Home Again: Farms, Mothers and Farmers’ Daughters

I have respected and valued my mother for many things, but I am long overdue in honoring her for her role in my childhood farm, whether as a farmwife, farm mom or a farmer.

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Easter weekend, my brother and I and our families gathered at my Mom’s house and the night before the festivities, we watched some old footage, first from an 8mm of us when we were babies and then more of Easter day, 1991 — 20 years ago, almost to the day.

As we watched the flickering footage, I couldn’t help but to focus the background: the farm.

Trees and shrubs. A white picket fence. Flower beds and wild rose bushes. Thick shelterbelts protecting the house and yard from the sea of dusty farmground behind them. Barn cats skittering about and old farm machinery dotting the edges of the homestead. 

“You know, Mom,” I said. “Like it or not, you’re really the reason I became a farmer.”

A few weeks before Easter this year, my husband and I had spent some time wandering around that old farm and what we found was starkly different than the piece of ground depicted on that video tape of my childhood. 

I’d heard that the house and 40 acres, carved off when my parents sold the entire farm nearly a decade ago, was back on the market. At first, I shrugged it off. It wasn’t anything we’d be interested in starting our own farm on anyway. Too much baggage, not enough water, not enough land, too far out of town, etc. 

But then one night, after yet another stall in the talks about us taking over the farm we’re leasing now, I started thinking more about the old place and worked myself up to: Actually, it might be perfect.

Prairie Heritage Farm
At the old farm, in 1983.
I was so convinced, I woke Jacob up to tell him:

The pig barn would be just right for the turkeys. The old corrals in the back would be great for early-season paddocks. I bet we could ask my cousins (who had bought the adjacent farmland from my parents) to slice off a few more acres if we wanted to expand later. The yard inside the shelter belt is big enough for the vegetable plot and out of the wind. That big shop would be great for a processing center for our grains. 

But perhaps more importantly, I thought, I could do it, I could build a new life on my childhood farm and be OK with it, maybe even be great with it.

I called the real estate agent the next morning and set up an appointment to go look at the place. 

All day, I daydreamed about Willa playing in backyard among the caraghana bushes, me planting perennials in the front flower beds, Jacob coming in from the west field with the Rocky Mountain Front behind him. I even went so far as to start thinking about where our furniture might go in what was my childhood home.

Then the agent called.

“They’re taking it off the market,” she said. The owners had decided to move back. They would be there tomorrow. 

So that was that. Dreams dashed.

But, I asked, could we still just run out there and take a look, in case? 

I called Jacob and told him to meet me out there in an hour. 

Prairie Heritage Farm
Willa: 2011.
As we pulled up the mile-or-so drive, I narrated to Jacob and 7-month-old Willa. That’s the reservoir over there. It’s where we  went sledding in the winter. There’s where we picked bales on the side of the road and there’s where we kept the bum lambs I brought home from the neighbor’s’place. 

But, as we circled the yard, I stopped talking. 

“What are you thinking?” Jacob asked after a long silence. 

“It’s all gone. Completely gone.”

Lilacs, trees, shrubs, shelterbelts, flower beds, grass: gone. Pig shed, barn, corrals: bulldozed. Mud as far as the eye could see. 

The house seemed to be in OK shape and the farmground was clean and well taken care of, winter wheat already popping up from the neat rows. But the homestead had become a shell of itself. 

Where we raised little lambs, razed. The tree that held the treehouse was chopped down. The rows of branches I stared at for hours from a hammock, erased. What was lush and loved was now barren, almost sanitized.

With each vacancy I spotted, my thoughts turned to my Mom.

The fate of the place is one that falls on many homesteads around here. In these dry, high plains, the prairie can be unforgiving. It takes twenty or thirty years to grow the kinds of bushes and trees I played in as a kid, decades for a stand of perennial flowers to establish itself well enough to withstand long, windy winters and years of careful maintenance to keep up century-old buildings and sheds. 

But, it only takes a few short years for it all to disappear, reclaimed by the whipping wind, the dust and the harsh temperatures.

It’s easy, when I think about the loss of my childhood farm, or farming at all, to associate all of it with my Dad, a lifelong farmer, who started farming at 15 when his father died. It’s easy to think about his connection to the land and the way of life and what that instilled in me as a child and how he’s helped shape me as a farmer. 

But as I walked around my old farm that windy afternoon, little Willa in my arms, I realized that farming is in my blood not only because of my Dad, but because of my Mom – and the little island of life she built in the middle of a dirt farm. 

Prairie Heritage Farm
Willa and me walking down the road of the old farm.
The big reason I’m farming now is because I want Willa to have the kind of childhood I did, full of sun and wind and dirt and food and flowers, all things my Mom encouraged for me.

She was the one I dug in the dirt with. She was the one I laid in the grass with. She was the one who taught me about perennials and bulbs, peas and potatoes (both how to grow them and how to cream them). She’s the one who after a decade of drought, kept the farm – and the farm family – together.

Last year, I was asked to be on a radio program to talk about what it means to be a woman farmer and how the new trend of women getting into farming was changing the face of agriculture. I’d been keenly watching conversations about the trend within the food movement, as well as a seemingly unrelated discussion about who can and can’t be called a farmer.

In the context of both topics, the first thing I thought of was all the strong farm women I’d grown up around: my Mom, my aunts, my neighbors. Then, I thought about all the strong farm women I know now. 

How had things changed for women farmers like me? The answer was really, they hadn’t changed much. 

Thirty years ago, my Mom and the rest of the farm women we knew were doing a lot of the same things I am now: attempting to raise kids, run a household, manage a farm, grow and preserve most of our family’s food and work off-farm jobs to make ends meet. Not to mention, creating a homestead worth calling home.

The big difference is that 30 years ago, my Mom was called a farm wife and today, I’m called a farmer. 

In the footage from Easter, 1991 the only time my Mom talks is to point out to the viewer the tulips popping up in one of the flower beds on the south side of the house. It’s apparent, from the rest of the farm, that it’s been another long winter. The trees have yet to bud, the winter wheat is just starting to show itself in the field and the grass is still brown underneath us. 

“Look!” my Mom says, “The tulips are coming up.” 

“We’re almost there,” she says with relief and a little hope in her voice. 

There, in those few words, I was reminded that my Mom’s connection to land is the one I recognize in myself and the one I hope to share with Willa someday.  

I have respected and valued my mother for many things, but I am long overdue in honoring her for her role in my childhood farm, whether as a farmwife, farm mom or a farmer.

So Mom, thanks for making a farmer out of me. Thanks for sharing the wonder and hope of something as simple as a shoot of a tulip in early spring and most of all, thanks for teaching me how to cultivate life, no matter how harsh the wind, sun or winter may be. 

Courtney Lowery Cowgill is a writer, editor and farmer. She and her husband run Prairie Heritage Farm, a small farm in Central Montana where they raise vegetables, turkeys , ancient and heritage grains and sometimes, a little ruckus. Her monthly column, Home Again, is about her journey home to rural central Montana, where she is starting over, starting a family and starting a farm. You can read more of her work on her blog, Life, Cultivated.

 

 

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