THE auctioneer’s racing voice quiets for the first time, and the crowd focuses on the woman in the red shirt. The one with her arms crossed, her eyes downcast, her lips pressed together.
“I promised her I’d ask before the sale is final,” the auctioneer says. “What’ll it be, Gwen? Is $26,500 good for the tractor?”
Slow raindrops fill the silence.
Her mind races.
She tries to concentrate on the numbers and shove aside the emotions, but they keep somersaulting. She adds, subtracts, thinks about the bills piled on the counter and the creditors’ phone calls, and worries what would happen if she said “no.”
But tangled with the math, she remembers her first date with Dan Karnes eight years earlier. They came here, before it was all it is today.
It was the opening of coon season and they ate pizza and brought his hunting dog Singer. As dusk enclosed them in the West Virginia hills, they wandered the woods and pastures and Dan told her about his beef cattle, how they grazed, how much he loved seeing them content and how what he really wanted someday was a dairy.
She remembers how proud he looked sitting on that tractor, just a few months ago. Their first new tractor and he was using it to take hay to his dairy cows in the fields. Just what he’d dreamed.
Now the cows are gone, now Dan’s gone, and now the auctioneer’s asking her if $26,500 is good for the tractor.
Keeping her eyes down, she nods and backs out of the crowd.
DAN Karnes was an uncomplicated man.
At 31, he loved farming, it was as simple as that. He grew up on his dad’s 200-acre farm in western West Virginia and raised a registered Limousin herd. But when he saw a sale ad in 1994 for property in Roane County, he figured it was time to start fresh.
He bought 120 acres and 50 beef cows and had himself a farm of his own.
The tiny community of Reedy – with a population under 200 and a single gas pump – lucked out with its helpful new neighbor.
Dan would see someone struggling to pull a calf, veer to the side of the road and jump out, making a new friend before he left.
“God made each person to do something,” he’d tell friends. “Some are lawyers. Some are policemen. I was meant to be a farmer.”
He spent his days caring for the cattle and working full time as a truck mechanic, but he devoted his nights to reading about natural cow care and debating the best grazing grasses with neighbors.
Dan’s animals weren’t just livestock. They were creatures that needed the best care he could offer. He refused cattle prods and routine growth hormones and talked to the cows like old friends. They trusted him, and he liked to say he could take a 1,200-pound Limousin, put her in a chute and milk her without even a kick.
In October 1998, after hearing his buddy talk for weeks about this girl he wanted Dan to meet, he drove over the Ohio border to check out Gwen for himself.
That first date when they walked his property with Singer came a week later and all the pieces fit.
Gwen was a farm girl, too, and she thought his plans sounded perfect.
As a teen, she shared an apartment with her mom over a widow’s garage. When Gwen wasn’t in school, she helped take care of the woman’s cattle and fell in love with the idea of farming.
By the time she met Dan, when they were both 35, she had cattle and horses of her own and loved the passion in Dan’s voice that first night when he talked about his cows.
They spent every spare moment together over the next few months. Dan called her from pay phones along his work routes and talked until the change ran out, and she sent him home at night with fried apples and biscuits to heat up for breakfast.
A week before Christmas, they sat on his living room floor, sword fighting with wrapping paper rolls. They giggled like teenagers until Gwen asked, “Are we going to get married or what?”
Dan stopped laughing. “When?”
“What about October?”
“I can’t wait that long,” he said, even though he still hadn’t worked up the nerve to kiss her. Nor could he wait until June or March, he said.
“What about January?” Gwen asked, realizing this was just weeks away.
In his deep Southern accent, with his red cheeks even more flushed than normal, Dan said, “Now we’re talkin’.”
COMPARED with other parts of the country, dairy farming is more difficult in Roane County, W.Va. Particularly in Reedy.
Sitting 40 back-road miles from Parkersburg, Reedy sprawls across tumbling hills with ravines hiding in crevices between them.
Farmers can’t plant grain on the rugged terrain, which means feed costs multiply. Milk haulers don’t include the area on their routes, and only one other dairy in the county calls this home.
None of this deterred Dan.
Following their plan, Dan and Gwen married in January 1999, and by late winter they bought 16 Jersey heifers. Dan quit his job as a truck mechanic so he could milk and Gwen split her time working at an insurance company and doing chores on the farm.
