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Op-Ed: The pandemic made me a farmer again

Harvested  vegetables in a basket
A harvest is gained only after months of work, and yet the outcome isn’t within your control. You require nature’s smile.
(Meredith French / UCCE San Diego County Master Gardener)

I am a prodigal of Midwestern farm country, and, yes, I recognize the irony that this year I’ve been leaving home in a rush each morning for the enjoyment of growing food on a spare acre in a Washington suburb, the kind of work I hated as a boy in Michigan.

The pandemic made me a farmer again. Ordinarily a crew of parents and children would have done the sowing and reaping, and I would have been their muse, imparting what wisdom remains from my boyhood. Because of the virus, however, the crew was disbanded, and suddenly the acre of “demonstration garden” on the municipal grounds of Takoma Park, Md., was all mine, an odd sequel for someone who had abandoned his history.

My great-grandfather, embarking from Germany, was the first in the Kohn family to arrive in America, settling in Michigan in 1883, and for the next three generations the Kohns hoed fields and milked cows by hand. The farm did not pass to my generation. I did not take it over, and my father sold our 120 acres to a neighbor who was accumulating farmland for a massive enterprise reliant on eight-ton tractors.

By then I had already left for a modern life, and, while the loss of our farm brought me remorse, I never returned to it, never accepted my birthright.

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An acre in Takoma Park is not a farm, of course. Laid out for appearance’s sake, its neatly assembled vegetable beds run between paths of flagstone and borders of quarried rocks, amidst the comings and goings of city hall and within earshot of State Route 410, brakes and horns disturbing the peace, and joggers and bikers keeping pace with the slug of cars.

Yet I’ve been constantly reminded that garden work can be authentic farm work. It strains your muscles, and the constant conflict with cold and hot, wind and rain, is exhausting, too.

The first salvo of spring was a wintry mix pelting on black smears of mud. Nothing could be planted. To busy myself I hauled manure from a horse stable and piled it in a garden corner as future compost.

Finally, the weather was right for seeds. When seedlings popped, I put collars around them to protect against pestiferous birds. Every day I weeded. For a while everything flourished, but then came summer with astonishingly hot, dancing air. Temperatures packed a heat of 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit higher than average in our region. I did my best with hoses and a sprinkler.

When I was growing up in the 1950s the climate was not as unpredictably rash, but the need to adjust to it was the same. My father’s last thought at bedtime was usually about the weather. What would tomorrow bring?

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One September a tornado rolled up our rows of navy beans, ruining the harvest. The storm blew in so fast we were caught flat-footed in the field. I was 10 years old and suffused with the thrill of our own escape. Not until later did I realize that a winter job in the Pioneer sugar beet factory that my dad had to resort to, a job that gave him pneumonia, was the true consequence.

This is always the risk: A harvest is gained only after months of work, and yet the outcome isn’t within your control. You require nature’s smile.

I look back now with awe at how well and how often my father and mother met with success. We ate sweet corn and scalloped potatoes and berry pies and rhubarb custard, all homegrown. We ate big-smelling meats from animals we butchered and that my mom cooked on a woodstove. Sometimes we had extra, and we would give it away to people we knew through Beaver Zion Lutheran Church.

For cash, we took beans and wheat in a wagon to a grain elevator and took milk from our Holsteins to a cheese factory. The men who purchased our goods were friends from church.

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That was farming as I knew it. Over the decades I watched from afar as family farming was consigned to museums. I saw out airplane windows the square miles of farm estates grow vaster and vaster. The route to markets grew longer and longer to the point that this year, when the virus disconnected parts of it, crops rotted in the fields.

This is industrial farming. Ask these industrialists about the people in their business they feel closest to, and they might mention the gaudily jacketed brokers in the futures pit at the Chicago Board of Trade, although the brokers gave up their jackets and the Chicago pits for computers five years ago.

It is quite the gap between them and my dad.

Before he died, he and I talked about his decision to live out his life on the homestead. During 4½ years of World War II, he had seen Tunisia and Sicily and other ports and could have used the GI Bill to go anywhere. “What brought you back?” I asked one day.

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He did not answer directly, but I recall him saying, “The time I like best is when the fields are empty.”

“Why?” I wasn’t sure I understood.

“It’s when the crops are in.”

The crops on my acre have been coming in for weeks now — tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes, a catalog of vegetables — and I’ve been giving them away to people who suffered misfortune in the pandemic. It seemed the least I could do after what the pandemic gave back me.

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Howard Kohn is the author of “The Last Farmer: An American Memoir” and “Who Killed Karen Silkwood?”


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