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Life on the Land
Three generations of love and work
by John Camp
December 8, 1985
The November landscape was brown and black and tan, spotted with stark clusters of leafless trees, dark evergreen windbreaks, and here and there a glint of silver from a frozen pond. It was a rough, grainy Middle Ages landscape painted in bleak northern earth colors by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and revealed by John Deere.
But a winter storm was prowling down to the south, over Iowa somewhere, and the fast-talking television weathermen said the border country was in for it. Anyone who must go on the road should carry blankets and a source of heat. If the car goes into a ditch, stay with it.
Along the Minnesota-Iowa border, farmers pushed their tractors and looked to the south. The sky was an edgeless slab of mean gray cloud that obliterated any hint of the sun. The prairie wind, whipping in from the northeast, cut your face like splinters of broken glass.
Time was trickling away. Snowflakes in the air, one here, one there, like ghosts of summer fireflies. Every time you looked up, there were more of them. At mid-morning, the grain elevator at Bigelow, Minn., three miles to the south, had been sharp on the horizon. By mid-afternoon, it was hidden by the falling snow.
On the west side of an unmarked gravel road, a combine was broken down with no more than a dozen rows of corn still standing in the field. The John Deere service man crouched at the front of the machine, his back hunched against the wind, trying to wring a last mile out of the 1985 harvest.
On the east side of the road, David Benson pulled his corn picker out of the field and stopped. It wasn't riding right. It had a tired sag. He had been having trouble with cornstalks wrapping into the picking gears, but this was something else. He climbed down from the tractor to look.
"Oh man, look at that," he said to a friend. "It just gave out." He pointed at a main support strut in the picker's frame. The quarter-inch-thick steel strut was twisted and folded like a piece of fabric. Benson's picker is old; he bought it for $92 at a spring auction.
"It's going to take time, take too much time," he said, looking south. "The corn is good. I bet we're getting 90 to 100 bushels an acre. Boy, I'd like to get it out."
The cure for the corn picker was simple but time-consuming. Tow it carefully back to the farm shop, straighten the folded strut with a winch, and reinforce it by welding in a couple of pieces of angle iron.
But with winter coming in, other tasks were pressing the barn to close up, two wagons of corn to unload, animals to move. Night comes early. By 6pm, it's too dark to work.
Across the road, the neighbor was working again, snow squalls whipping around his ungainly green combine. The prairie was flat enough, and the neighbor's corn was tall enough, that a man on the road couldn't see beyond it. There was only the wall of corn, and the sky. But as the combine chopped the last rows, the countryside beyond it became visible, as though the machine were pushing back a theater curtain.
The year went like this:
Spring came early. The oats were in by the first week of April, and the corn and soybeans by early May. The first cutting of the hay came shortly afterwards, and it was a good one, "maybe the best first cutting we've ever had," Benson said. The cutting and baling of hay was followed by hand-hoeing the beans and corn, a long stretch of hot, back-breaking work that extended into the heart of the summer.
In mid-July, the second cutting of the hay came, and when that was done, the oats were ready. They were out by the end of the month. Then came the rains. From the second week of August through early October, the fields were too wet to work. The last cutting of hay was lost, and the soybean harvest was delayed a month.
The beans finally were harvested at the end of October, and the yield was mediocre. Then more waiting as the moisture left the slower-drying corn. When the corn eventually was picked, the yield was as high as it ever had been.
But prices were low all year and dropped even more through the harvest season. More farmers than ever quit the land. The Bensons held on.
That was the year by the calendar, also a market year, a year you could summarize and graph, a year with a mean, a mode, and a median, a year squeezed into this block of type. A year that says nothing of the faces, the names, the smells and the sounds, the feel of the work.
Farm year, poker are alike
A farm year knits together personalities and opportunities, market prices and snowstorms, machines and philosophical tendencies that produce different quantities and qualities of oats and corn and soybeans and alfalfa.
It's an accumulation of quick conversations behind hot waiting tractors, of grunts and warm drinking water exchanged on 100-degree days on hay racks, of equipment breakdowns and apple picking, of kitchen smells and dim, cool milkings in the bottom of the barn, of country music blaring from the corn patch to repel the raccoons, of nights so dark and so far from city lights that the Milky Way looks like Manhattan.