Starting a dairy demanded an endless supply of work, money and sacrifice.
They were happy, though. It didn’t matter that they lived on beans and deer meat that first winter, or that all they could afford was a used trailer and old furniture. Everything went toward making the dairy a success.
But no matter how many milk checks came in the mail or how much the rolling herd average jumped, dairy farming sapped the bank account.
The cycle never ceased: You add more cows … to get a bigger milk check … to pay off debt … but you still have to spend money on those cows you’re adding.
Gwen wrung her hands and crossed her fingers when Dan insisted, “The Lord didn’t bring us this far to drop us.”
That truth also fueled their talk about kids. It’d be wonderful, they agreed, but how could they deal with the farm, too? Again, they left it up to the Lord.
In spring 2003, a month after Gwen’s 40th birthday, she stared at the skinny stick and the two lines, then ran out the door to Dan, almost falling.
“Well, we know what we’ll do with the farm now,” he said, his face redder than ever. “Our baby will have it.”
THE first bull attacked Dan on a Tuesday afternoon last September.
He was walking toward a back pasture as Gwen rumbled up the drive in her old Jeep. Their 20-month-old son, George, was buckled in the back.
“Be careful,” she called to her husband.
“I’m fine,” he answered. “Don’t worry.”
Hours passed before Gwen heard him fumbling up the steps to the back door.
“The bull got me down,” he gasped, clasping the smashed muscles in his left leg. Already it had turned an angry black from his hip to his ankle.
With a thin plastic pipe, he’d tapped the bull’s butt to move it toward the barn. The bull looked back at him. Slow. When they made eye contact, Dan knew.
The bull bent its neck and drove its wide forehead into Dan’s left hip, crushing him to the ground. Before the bull could charge again, Dan realized the high-tensile fence was behind him. He crawled for the rusty wires, knowing they were the only thing that could save him.
As he crouched behind them, the bull plowed into the fence, bowing it 5 feet inward.
At the hospital, Gwen could think of only one thing: “We’re going to shoot that bull.”
“No, we’re not, honey,” Dan said from his gurney. “It’ll be fine. Think about it. We’ll sell him and pay some bills. I’m OK, I’m fine.”
He tried to win her over. But they’d talked about this before.
Gwen didn’t trust bulls and had heard enough stories about them raging with unpredictable hormones, even charging tractors. If I’m scared coming out in that field, I’m taking a gun, she’d tell him.
He’d always answer the same: Don’t ever shoot my bulls.
It wasn’t that he was foolish or wanted someone to get hurt. He simply thought if a bull needed to go, you should make money on the deal.
That September day, he grinned as a nurse wheeled him out of the X-ray room.
“I had a brainstorm in there, Gwen,” he said. “I’m going to starve him for water, lure him into the trailer without anyone getting hurt, and we’ll take him to the sale.”
THERE was another bull, though. A hulking Ayrshire named Jack with a perfect white flame emblazoned on his red forehead.
Dan and Gwen always kept two bulls on the farm, but never longer than two years and never if they showed aggression.
They’d taken the first bull to the sale, come home with $600, and figured it was time for Jack to go, too.
But three weeks later, another hot, fall Tuesday, Dan was still working on getting Jack to the auction.
Things kept stopping him. A bridge was out on Route 14, forcing Dan to take a detour. But that meant driving uphill on a narrow gravel road and, with his leg still stiff and bruised, he couldn’t maneuver the trailer and punch the clutch and shift gears.
He planned to get his leg drained that October afternoon and hoped it might make things easier.
So, for at least one more day, Jack remained on the farm.
Dan’s appointment was at 1:30 p.m., but first he had a dead cow to bury, hay to take to the pasture, and cows to move. That left Gwen in charge of a much-needed spring cleaning in the milkhouse that afternoon.
Later, as she walked up the hill to the trailer, Dan’s white Dodge pickup still sat in the driveway. He must have skipped the doctor, she thought.
That’s the thing with farmers. No matter how sick you are or how much you hurt or how much you’ve counted on going to the ball game, the farm comes first. A cow gets sick, a calf needs pulled, a tractor breaks down, the milk pump cracks, the gas line leaks, it’s always something. It doesn’t matter that you made a doctor’s appointment for 1:30 p.m.
Something goes wrong and nothing else matters.
