“Some of them just got too big for their britches.” People said that occasionally, that some farmers who went down during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, went in too big too fast and got blown off the land by a disaster in the markets. Didn’t matter what you were up to either–cattle, hogs, corn or soybeans, all of them fell off a cliff and took a thousand farmers with them.
Most of those went down on the coattails of advice from bankers who were more than willing to hand out cheap money as long as the markets were strong and land prices up there waaaay high. When all of it tanked, it became impossible for lots of farmers to watch the sun rise.
Lots of them were looking for nothing more than having enough of an operation to pass along to their sons. They got big because they wanted the best for the family. But it didn’t matter how right and noble and thoughtful their motives were; whole operations were mortgaged on land whose value dropped off the table and hit the floor. People went down. It wasn’t pleasant.
Then again, there were other farmers too, small-time operations who’d basically got the same work done the very same way it got done for decades, farmers who didn’t grow, didn’t prosper, didn’t get too big for their britches, because they’d never really wanted all that much out of the operation in the first place. You know?–if there’s good fishing out there on the Missouri, well, maybe I can wait a week to get the corn in.
Some of those went down too.
The family we were visiting that night were, basically, one of those. They were losing their farm, but people in the know–old-timers in the region and some of the elders in the consistory–were saying in very hushed tones that Benny had never been much of a farmer, not even in good times.
His wife was a queen though, did far too much the milking herself when the old man wasn’t around, far too much of the farm work, period. All very hush-hush. Nobody was gleeful Benny was losing his farm, and no one in the church council on which I served back then did much but shake their heads.
We were out there at Benny’s farm that night, two of us, as directed by the council to offer, well, support. The church wasn’t going to bale him out, couldn’t really. Besides, in Benny’s case, you couldn’t just blame the dang bank. The Farm Crisis took out good people, hard workers, dedicated farmers. But it took out Bennys too, men who, you know, got by, you might say, during the fat years.
I wish I could remember the house, but I can’t. Because I don’t, I assume you need simply to see it was an old farmhouse with pint-sized rooms and walls that were beginning to wander a bit out of plumb. Kitchen floor creaks some. Fridge full of Christmas cards. Fluorescents over the table where we sat.
I was a kid. The office of elder implies age, doesn’t it?–an “elder” should be one. I wasn’t. What did I know? Not much. Two of us were sent to be a presence, to pray with them in their hour of need. This was the way church worked.
“And then they tell me I shouldn’t drink the water–nitrates, you know?” Benny growled, a small, bald man in a collared shirt I suppose he’d worn special because the elders were coming. “‘You get it checked?’ one of those DNR guys asks me. I told him I’d just learned to live with a gut ache.”
I didn’t feel like an elder. I didn’t understand what people meant by “the farm crisis,” didn’t know if we were in it or not. It was like a pandemic in a way: if you didn’t have the virus, some instinct to live made you wonder whether anyone truly did. I didn’t know the people either. I didn’t grow up in the church I was serving.
In a stretch of silence that night, Bennie’s wife leaned back and picked a book off a stack beside the phone, then put it down on the kitchen table. “I’m enjoying this, Jim,” she said, or something similar, and she pointed at a book of devotions I’d written for children. “And the kids like it too. It’s been a blessing through all of this.”
I’d been asked to write devotions for kids, nothing I’d ever planned, nothing I’d ever dreamed of doing. I had no aspirations for preaching. It was a good job I was honored to have. I liked it, loved it, in fact; but it wasn’t a calling. Art!–now that was a calling.
All of that was forty years ago, mid-’80s. On the obituary pages of the local paper a month or so ago, I saw her picture, her name. She wasn’t all that much older than I am. The obituary didn’t say how she’d died, but leaving that farm, I’m sure, didn’t mean the end of what some people might have called a tough life. Then again, maybe not. There was all that fishing.
When I saw her picture, I recognized her, remembered her telling me that things I wrote in that book of meds for kids brought her joy, a little peace; a few words I’d typed up out of our basement had become some kind of shelter in the time of storm.
When I saw her picture, the whole scene returned because that night, I got used in some divine scheme in a way that was, when we walked into that kitchen, totally unforeseen. Long before I had been an elder, I’d been installed into office and put to work by the hand of Almighty. The whole thing seemed beyond me. I suppose it was.
One of our greatest gifts is agency, will. We have it. We can choose. We do. Thank the Lord.
Then again, sometimes our lives are arranged in mysterious ways His wonders to perform. Just got to smile.