A farm year is like a poker game. A poker game is not simply a matter of who won and lost knowing the game is knowing how the cards were played, the tension, the bluffs, the hard decisions, the bets.
A year on the farm is a playing of cards, each card an individual, yet each related, each card a memory and simultaneously a new day, cards that are played out in hands that are always familiar and always subtly different.
David Benson is a large man with blue eyes that turn down at the outside edges. He has a walrus mustache and an unruly mop of blondish hair, smile lines in his cheeks, and crow's-feet at his eyes.
He has what friends teasingly call an act. With intellectuals, he talks like an intellectual; with other friends, he's full of yups and ain'ts and gol-lies.
It's not an act. His two sides are simply that.
He reads Lewis Mumford and Alan Watts and has a reputation as a fine diesel mechanic and welder. He drives 90 miles on Sundays to a Unitarian church in Sioux City, Iowa, to hear discussions of moral philosophy, and on Sunday nights he rebuilds Volvos and Volkswagens. He reads each night before sleeping, serious works on ecology and feminism, political theory and economics, and he is building a new house.
He climbs hundreds of feet up radio towers to earn extra money by replacing burned-out or damaged beacon lights, and he gives public radio a break on his price for high tower work because he values public radio.
"Can't afford a mistake"
Sometimes, sitting around a dinner table, he talks like this:
"The future of farming is in the hands of the older farmers. The financial system we have right now makes it almost impossible for new farmers to get started. The financing terms are so bad that a new farmer, once he buys his land and equipment, can't afford to make a single mistake, ever. If he does, it's all gone. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody.
"You don't even have to make a mistake. You can do everything the extension people tell you to do, you can do everything the government wants you to do, then we get a new president and he changes something, and everything is up for grabs. Somebody changes the rules, and what used to be a good practice is now a mistake, and you're out of business."
Talk at the kitchen table. Talk and food, food and talk. The two are inextricably tied together. For the Benson families, as with many farm families, the kitchen table is at the center of life.
There are two houses at the Benson farm. One shelters David, 38, and Sally-Anne, 36, and their children, Heather, 12, and Anton, 9. It is about a mile, by road, from the main farmstead, where David's parents, Gus, 83, and Bertha, 76, live. The farm is nine miles south of Worthington and just north of the Iowa line.
The kitchen tables are important in both homes. This is where the plans are made, the reverses are assessed, the stories told. This is where the talk is.
And the talk, in this bitter year of 1985, often has to do with the agricultural crisis.
"Older farmers, the ones who want to get out and retire, have it in their power to provide more favorable terms for new people coming in," Benson said. "Maybe they could farm shares, maybe just taking a little less money."
Older farmers "only hope"
"You know a bank isn't going to do that a bank is set up to make as much money as possible. That's what it's for. But an older farmer, who has taken a good living out of the land over the years and wants to retire, maybe he'd be willing to take a little less for moral or philosophical reasons. It might be the only hope we have. We may be at the point we have to depend on altruism to save us, because nothing else works."
The present system of farming frightens all the Bensons, the older Gus and Bertha as well as the younger David and Sally-Anne.
"If you are pushed to the financial wall, you'll take extreme measures to save yourself," David Benson said. "Forget good farm practice water structures, conservation, and all that. You'll have to get the most possible profit every year just to pay off the debt load.
Short-term view wrong
"That means you'll soak the place in pesticides, which may be a terrible decision in the long run. You'll soak the soil with fertilizer instead of trying to build it up naturally, which may be a terrible thing in the long run. You'll plow it the fastest way that takes the least amount of fuel you'll cut every possible corner. And in the long run, you'll destroy the land.
"That's what the system encourages right now. It encourages the absolute shortest possible view of every problem we have. It's an awful thing, and you can already see the result. The countryside is being depopulated. People who can't make it are being forced out. They're losing everything their farms, their neighborhoods, their way of life, their whole culture."
Why should older farmers take less than a farm is worth?