Gwen knew all this and didn’t worry when she heard the tractor idling over the ridge even when Dan shouldn’t be home.
As the afternoon stretched toward 3 p.m., though, something felt wrong. Something that made a chill crawl across the back of her neck and up her arms when she walked toward the sound of the tractor. Something that made her hesitate, turn back toward the trailer, load her pistol and call her neighbor for help.
Together, Gwen and Don Matics walked around the hill and across the pasture, hollering for Dan.
A deputy’s simple notebook sketch captures what they saw.
First is Dan’s hat, then a boot. Across the page, in the ravine, is a sock, another boot. Threads from his T-shirt and jeans.
The officer drew a heavy line down the ravine and back up the other side and noted a path of splintered trees and brush.
At the end is Dan, a stick figure, with an arrow. “Face Down. Clothes torn off,” it says.
All Gwen focused on, though, was the heat. Maybe Dan was hot and needed to cool down. Maybe he took his clothes off for a swim in the creek and lay down for a nap afterward. Maybe he tripped, had a broken leg.
She reached for his shoulder, everything she learned about CPR tumbling through her mind. But in that brief touch, she knew: the trampled path into the ravine, the dirt covering his body, the yellow bruises staining his skin. Dan was gone. And the bull did this.
The deputy agreed.
On a separate page, he wrote, “Bull was @ barn – head & face covered & caked w/ mud.”
HOURS later, after the coroner packed his bag and the ambulance silently left the lane, Gwen crept up her narrow wooden steps, entered the trailer and closed the door.
Word had spread over scanners and across phone lines. And as pickups barreled down the gravel road toward the farm, neighbors jumped into their own vehicles, knowing this much traffic meant something terrible. They crowded the yard. The women from church, the acquaintances from years ago, the dearest friends and the closest family all huddled close.
When Gwen finally opened the door, she cradled a rifle. They saw her and parted.
“He doesn’t deserve to breathe a minute longer than Dan.”
She spotted her preacher and remembered his lessons, how it’s a sin to hate.
But it’s too late: “I’m sparing him by shooting him. What I’d really like to do is soak him in gasoline, set him on fire and let him suffer.”
What about the bills? Sell him, pay some of them off? the preacher pleaded.
Before she could say anything, her brother-in-law, Harold Conner, took the rifle. He walked toward the barn.
Gwen turned and slipped back inside. Even from there, she could hear it.
GRAVEL and tar chip roads dip and twist recklessly across these West Virginia ridges. Speed limit signs say 55 but that would be suicide. The roads have no berms and there’s barely room for one vehicle; even locals pray cars don’t come from the opposite direction. No one ever does.
Gwen lives a mile from her closest neighbor. That’s normal here.
Getting in the mouth of her drive takes a 45-degree turn and an extra gear. Then it’s uphill a quarter mile to a locked gate that she drags across the gravel path every time she comes and goes. Another quarter mile farther is her home and farm.
Both sit in the snow; both look abandoned.
The only footprints near the barn belong to the dogs.
The Jeep in the drive suggests someone lives in the trailer, but it’s dark. And quiet. And, from this view, no other sign of human life exists.
Inside, it’s different.
A wood-burning furnace fills the tiny living room with warmth, and lamps glow. Sponge Bob dances across the television screen and an open toy chest overflows with tractors and books.
Dinnertime noises clamor from the kitchen, pots and plates clanking between Gwen’s pleas, “George Ray, watch out!”
But sadness remains.
Gwen’s horse pictures no longer hang on the wood-paneled walls, replaced by old pictures of her husband. His favorite book, Natural Cattle Care, and an artificial insemination instruction manual still sit next to the couch.
It’s a week into December but there’s no tree or stockings or Christmas music.
George doesn’t seem to notice. He toddles around the living room, waving an old newspaper clipping. “Daddy, daddy, daddy,” he repeats, pointing to the picture of his dad with the cows.
Gwen reaches for it, desperate to stop his chubby fingers from crinkling the article a local newspaper wrote about them years ago.
“What are those?” George asks, pointing again.
“Remember? They’re milkers. They go shh-shh-shh,” she says as she moves her fists up and down like she’s milking. “Remember, Georgie?”
He takes off with the paper again. “Daddy, daddy, daddy.”
