Letter from Langdon: Semper Farm

Endurance, discipline, and readiness for surprise attacks -- U.S. war veterans have what it takes to farm.

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The farm can be a battleground.

Weather, disease, markets, government, you name it, at some point over the last 40 years I’ve  fought just about everything, even my own mistakes.

In Connecticut, warring farmers are engaged with Frosty the Snowman as heavy snow collapses farm buildings. Already, more than 136 barns, hoop houses and greenhouses have been lost along with crops and livestock inside. In at least one instance emergency responders had to be called to help extract animals from ruined structures. The same is true here in Missouri; the whole state seems like a weather-war zone.

That’s why a New York Times article about training our returning soldiers to be organic farmers caught my eye. According to Marine Sergeant Colin Archepley, “It’s a matter of survival, an uphill battle. You have to think everything is against you and hope to stay alive.” Sounds like he’s talking about Afghanistan, but what the good sergeant actually refers to is the business of farming.
Sergeant Archepley wisely observed,  “In the military, grunts are the guys who get dirty, do the work and are generally underappreciated; I think farmers are the same.”

Been there, done that. Well…half of it.

I’m no veteran of foreign wars, but I have fought long and hard in the foothills and valleys of Northwest Missouri. Instead of combat boots, a sidearm, and M16, my battle gear is slip point pliers, fence stretchers, and a pair of cowboy boots.

A flooded farm in Washington’s Skagit Valley, January 2009.

Coincidentally, just across the Missouri River in Nebraska they’ve got a program for returning veterans called Combat boots to Cowboy boots. Disabled returning vets are given a six-week course at the University Of Nebraska College Of Technical Agriculture in Curtis, NE. According to the college website, the program is “designed to assist eligible military personnel, their families and armed forces veterans to become Farmers, Ranchers, and Business Entrepreneurs in their next careers.”

A group called FVC (for Farm Veteran Coalition), funded in part by USDA, hosts retreats to teach veterans about the food industry and offers help acquiring land and other assets. According to Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, rural populations make up only one-sixth of the nation but supply 45% of our military personnel. Those people are there for us rain or shine, no matter the weather.

Climate is always part of the farmer’s unending battle, too: like the thundersnow we had a few years ago. It started with about 12 inches of snow falling silently in the night. We had been lulled into a false sense of security when Mother Nature sent her second wave: heavy thunderstorms, then more snow. The rain had nowhere to go because snow blocked its escape. With lakes in our feedlots, one calf fell, probably brought down by lightning.

Richard Oswald
Cows in a snowdrift, Langdon, Missouri, circa 1978.

No one gets left behind on our farm. When I found the calf was still alive I set about dragging him out of the water to safety and the barn. Linda saw me knee deep in trouble and came out to help. Together we got the white face out while lightning flashed and thunder rolled like artillery. But we were too late.

One way or another, farmers are always threatened with the death tax.

Overall, farmers are fighters. Sometimes, too, we’re cannon fodder, as when imported crops overrun the country. That’s how a Zapotec farmer in Mexico feels when he sees US exports amid his own doubtful growing conditions. “Of my generation, many people want nothing to do with farming because it doesn’t pay. With all the changes in the weather, there is no certainty that your harvest will be good,” said Baldemar Mendoza.

Looking out over a drought-parched field at Bingaman Ranch, Perkins County, South Dakota

Fighting big corporations, markets, and weather is tough duty. There can be no surrender. And there’s always more strength in numbers. I’m glad to have reinforcements.

For our returning warriors, some of them with battle trauma, what I and aggie grunts like me do must seem like a solitary Sunday afternoon walk in the park.

Welcome home, Soldier – Semper Farm!

Richard Oswald is a fifth generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri.

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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