Living like a good neighbor

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aerial farmland

It’s hard to think of summer without thinking of the many neighbors who shared the southern Illinois heat, humidity and mosquitoes on the dairy farm of my youth.

Back then, in the mid-1960s, we’d often see neighbors across the table-flat Mississippi River bottoms as they cultivated corn or soybeans and we baled straw or raked hay.

One set of neighbors, the bachelor brothers of Woodrow, Elvin, and Tanny L., owned land on either side of our farm, so six days a week one of the men would ka-push, ka-push past our house on their Johnny Popper A. If Elvin was at its wheel, he’d wave to my brothers and me like a long-gone uncle utterly delighted to meet his newly discovered nephews.

Since we milked 100 Holsteins, we’d see many neighbors during their evening trips to the dairy barn to buy our 50-cents-a-gallon milk.

Local news

The price never changed; the neighbors rarely did. Most arrived just in time to visit while we milked the last couple of cows. Those visits leaned more toward local news than local gossip.

Felix V. could be counted on to tell us if the morels were up. Young John O. (there was an Old John O.), who was the deckhand on the nearby Mississippi River ferry, always knew if the river was rising, falling or, as he liked to say, “on a stand.” Ivan M., who worked at a local grain elevator, offered the week’s price for wheat, corn and soybeans.

Sometimes a neighbor came to the dairy barn to arrange an equipment or manpower swap. For example, my father often borrowed Gary K.’s three-point, two-row John Deere planter to plant the many rows our six-row Oliver planter, the world’s worst, had skipped due to its faulty engineering and our faulty attention.

In return, Dad would combine Gary’s red clover or loan him our baler on a June day when it wasn’t the dusty center of his sons’ sweaty universe. No one on either side of those transactions ever talked money; we were neighbors and neighbors were neighborly.

Changing hands

Money did change hands, however, when we bought food from each other. We always bought our butcher hogs from a neighbor, usually Elmer B. Also, every week we purchased four dozen eggs from Mrs. M. with the same dollar bill her son Ivan, the elevator man, had given us a couple of days earlier on his weekly, two-gallon milk run.

Two months ago, on a perfect spring day, I visited most of those old neighbors atop the nearby bluff during a slow meander through St. Leo’s Catholic Church Cemetery. I saw, for the first time in decades, Elvin’s hearty wave, Mrs. M.’s lipstick smile, and Gary’s deeply creased grin.

Far below in the blue distance lay the lovely, fertile bottoms where they had spent their entire lives, often together, making a living and enjoying life.

Respect

None ever had much money by today’s never-enough standards, but they had something money can never buy: the rarely mentioned respect and the never-mentioned love of their neighbors.

Today that respect and love — that neighborliness — seems to end at the property line or courthouse steps.

For example, on June 14, voters in North Dakota rejected, by a resounding 3-1 margin, their legislature’s loosening of the state’s corporate farming law.

That overwhelming defeat, however, will not deter the North Dakota Farm Bureau (NDFB) from pursuing its federal court suit to have the century-old state law declared unconstitutional.

After the vote, NDFB’s president, Daryl Lies, said the suit must continue because, “Our court system is the only appropriate place to settle this question without the issue being derailed by emotion…”

Not true; Lies’ neighbors from every city, village and farm in North Dakota calmly and democratically “settled” the “question” by a perfectly clear 75-to-25 percent margin. In rejecting that outcome, though, the NDFB again proved what a growing segment of the American public now firmly believes:

Farmers love to talk to consumers; they just don’t want to listen to ’em.

A good neighbor would.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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