Gwen grabs him as he wobbles by, carrying him into the bathroom to change his diaper.
He’s lying down and he’s asking, “Where’s Daddy?” and she’s whispering, “He’s not here right now.”
She looks into his innocent face and sees Dan. The thick brown hair starting to curl around the edges of his forehead and collar and ears. The nose, thin on top and wider at the tip. The round cheeks, the red glow, and the long, curving eyelashes that a young girl with a mascara wand only dreams about.
SELLING the cows is worse than the funeral.
Dan lived for them. He’d sacrificed so much to build the herd.
But one night, long after the sun had disappeared, Gwen needed to check on a cow and George was asleep. After several calls, she found a neighbor to watch him while she bundled up and headed out to the pasture.
How can I do this? she thought as she walked. He’s not even 2. Countless cows will need checked. Countless milkings will need covered. Countless equipment pieces will break. I can’t just leave him alone in the middle of the night for the next 10 years.
Within weeks of Dan’s death, Gwen makes her decision.
In early November, during a special Election Day sale, she sits in the top row at the Kidron Auction and watches as the crowd bids on Dan’s cows. She makes sure all 107 head are watered and fed before they enter the ring and records every price on her yellow tablet.
The next morning, Gwen spreads her notebook sheets in front of her Farm Service Agency loan officer.
“What can I pay off?” she wants to know.
Maybe if she can keep the debt load low enough, she could keep the farm. Maybe it could still all be George’s someday.
IT doesn’t make it any easier, but Gwen’s been through this before.
Not the selling-a-farm part. The widow part.
Her first husband, Dave Sayer, died eight months before Dan worked up the courage to cross the Ohio border to meet her.
Although Gwen’s excitement for farming burned before she met Dave, together they’d built on it. They raised cattle and horses and it was Dave who first told Gwen never to come looking for him without the gun. Those bulls, they’re unpredictable, he’d warned.
Gwen and Dave celebrated their eighth anniversary in the mid-1990s; then he got sick.
Two years later, waiting for a liver transplant, he died.
But, beforehand, he’d taught Gwen about business. He told her she’d get ahead by making friends, by always thinking how a decision would affect the business, and by taking bookkeeping seriously.
These lessons come back to her in the months after Dan’s death.
It doesn’t matter the new Massey Ferguson tractor sits untouched in the barn. It doesn’t matter milk no longer streams through the pipes in the parlor. It doesn’t matter the new calf barn remains in pieces, waiting to be put together. Bills keep coming.
Gwen pores over figures with her loan officer and hires an attorney to create a hierarchy of whom to pay and when.
She doesn’t want to make enemies, but there isn’t enough money to go around and she needs to put herself and George – and the farm – first. It’s a business, she reminds herself, echoing her first husband’s words. And if she wants to keep it, she needs to think like a business owner.
Most creditors understand, but a week before Christmas, she’s tested.
It’s a credit card company and the woman on the phone wants to know why Gwen’s not sending the $20 minimum payment.
She explains what happened, about Dan dying, about the farm, about her son who’s still so young. She talks slow and forces her voice to stay friendly even when the woman says she doesn’t believe there isn’t a spare $20.
Gwen’s had it. The business lessons aren’t working. “Until you find your husband in a field with blowflies laying maggots, you won’t understand,” she says and hangs up.
The woman doesn’t call back, but Gwen looks at the phone and thinks, You will be paid. I just need more time.
Money isn’t the only thing making Gwen’s chest ache with anxiety as she lies awake at night.
It’s winter. The wind shrieks over the ridges. The dogs howl every time the snow swirls.
Two hook-and-eye locks are all that keep the door from blowing open, and the night sky envelopes the trailer by 6 p.m. A mile away, a neighbor’s porch light burns, but she can’t see that here.
She leaves when it’s still dark, sometimes at 4:30 a.m., to get George to the baby sitter and make it to her job as a substitute cook for the county school system. The moon reflects in the pond, and if she doesn’t stop herself, she startles, thinking someone is down there with a flashlight. Of course, no one is there, nor is anyone over the hill or farther down the drive or across the street.
It’s just her and George. She’s never felt more alone.
She tries to read, but her favorite author, Stephen King, makes things worse. Always, that bull visits her at night. It snorts and bellows and rears, like a horse, and demands she let it in the front door.