"There are a couple of good answers," Benson said. "You owe something to the land. It has made you a place to live and work all your lives, so you ought to see that it gets into the right hands somebody who will take care of it.
"And sometimes, taking less will get you more. Look at all of these old farmers who sold out six years ago for $1,400 an acre and 14 percent interest on contracts-for-deed. Nobody can make those payments. So the guy they sold it to, he just quits. He gives the place back.
"Now the old farmer, who used to be retired, gets back a farm that's worth $750 an acre, if anybody is buying, and it's not in nearly as good shape as it was six years ago. So he never got that big price, did he? He would have been better off selling it on more reasonable terms, something the guy would have a chance to pay off, than take what looked like all that big money."
The farm, Benson said, is the basic ecological unit on the planet, and should be used to hold the planet together. As the family passes around lamb stew and cranberry bars, he warms to the topic.
"Christianity once came out of work and the land, but it's gotten more theoretical, and I think that's unfortunate. The churches represent the moral leadership of the culture, and I think the effort to save the land, that impulse, might best come from the pulpit. Social sciences? Maybe. But I don't think so. I don't think you can trust social science the way you can trust the instinct to religion...."
The kitchen table is not just a place for philosophy. It's also a place for good stories and good memories that once were bad and now have the warm familiarity of a worn flannel nightshirt.
Sally-Anne seems always conscious of her children, hugging them, talking to them, touching their heads. Her stories are less of farming and economics than of family.
Sally-Anne tells a family story
"Oh, God, one time Anton swallowed some popcorn the wrong way, it went down into his lungs, and he had trouble breathing," she said. "He just seemed like he couldn't breathe, or he'd just kind of doze off, like he wasn't all there...."
Her hands dance in the air as she tells the story, and the legs of her chair scrape the floor as she becomes more agitated.
"We rushed him into the hospital, and when we got there, he was all right again... and then he started fading out again," she said. "Finally the doctor told us we ought to take him to Children's Hospital in St. Paul. We put him in the car and headed up the highway, 80 miles an hour...."
"A cop stopped us, a highway patrolman," David interrupted, "and I stopped and jumped out of the car...."
Sally-Anne pushed back in, excited by the story. "And the patrolman took one look at David's face and he said, 'You've got trouble, don't you,' and David told him, and he said, 'Go on up the highway, don't worry about the speed limit but keep it under control.'
"So we took off again, and all the way up, nobody bothered us the patrolman had called ahead and cleared us. And Anton kept fading out, and we'd say, 'C'mon, Anton, c'mon Anton,' and we got up to the hospital and rushed him inside and the doctor took him....
"They took him back to examine him, and came out and said it was popcorn and they could get it out. David and I, we just went out to the car and sat there and cried. We just cried. What a day that was. God, I'll never forget that, Anton fading out, and sitting there in the car...."
The children, both blond and round-faced and blue-eyed, chip in their own stories of snowstorms past, of skating on the farm pond, of doing evening chores, and of social trauma on the school bus.
Bertha talks about her youth in Finland, the memories of war, of bombs and bullets. Gus talks of warming the crankcase of the Ford with a hubcap full of burning corncobs so he could get Bertha to the hospital for the birth of their middle daughter. Bertha tells of the night they got electricity, of her hands bathed in electric lamplight. Gus brags of picking 150 bushels of corn a day, by hand. David tells of riding a motorcycle to San Francisco, where he lived through the final years of the '60s, right there on Haight. Sally-Anne laughs about a hair-raising hitchhiking trip through Canada, just before she and David settled down with farming.
"You know what you're eating"
The kitchen table also is the place for food.
"One of the best things about living on the farm is that you know what you're eating," Sally-Anne said. "Our kids are going to be healthy."
The Bensons raise all their own meat beef and lamb and chicken. They milk an aging cow, Bluma, and maintain a chicken house for the eggs. They raise most of their own vegetables, eating fresh in season, and frozen and canned through the winter. They pick apples for sauces and cider. On any given day, the kitchens of Bertha and Sally-Anne are redolent with the odor of fresh bread or pies, meat stews, and vegetables.
