We sat in the shade of a beautiful magnolia tree, the air and the limbs heavy with the blessing of blossoms. A faded red handkerchief was put to good use from time to time as we talked, perspiration dripping from the old man’s face.
“I can talk cotton farming with you all day long, but it’s about the only thing I know,” he said, a hint of embarrassment in his voice.
“I realized somewheres along the way there’s times us old cotton farmers are too good for our own good,” he said to me, shaking his head in sad frustration.
Roscoe Ketchum came to mind early this morning as I read the following fact: One bale of cotton can make 215 pairs of jeans, 1,217 T-shirts or 313,600 one hundred dollar bills.
When I met this old cotton farmer, I was working and going to school, far away from home for the first time in my life, and found myself good and homesick. Mr. Ketchum was a neighbor of mine, our back lawns meeting. We often chatted while “the missus” put laundry on the clothesline.
Both had been born and raised in North Carolina, and they had fairly recently moved to the village while their oldest son and youngest daughter took over the cotton farm. One son worked for Federal Land Bank “and makes enemies quicker than I can spend a nickel” because this was 1980 and high interest was squeezing farmers right out of their boots.
“If he keeps that job, we won’t have any friends left,” the old man worried.
I asked if he was concerned about the future of his own family farm.
“It’s worth a whole lot more as just about anything else you can dream up than it is as a cotton plantation. It like to kill me to see it growin’ banks, buildings and parking lots instead of cotton, though.
“I asked the kids to go ahead and make their plans, but I don’t wanna know about it. Ignorance really is bliss when it comes to this kind of stuff.”
He and his wife had made a pact to pack up and move to a house in town and never look back. Literally. Come hell or high water, they were never going to go see the farm that had been in Ketchum’s family for four generations.
As the years march on, I find myself looking at that decision in a whole different way. At the time, it left me in disbelief. I felt so connected to my family land that I was convinced I could never walk completely away, leaving it for life.
Recently I watched a documentary that detailed long-established family farms being bought up by faceless corporate agriculture. Nondescript equipment, so large it looked like a factory on wheels, began moving in to plant fields that had been walked and worked by family for five or more generations, and my stomach did a flip.
As one weathered farmer explained, land that had been in his family for many lifetimes now is just soil to be turned, listed on someone’s job sheet.
I had to look away, old Mr. Ketchum’s words echoing in my head, sounding wiser by the minute.