Gwen thinks about leaving it all, moving to a small town with neighbors and a nice grocery store, but she hesitates. Dan dreamed of this, worked so hard for it. How can she walk away when all he wanted was for it to be his son’s?
She won’t do anything until spring, she decides. It’s easier to think about leaving when she’s forlorn and freezing, but she remembers what she calls “the smells and feelings of home.” The grass coming back to life, the intoxicating, ripe smell of first-cutting hay, how the sunshine floods the hills with a beauty she can’t find tucked between house-lined streets.
SELLING the equipment comes next. There’s no other choice. She struggles to make payments on equipment she doesn’t start. A sawmill with just 18 hours of use sits in the barn depreciating. A $700 seed bill from last June remains on the kitchen hutch.
Gwen didn’t think anything could tear her up more than the cow sale, but this may do it.
It’s April, and the rain is unforgiving. Reedy Creek rushes through town, spilling water mixed with red soil onto the roads. Fog plumes sling low between the hollows, and the sun hides.
At Gwen’s, pickup trucks rev their engines and spin through her pasture, churning the grass to mud, trying to park before the sale starts.
Gwen stands next to the parlor, at a folding table, selling coffee and Cokes, talking with friends, and doing just about anything to keep her mind from thinking about why more than 100 strangers are circled around Dan’s tools and fencing and calf bottles.
She paid extra to have the auctioneer go through the barns and prepare for the sale, knowing each item, even a hammer, would hurt her with memories.
Now, two hay wagons sit out front, loaded with every bolt, chain, hitch and nail on the farm. Hubcaps, old 5-gallon buckets, stained shovels and hoses are thrown on top.
The auctioneer speeds through them. Everyone’s eager to move on to the bigger items, the livestock trailer, an old manure spreader, the grinder, a 10-ton feed bin still filled with grain.
Gwen stays at the table, out of view, until it’s time to sell the Massey Ferguson 481. They purchased it two months before Dan died, and of the 112 hours on it, several were burned while it sat idling before she found him that day. She’s managed to hang on to it all these months, making the payments and remembering her husband’s excitement when they bought it.
She tries to push that from her mind as the auctioneer asks: “What’ll it be, Gwen? Is $26,500 good for the tractor?”
CREDITORS call as soon as the sale’s over.
They figure her pockets must be overflowing and they want paid. What they don’t realize is her first priority is the operating loan and everything else has to wait.
She understands their eagerness, but the exasperation grows. Don’t jump on me with both feet, she wants to tell them as it turns to summer. I’m trying, guys.
She’s thinking more about moving. There’s no time for first-cutting hay and she’s thankful because it’s easier to think about leaving when that “smell of home” isn’t creeping inside.
Again, she changes her mind. The decisions to sell the cows and equipment weren’t the hardest; it’s the farm itself. George won’t have anything handed down to him. What his dad worked to give him will be gone. Dan and Gwen’s dream farm could be turned into a hunting ground or, even worse, it could be forgotten and grow wild with weeds.
Even so, a beautiful gray home with burgundy shutters sits 20 minutes away, waiting for the end of July when Gwen and George are scheduled to arrive.
The white porch extends the length of the house, an American flag pokes out of the flower bed and, if she really wanted to, she could look through her window and watch her neighbor’s television. The bank, the church, the pool, the vaudeville-house-turned-movie-theater are just blocks away.
It’s hers; she signed the lease.
And she talked to a real estate agent about the farm, she hired help to mow the pastures so it will look nice for buyers, and she tells George how this new home will be an adventure. They’ll swim and go to the park and the Christmas parade and the summer festival. They’ll put up lots of cow pictures, she tells him.
It’s less than two weeks until moving day, though, and the trailer isn’t packed. Dishes still fill the cupboards, curtains hang from the windows, pictures cover the refrigerator.
Everyone tells her to wait until October, when it’s been a year, not to rush into anything, to take her time, to think this decision through because there’s no going back.
But they aren’t the ones opening more bills in the mail each day, or answering harassing phone calls, or glancing out the window and imagining Dan walking toward home with the two dogs bounding behind him, a new calf cradled in his arms.
In her mind, she knows the decision she needs to make. She’s just not sure her heart can follow through.
(Writer Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by e-mail at email@example.com by mail at Farm and Dairy, Attn: Kristy Hebert, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)