"Grandpa (Gus Benton) always figured food was fuel, and he wanted plenty of it," Sally-Anne said. "David grew up that way, too, and it's a necessary thing sometimes, when it's cold, and you have to work outside, it seems like you can't eat enough to keep yourself going."
Kitchen operations are passed deliberately and carefully down the generations. Heather goes to Bertha's kitchen to learn about apple pies. Together, they build a pie from scratch, an extended process that involves discussion of all of the reasons for each different action and ingredient.
"What about nutmeg?"
"Just a little. Here. Just shake it on, just a touch.... But plenty of butter. The more butter the better it is. So never skimp on butter...."
"And you roll this?"
"You pinch it, here. That seals it up, and it makes it look nice."
The farm year began in late spring. The entire world seemed composed of different shades and tints of green. The air was soft and humid and still. The only breeze was artificial, born of the motion of the hayrack, and, at that, not enough to ruffle the hair on a forearm. In the shade of the windbreak, it was almost cool. As the tractor moved out the front gate past the mailbox, crunching over the gravel shoulder, sunlight fell on the bare necks and lightly clothed shoulders, and heat prickled on the skin.
"You gotta make hay while the sun shines," Sally-Anne Benson said cheerfully, swinging her legs off the rack as her husband, David, towed it out to the west field with the David Brown tractor.
Sally-Anne Benson's nickname is Sago, an acronym of her maiden name, Sally-Anne Greeley, with the "o" tagged on for reasons of euphony. She is a small woman, 5 feet tall, 105 pounds, and pretty. She is a teacher (mornings only) at a Worthington Montessori school, the mother of Heather and Anton Benson, a good cook, an enthusiastic dancer, a maker and drinker of apple cider, a milker of cows and a doer of any number of other things, including a frequent driver of tractors. She drives at hay-making.
"You have to keep the moisture down, so you wait late enough in the morning to get the dew off," she said. "You mostly won't get out much before 10 or 11. A hot day with the sun shining and a good wind will really dry the hay out."
First cutting of hay a good one
In the field, David and Sally-Anne traded places, David hopping on the rack while she drove the tractor over windrows of hot yellow hay.
If haying was a card, it would be the queen of diamonds a sweetness with a definite edge to it. Hay is the first crop of the year, the first payback.
And the first cutting of hay on the Benson farm was a good one. It was baled and stacked while the sun shined and the daily temperature climbed over 100 degrees.
The drying alfalfa smells like ginger and something else, a sweet, fat odor riding the silky summer breezes with gravel dust and gasoline fumes, riding into the elbow-out side windows of dusty old automobiles.
Baling means long, lingering hours of twilight as the solstice approaches. Old, weathered gray wood in the hay rack. Warm water from glass jars, and never enough of it. Hay cuts on forearms. Twine grooves in the pads of fingers. Sweat-soaked leather gloves. T-shirts sticking to the back and chest. Dry lips. The sun carving at the eyes. Arms leaden and aching with fire.
Baling is noise. A baler is a strange, violent piece of machinery. Trailed behind a tractor, it picks up pre-cut and dried windrows of hay alfalfa mostly smashes and pounds them into a bale, ties the bale with twine, and ejects the bale from an upward-slanting chute that just touches the front edge of the hayrack.
A hayrack is the open wagon pulled behind the baler. You stand at the front edge of the rack, knees bent to absorb the shock of the bumpy ride, hands protected by leather gloves which are sweat-soaked in minutes, and when the bale comes up, you reach out with the stronger arm, snag the twine with your fingers, lift and grunt, balance the bale on your out-thrust hips, take three or four quick steps to the back of the rack, and push the bale onto the stack.
And go back for another.
"Like this. Stack it like this. That'll tie it together," David Benson shouted as the first bales pushed over the lip of the rack.
There is a pattern to stacking, as Benson demonstrated. The first bale is set all the way to the back, with its long side parallel to the side of the rack. The rest of the bales are placed with their long sides parallel to the back of the rack. The pattern is reversed on the next level, so the bales always cross each other from one level to the next.
"We're going to be stacking these up over our heads, so you want to tie them together like that so the whole pile doesn't fall off on the road back to the barn. It gives you just that little bit of stability," Benson said.
