the hoeing, though his pace was slower, and he had kept alive the spring spear-fishing ritual. But only a few carp traveled down the Kawkawlin anymore; the other fish had found more expeditious spawning grounds in industrial ruts along the shores of Saginaw Bay. And Roy and Dale, the only Kohn children left at home since Sandra’s marriage to a Navy man, had outgrown the delicacy of stuffed carp.

Other changes also had inflicted themselves. The old maple next to the bridge had fallen in a thunderstorm, and one of the four trees guarding the house had begun to totter and had been replaced by an aluminum clothesline pole. Pheasants had grown scarce because agribusinessmen had plowed under the neighboring pastureland that once supplied them cover. Only the killdeer, which nests in open fields, still thrived.

Then came 1973 and the stunning farm revival. In one improbable leap the price of farm commodities caught up to the costs that had been racing out of sight for years. Unnoticed, the world’s population had eaten its way through most of the food surpluses. A hundred pounds of white beans, which had been selling for $6-$7 in Michigan, suddenly garnered $20-$50. Wheat, made even more valuable by a previously forbidden sale to the Soviet Union, climbed to $6.30 a bushel. And the price of milk-for-cheese jumped a little, too.

I had moved to San Francisco and the Old Man wrote me about this new turn. He seemed more at peace with his life than at any time since I was a little boy. We were corresponding regularly and I was struck by the wry humor he slipped in with the news from home. He had a color TV now, for the benefit of football games and comedy shows, but he was wondering, he noted casually, whether Grandma’s growing senility was the fault of watching too many newscasts about the government’s energy policies.

A year later the sudden prosperity faded just as quickly. The harvest was too plentiful. Beans dropped back to $14 a hundredweight and wheat to $4 a bushel. Although my father had shared in the windfall of the year before, his paltry acreage did not allow him to cash in as agribusiness had. So he was back to scratching out a living a year at a time.

When the Saginaw ice-cream factory burned down in fall of 1974 and was denied a license to rebuild, the Old Man was briefly left with no place to sell his milk. Luckily he managed to find a trucking route that delivered his milk to a cheese factory in Pinconning, the only place within 40 miles that still accepted milk in cans, and for two more years he got by.

The letter arrived in July 1976. The Pinconning cheese factory was streamlining its production, the letter said, and was banishing its facilities for milk cans.

The Old Man, and the other farmers who still milked by hand, either had to build modern milk parlors or sell their cows. The letter aroused no protest from the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Michigan Department of Agriculture — or from the NFO or the other farm unions. As far as my father could tell, all these institutions had been impatiently waiting for the last of the small, anti-establishment farmers to leave so farming could be run like the industry it had become.

Selling the cows, giving up a way of life that had been his and his father’s and his grandfather’s was not what the Old Man wanted. But the cost of modernizing the barn — installing a ventilating system, metered feed cylinders, milking machines, a refrigerated tank and see-through plastic tubing to ferry the milk from the machines to the tank — started at $25,000 and went up. His annual property taxes, which had been $100 two and a half decades ago, were already pushing $1200. To accommodate the Pinconning cheese factory he would have had to mortgage his final years and forfeit the dignity that had sustained him when there had been little else.

And it would have only forestalled the farm’s fate. None of the Kohn children had felt capable of a fourth generation of farming. We all had gone on to other careers: I as a journalist, Ronald as a tool-and-die specialist, Harvey as production manager in a brewery, Sandra to the payroll department at Bechtel, Roy to a grain elevator and Dale to computer school in the Air Force. The Old Man was proud of us and betrayed no sign of disappointment. But there was no one to succeed him.

So my father put up his cows for sale.

Predictably perhaps, he found he was not free in doing even this. Most of his cows were not eligible for a dairy auction, he was told, because they had not been vaccinated for Bang’s disease. Cows born before 1970 could be sold as milkers whether or not they had been vaccinated. But under a new Michigan law unvaccinated cows born after 1970 have to be sold for bologna even if they are healthy. That the Old Man refused to do. Instead he vendored his cows by word-of-mouth, on a kind of black market, at lower prices than an auction would have fetched.

At Christmas 1976 he still had ten cows in the barn, and I had one last chance to sit on a milk stool. But in May 1977 a truck took away the final load of cows and calves, leaving behind just one cow my father is keeping to provide milk for him and my mother.

I received a letter a few days later. The Old Man did not dwell on the event but he did mention that Sandra’s two-year-old son, somehow wise for his age, had cried for a full hour after the cows were gone.

In the same month my father turned over the front 80 to Donald Rueger, a second cousin on my mother’s side, and, with 1500 acres under cultivation, one of Bay County’s biggest farmers. In 1968 the Michigan Future Farmers of America voted Don its Farmer of the Year. I’ve known him for 20 years and I’m sure he’ll get maximum yield from our farm, a percentage of which will go to my father under a sharecropping arrangem it.

But the Kohn farm will never be the same. The lane is already gone, along with all the fences, and the view from the back porch is of 80 acres as smooth as a lake. For the first time herbicides and pesticides have violated the land. And though DDT is outlawed, my father has noticed that the new chemicals are killing the earthworms, which are essential to keeping the dirt loose and arable. He believes continued use will turn the soil to putty.

The Old Man is still farming the back 40 by himself this summer. It is his final farewell. Next spring he will be 62 and he will retire so he can qualify for Social Security. After that, he says, he will sell the farm.

The Old Man’s hands are rough and his face lined with erosions. But the scars and creases are from a life of honor that will, I hope, make the leaving a little easier.

In This Article: America, Coverwall, Farm Aid


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