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My uncle Norman once told me a joke about a farmer who won the lottery. When asked what he would do with his millions he responded, “keep on farming till it’s gone.” He then delighted me with his laugh, something that started with a little quiet, slow steam engine sound that shook him slightly, tugged at the edge of his mouth, and then bloomed upwards into a huge grin.
At Norman Alger’s memorial service this weekend in his hometown of Mantua, Ohio I thought a lot about what would make someone choose to be a farmer. My dad grew up on a farm but turned to physics. Despite this, he and my mother churned up the soil surrounding every house we ever lived in to make space for food to pour up from the ground. My friends used to laugh at the fact that my father worked with a particle accelerator all day and came home to drag a huge homemade wooden plow through the mud. He told me there was something about the magic of seeing things grow that was hard to explain, and for a farmer that used to also mean the independence of running your own business and playing directly with the forces of nature.
While it’s easy to imagine the thrill of the wind in your hair and walking your own land, plenty of people remember Norman as the guy dozing off on the lounger because he’d already been working hard since four in the morning. The neighbor across the street remembered Norman yelling at the cows when he got frustrated, cows he’d named after his ex-girlfriends. Being on a farm you can’t put off your chores or wait until later. There are animals that need your constant care, and crops that have to be harvested at the precise moment they have the most nutritional value but haven’t been soaked by the next rain. You learn to get out and get things done, and that work ethic can carry you your whole life.
When uncle Norman was carried away on a submarine in World War II he kept a collection of pictures in his pocket. It’s not hard to imagine those guys curling up in their bunks at night and trying to make a connection with home by looking through the window of a photograph. There were no phone calls, no email, no sights or sounds for months at a time; just a black and white image of a couple of your brothers or friends grinning around a tractor, waiting for you to come back and help them out.
Now the farm is quiet. The silos were pulled down a long time ago, and the storage bay that replaced them is cold and barren, nothing stored for the next year. Eventually the innovations ran out and there wasn’t any oil or gravel left to sell to cover the costs and keep farming. Norman, like so many that worked so hard for so long, had to close down despite all he had accomplished. He had gathered local farmers together in a milk coop, and was even able to get everyone healthcare, but these days there are forces bigger than individuals, families, and collectives. As in America, now in India and China, factories are replacing personal connections with the land and farmers are packing up and moving away.
And yet, here in America there is a little green sprout of a movement. Couples unleash chickens to roam their back yards. Gardens are appearing in unlikely places, on rooftops and in two foot wide yards. Guerilla gardeners sneak into alleys and onto the edges of constructions sites and leave kale and tomatoes. Somehow each of these unlikely farmers caught a little of the sunlight, the warm glow of seeing something green break through the soil. Somewhere in each of them is a bit of what lit up my uncle Norman’s smile.