The work was hard and unremitting. The stackers took turns grabbing, swinging and stacking, the baler hammering all the while, Sago half-turned in her tractor seat as it rolled up and down the field.
When the rack was full, it was towed back to the barn. The bales were swung off the rack and onto an elevator, a piece of machinery that looks like a cross between a conveyor belt and an escalator. It's even noisier than the baler.
"You guys unload the rack, and we'll go up to the top and stack," Benson said. The men on the bottom began pulling bales off the rack and dropping them onto the elevator. Up in the loft, the bales popped out of the baler. Benson and a friend hooked and grunted and lifted, as they had on the rack, and carried the bales as far back and high in the barn as possible.
Heat weighs in the lungs
The barn, in its own way, is as bad as the field. Balers are exposed to the fierce, slicing sunlight, but in the barn the heat is close, dense and heavy, sitting in the lungs like soup.
"When I was 16, a friend and I hired out all over to bale," Benson said. "We could throw bales all day. Boy, were we in shape. Baling will do that for you. It takes a little longer after 35."
"You ought to start a spa for yuppies," Benson was told. "The Benson Hay Plan $150 a day, good meals, guaranteed to whip the body into shape in only 14 days."
"You'd have to be able to stand yuppies for 14 days."
"A major drawback."
"Not more than 30 bales left, now."
"You said that 30 bales ago."
"Yeah, but I was lying then."
"Remember," David Benson asked, "going out there with the hoes and chopping the weeds out?"
The Bensons have hoes. A lot of hoes, kept sharp with a grinder, one for every member of the family, for cousins and sisters and out-of-town visitors.
A hoe, for the Bensons, is a philosophical statement.
"The soil has been here since the glaciers left, and you could grow just about anything on it," Benson said. "Since we've started farming it, we haven't done it any good. We send a lot of it right down to the Gulf of Mexico every year, pour all kinds of chemicals on it. Who knows what we'll wind up doing to it?
"There's an alternative to all that. If you're willing to take a little less, you can get along without all the fertilizers and the Lasso and Bigfoot (herbicides). It means you've got to do handwork, but that's OK too you build up a relationship with the land by working on it. You put so much work into a piece of land, and you start getting protective. That's got to be good for it, in the long run."
Hoeing is one of the bad jobs of the farm year. It's not particularly hard work, like haying, nor does it take much skill, as plowing does. It's hard in a different way. It demands attention, but lacks drama. The work is constant, but there is little sense of progress.
The principal villain in the soybean field is the Canadian thistle, a tall, tough bristly plant that crowds beans and chokes combines. It grows in shapeless patches that pay little attention to the order of the bean rows.
The individual thistles seem to grow best near the stems of corn or beans. The thistles have to be hooked out with the hoe, rather than simply attacked with brute force.
Hoeing the bean field is "the worst"
"This has got to be the worst," Sally-Anne benson said, halfway through a round of hoeing in the bean field. A thistle patch trailed across the rows in front of her. She was sweating hard, her face brown and unhappy in the hot summer sun. Two friends were working with her, and they both stopped.
"I thought you said it wasn't that bad," said one, leaning on his hoe.
"I keep forgetting," she said.
The Bensons have relatives and friends in the Twin Cities who come down with their families to help. "It's a family get-together, and it's a good chance for David and I to talk," Sally-Anne said one night at the kitchen table.
"Most of the time, he's on the tractor and I'm doing something else, or I'm on the tractor and he's doing something else, or I'm at the house and he's in the field, or I'm at school and he's in the shop. This is one thing we do together, at least."
But not on this day. The relatives had not come down yet. David was cultivating the corn with the tractor, and the bean field stood there, demanding attention, its thistles spreading and sprouting with great glee.
"This," Sally-Anne said, "is the worst."
At the end of each round of hoeing (a round is one trip up and down the length of the field), Sally-Anne drank water from the gallon glass jugs left at the ends of the rows. Her face glowed with heat and dehydration.
"Maybe you're too small to do this," a friend told her.
