By Tim McGrath
“Green Acres is the place to be. Farm livin’ is the life for me. Land spreadin’ out so far and wide. Forget Manhattan, give me that countryside…” Opening theme from the 1960s sitcom Green Acres.
I don’t know how they did it. Even as a kid, it was a head scratcher. Dad just decided he’d had enough of the company life; so one day he came home and told Mom he’d quit his job, sold the small hobby farm in Holland, and bought a much larger one in West Olive. He was going into farming full time. Mom just looked at him, and, incredibly, said: “OK. But, I will not live out in the boondocks. We’re staying right here.”
Dad looked at her, and replied: “OK, that’ll work.” So, just like that, we’d become a farming family. And, for the next forty-odd years, they stayed right there in that house, and Dad (plus my brother and me during school vacations) commuted the twenty-six miles each way to the farm from our suburban Wyoming Park neighborhood. One has to wonder what really happens behind closed doors….
Farming is hard. Those of us with a steady income and benefits would bang our heads against a brick wall, and run away screaming if we had to live with the uncertainties of farming. The grinding toil, endless hours, and exhausting anxiety would quickly kill most of us. In farming there are few guarantees, except the guarantee that what can go wrong, quite probably will. Not enough rain, too much rain at the wrong time, poor pollination, ever increasing cost of fuel, fertilizer, sprays, poor prices for the product, new viruses and funguses to deal with, equipment breakdowns, government regulations. The list is endless.
So, it really is a mystery why Dad thought this whole thing would be a good idea.
Case in point:
We grew blueberries in West Olive; right smack dab between Grand Haven and Holland: four parcels, about one hundred acres. By today’s standards, that’s fairly small stuff. But, back in the 60’s and 70’s, that was a lot for one farmer to tend.
It was a late June morning, just prior to harvest, which usually began sometime around the Fourth of July. And, this was one of those rare years where everything seemed to come together – it looked like a magnificent crop.
We’d been doing catch up kinds of things around the place. Minor repairs and maintenance on equipment, general cleanup around the packing shed, readying packing equipment for when harvest begins: stuff that takes a backseat to the spring fieldwork.
Around 10:45, the wind picked up and an evil looking bank of black, boiling clouds blew in from the west.
“Close the big doors, boys, this looks like a bad one,” Dad hollered over the howling wind. As the storm roared in, sheets of rain driven by the gusts blew sideways finding its way under the doors and cracks around the windows. Continuous lightning and thunder crashed and roared. Dad signaled for us to get under the tractors. This was bad. The building shook and vibrated with each gust and burst of thunder. And, that’s when the hail came. Small pea size pieces grew to dime, then nickel size. We had to cover our ears as the sound was deafening inside the steel sided pole barn. For ten minutes it raged on, and then, suddenly, it just ended. The hail stopped, the rain quit, the wind, which minutes before threatened to rip the entire building apart, died down to a whisper. Crawling out from under the tractors, we peeked out the windows, which had miraculously survived the storm. The ground was buried under the hail.
“C’mon, boys, let’s go see what’s happened outside,” Dad said. We crunched our way to the nearest patch of bushes. The once magnificent crop was now mostly on the ground. Clusters of almost ripened fruit, leaves, and even some smaller branches lay in a heartbreaking tangle partially covered by the hail that was now rapidly melting.
Walking from row to row the picture was the same. A few stragglers left on the bushes, but most of this year’s fruit was now left to rot on the ground.
As we made our way around the fields, we were silent. The shock of seeing a year’s worth of toil and care destroyed in ten minutes was difficult to witness, let alone understand. I kept thinking Dad would yell, curse, kick the ground. None of it. We just kept walking, stopping every so often to look around, then on we went.
We got back to the packing shed, Dad lit a cigar, spit, looked at us and said, “Well, boys, might as well go fishin’. Not much we can do here for awhile.” So, that’s what we did. Packed up the trailer and headed to Lake Gogebic in the UP for Walleye for a week.
That’s the way it was for them through all the years they farmed those pieces of ground. It’s hard to imagine doing what he did with quitting the job and all the rest, then just jumping full time into blueberry farming. And, our Mom accepting his decisions and trusting he’d figure out a way to make it all work.
Long after our Dad died, and before Mom died last year, I asked her about that time.
“Oh, it was hard, really hard so often. There were many times we didn’t know if we could even pay the interest on the bank notes, but, somehow your Dad figured it out. And, then we’d have good crops, so we could get ahead a bit. I trusted your Dad, honey. He was a good man, and I knew he would always do what was right. I never once saw him do anything without integrity. I think that, plus our faith God would take care of us, and some hardheaded Irish stubbornness got us through. We really did have a good life in spite of the hardships, didn’t we?”
We sure did.
The older I get the more I see how all those times and experiences on that farm influenced and impacted just about everything I’ve done and become. So, here’s to you, Mom and Dad. You both did so well: thank you for all of it.
And, here’s to all our farmers. Thank you for being the unsung heroes you are.
9/7/2019 09:10:11 pm
Well said Tim! From someone who was raised on a farm in the Fremont area. The work was always in front of us when we stepped out of the house in the early morning. The work habits learned from that upbringing have served well.
9/7/2019 09:36:51 pm
Mr McGrath you were one of my all time favorite teachers! Love this story of your life! I remember you reading BFG outloud to our class and it’s still one of my favorites!! Thank you!
9/8/2019 10:43:40 pm
Thank you Tim, for sharing this very real picture of farm life. I too grew up on a small family farm and will always treasure that way of life, even though it was very hard at times. Farmers dont get enough credit, that's for sure!
9/9/2019 08:19:19 am
Tim, this is such a loving tribute to your folks and the life they lived. Thank you for sharing this with us!
9/9/2019 09:12:18 am
Once again, you have nailed it Tim! Bravo! to your Dad for teaching you such a valuable life lesson.There is an awful initial feeling during those sudden, unexpected moments when we realize here on our farm, that a disease or a hail storm has ruined what was to be a bountiful crop. It is a deep sickening emptiness in the pit of my stomach. Our heartache is not only for our loss but also for the many customers who await the fruit crops year after year. They are just as disappointed as we are. But through these ups and downs of farming, the attitude that your Dad displayed is what keeps a farmer's sanity. Things beyond a farmer's control are a part of it and there is no fighting a hail storm. When that wild wind and hail hit our peaches a week or so ago, saddened with the realization of what was happeneing but then resigned to Mother Nature's fury, I scurried out and collected enough of the huge chunks to fill 2 glasses. John and I drank those rum and Cokes watching the last of the storm pass, grateful for all the times we HAVE had good weather, good crops, and good customers to enjoy the harvest. The story of your Dad's lesson to you will stick with me as reinforcement and strength during the next inevitable storm. Thanks for sharing it with us all.
9/9/2019 10:32:22 am
Great article! So enjoyed the plight of the farmer in your eyes!
9/9/2019 11:02:15 am
Tim, Thanks for the glimpse into your life as a child. I was not raised on a farm, but married a farmer. Thus our girls were raised on the farm. Ours being in the livestock industry, specifically hogs.
9/9/2019 01:11:42 pm
What an amazing story of taking a leap of faith. Following one's heart doesn't mean easy times a head, but what a wonderful legacy your dad and mom left to you and your family, Tim. Your writing brings that alive!
9/11/2019 04:41:16 am
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