Love of the Land
Smoke rings circle the old man’s head as he rocks back and forth, deep in thought. His favorite spot after dinner is the southeast corner by the kitchen’s wood burning stove. The January snow cover is 2 feet, deeper than usual at this time of year and the daytime temperatures hover around a frigid 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Chores start before sun up and continue long after the sun dips into the West because the cows need to be milked every twelve hours. His stooped frame aches from the extreme cold and he wonders how many more winters he will be able to work.
Gnarled fingers pull the pipe from his mouth. He tamps down the tobacco with his left thumb, sucks in air through the chewed mouthpiece a couple of times and tamps it again. Satisfied that the flame will last, he returns the pipe to his lips.
Weathered by the elements, his face is pitted and lined, causing him to appear older than his 82 years. Unruly shocks of grey hair surround compassionate blue eyes. The family lost the best milk producer today. She slipped in the free stall barn and could not get up. It hurts to put an animal down, but it had to be done and as the head of the family, it was Alfred’s job. When it was done, he took her to the edge of the field, near the woods, dug a hole with the John Deere bucket and buried her near the stone wall, under the maple tree. He never gave death a thought until recently. It always seemed a natural part of the life cycle. But as his time grows nearer, his grandchildren’s laughter is sweeter, the hawk circling the cornfield in search of prey appears more majestic and the daffodils poking through the frosty ground are brighter as they blast the arrival of Spring.
The rhythmic creaking of chair runners against the worn, wide-board floor sounds farther and farther away. Alfred’s chin sinks toward his chest, but he catches himself, snapping his head back with a jolt. The work day had not yet ended.. He parks his pipe in the dented, pewter ashtray to his right and forces his weary body to a standing position.
Still dressed in his faded denim blue jeans and threadbare, red flannel shirt, he scuffed across the kitchen floor in his turned over fleece lined leather slippers. Stacked in neat piles on the steel farm table were the month’s bills. The milk check was deposited this afternoon. As was his habit, he would face the bills tonight. Heaving a sigh, he sinks into the white, painted chair and pulls a pile towards him. With a quick flip through the pages, he sees that this month is no different than any other. He owes more than he can pay. The cost of grain, electricity, equipment and building maintenance skyrocketed, but milk prices have not risen proportionately. Alfred’s heart aches for his son who spent his entire life on the farm and expects to pass it down to his son. Five generations lived and died on the land. How could he tell his son that they were going under?
A rap at the door pulls him from his thoughts.
“Dad, are you still up?” a voice calls from the other side of the door.
Will enters. He is a 25 year younger version of his father. He pulls out a chair and sits down
Fidgeting in his seat, Will struggles for words.
Without looking up, Alfred asks, “What’s on your mind, son.”
“I found a way to keep the land.”
Alfred looked up in disbelief. “What?”
“I know we’ve been in tough shape for a long time.”
“You knew? Sorry, I didn’t know how to break it to you.”
“That’s OK, Dad. I’ve been trying to get up the courage to tell you that I made a deal with a guy from New York who wants to start a winery. He’s willing to sign a long term lease and hire us to work the place. Best part is we can stay here. Dad, say you’ll sign the papers.”
Alfred looked from the piled bills to his son’s eager face. “Son, this is your decision and your future. I didn’t think there was a way to save the farm, but you came up with one. I will be happy to spend the rest of my days watching the sun set over the vineyard.
Son, I’m proud of you.