Let’s rewrite the last will of Mr. Farmer

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field at sunset

The photo popped up on my social media feed, a snapshot of a worn piece of paper, with water stains and smudged type.

LAST WILL OF MR. FARMER
I leave:
To my wife, my overdraft at the bank — maybe she can explain it.
To my banker, my soul — he has the mortgage on it anyway.
To my neighbor, my clown suit — he’ll need it if he continues to farm as he has in the past.
To the ASCS, my grain bin — I was planning to let them take it next year anyway.

To the county agent, 50 bushels of corn — to see if he can hit the market. I never could.
To the junk man, my machinery — he’s had his eye on it for years.
To my undertaker, a special request — I want six implement and fertilizer dealers for my pallbearers. They are used to carrying me.
To the weatherman, rain and sleet and snow for the funeral, please — no use in having good weather now.
To the grave digger, don’t bother. The hole I’m in should be big enough.

Origin

Reactions rolled in. Laughter. Eye rolling. Dire comments about how the agricultural way of life was dying.

Finding the origins of viral items is difficult. An online search unearthed a couple of references, none of which showed where it came from. On one site that curated jokes, another line surfaced, an apparent ending: “To the monument maker, for the epitaph — ‘Here lies a farmer who has now properly assumed all of his obligations.’” The earliest reference I found was in a “Dear Abby” column, published in 1985.

“Dear Abby, this came with my insurance company’s newsletter. Being from Iowa yourself, you must feel for the poor farmers. How about giving this a run? I don’t know who wrote it. — Lake Helen, Florida.”

“Dear Lake,” Abby writes back. “It’s wonderful. And I wish the author would please surface and take a bow.”

Truthfully

I may tread dangerous waters here, but I have to disagree with Abby. It’s not wonderful. It’s sad. I’m sure some would tell me to lighten up. It’s just gallows humor or tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, they’d say. To which I recall the words of the rapper, Propaganda: “Sarcasm is really the only time people tell the truth.” I say this as someone who is well versed in sarcasm — it, gallows humor and caffeine fueled my time working beats at daily newspapers.

Agriculture requires a lot of those engaged in its pursuit. It is not for everyone. It can be physically demanding, financially crippling and emotionally draining. Some folks thrive. Others don’t. Particularly for folks who experienced agriculture as a tool used to control them, I can understand why there isn’t overwhelming enthusiasm to re-engage.

I haven’t figured out why there is such determination to present a fairly singular narrative. We are U.S. farmers and ranchers. We feed the world. We sweat blood and tears for it. And you, the general public, should thank us for what we do. Don’t mind us as we complain about a lot though, in the mean time. Is there another profession that has quite the same narrative? I can’t think of one.

Good and bad

Actually, the other day, we had an enormous amount of sheep where they shouldn’t be. Chaos ensued. We sweated and cussed and got them back where they belonged. I don’t view that as a higher calling or some task that only a chosen few can do. The sheep were out. We put them back. The sheep aren’t out often, but it does happen on occasion. The good and bad are all a part of agriculture, just like any profession.

As we launch our Growing Farmers series, I’ve thought a lot about the good and the bad. I think about my own family and the decisions we make about the farm. So many things resonate. Transition discussions. What the future holds. Every day, we work with the animals we have. We enjoy them, and we cuss them out sometimes, too. There’s a reason I call it the circus.

We have networks of folks, who are valuable resources of knowledge and experience. We have people who have become friends and confidantes, who understand what we go through on a day to day basis. We also have challenges. For all intents and purposes, my parents were first generation farmers. Later, when my mother took over the sheep farm and built it into the commercial enterprise it is now, she did it through trial and error, learning as she went. I’ve told her many times she must have been crazy to do it by herself for so many years, when I was working in journalism. She just shrugs and says she enjoyed it, especially the part about being her own boss.

History

Doom and gloom in farming isn’t new. As Sarah Donaldson unearthed in her perusal of old Farm and Dairy issues, young people were leaving the farm in droves 100 years ago. The reason, according to an article she found, was lack of enthusiasm around them. “If parents have no enthusiasm about themselves and their work, how can they expect their children to become very enthusiastic about the farm and its work?” the article asks.

Over the next four weeks, we’re going to unpack what has helped create the challenges. The necessity for land and the difficulty in finding it. The pros and cons of jumping into agriculture and trying to find resources and networks. And what it’s like to farm, despite adversity.

New perspective

I think a lot about the intangibles. Farmers are just plain stubborn, in so many ways. It bleeds into what we do. The difference between farming and other professions is that there is no line between work and life. It’s hard to balance things, if it’s all blurred together. Perhaps if we could reorient our perspective, it wouldn’t be so daunting for others to follow in our footsteps.

I would have enjoyed that viral post, if it had read like this:

To my family, I did my best. We lived life as it came. We enjoyed it quite a bit. Sometimes, we didn’t. But that’s life, isn’t it?

There’s just something about farming. The dirt gets under your fingernails. Decisions, often blunted by the ease of life, are in stark relief on the farm. Is it for everyone? No, but I sure wish more people could experience what it’s like. I think it would put a whole lot of things in perspective.

Keep living life. If that means you’re on the farm, all the better. But live life, the best you can. Whatever that looks like.

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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.

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