"Your body's surface area is a lot bigger compared to your weight than with larger people. Maybe you dehydrate a lot more than we do."
"I don't know. It sure is hot."
"How many more rows?"
"Just down to there you can see the end. Four more rounds, maybe."
"I don't think I can do it two more hours."
"How about this? See, you set up a Benson Academy of Performing Arts and you apply for a grant from the arts council, and then you hire a bunch of starving artists from the cities, and give them hoes and tell them that this is a performance of life and death and they are out here to kill. Maybe we could tape it and run it on public TV."
"How about this? We get some Hare Krishnas and tell them the thistles are the manifestation of evil, and they could dance through the fields with their hoes, hari-hari, rama-rama...."
And passers-by, had there been any, would have seen two large dust-covered men and a small, tired woman doing an impromptu Hare Krishna dance with hoes, in a blazing sun in the Benson soybean field, not far from the Iowa line, in southwestern Minnesota.
If a playing card were chosen to represent the 1985 soybean harvest, it would be what? The ace of hearts? A warm card, a card of the highest level. Soybeans are the cash crop, the money crop, the crop that will decide how the year goes. Even a small crop is a pleasure to harvest.
David Benson, the worry lines etched around his eyes, stood at the ends of his field, plucked a few pods, shelled out the small, yellow soybeans, and popped them into his mouth.
"Soft. They're so soft, they're mushy," he said. "Run these beans through a combine and you'd lose them, you'd just mash them up."
The trouble began in early August.
"Rain came just about the second week of August right after I bought that Deutz (tractor)," he said. "I remember we only used it once, and after that, it was always too wet to get in the fields. The rain was OK at first. We already had the oats out, and the second cutting of hay, and the corn needed a touch of wet weather. But it never stopped. It just kept going. Here it is the middle of October, and we're usually finishing up everything, just about now. We haven't been able to get in the fields. We haven't even touched the beans."
At the house, Gus Benson, from his easy chair next to the kitchen table, said, "I've never seen anything like it in 83 years. It's never been this wet and this late."
"It's getting cold," David said. "If we get snow, it'll drag the beans right onto the ground. You can't combine that way. We'd lose the crop. That's $9,000 in beans in that one field down there, and it'd be gone just like pfffft.
It happened one time to us not snow, but hail. I remember, we ran up and stood in the doorway and watched the hail come down and take the beans right out. Took them right out. I tried to get in and combine, but there wasn't any point in it. We'd get a few beans, but it cost us more in fuel than we were getting out. Of course, nothing's ever a total loss I plowed those beans under, and next year that soil was terrific. Beans make good manure; it's the kind of manure you wish you could afford to put on the land, build it up."
Weather turns dry
Two weeks later, everything changed. The rains broke and the weather turned dry.
By Monday, Oct. 28, the harvest was on. It was a Monday of the full moon. Not the harvest moon of September, but the hunter's moon.
To a man traveling down Highway 60, the major diagonal roadway from Mankato to the southwest corner of Minnesota, the hunter's moon was like a lamp flying along the edge of the road, illuminating the landscape.
On other trips, on other days, the landscape had been still. The windbreaks around the farmhouses, as seen in the moonlight, had looked like vast ships in a dark ocean anchorage, their blue mercury-vapor yardlights serving as warning lights at the peak of unseen mainmasts.
And of all the small towns that had gone to sleep early. Lake Crystal, Madelia, St. James, Butterfield, Mountain Lake, Bingham Lake, Windom, Heron Lake, Brewster all strung out on Highway 60 like rosary beads, and all asleep by 11 p.m. Farmers' hours.
But different farmers' hours were kept beneath this hunter's moon. The landscape was alive with combines that crawled and clawed their way through endless miles of rust-brown soybeans. Grain trucks roared down side roads and onto the highway, the elevators were lit and working hard, and locomotives maneuvered grain cars onto elevator sidings.
The towns were awake. The Dairy Queens and groceries were open. Clusters of dusty, tired men in work shirts and pinstriped bib overalls gathered around the back of pickup trucks, their smiles flashing in the electric light. The harvest. A month late, but coming in.
A time for fields
Benson got his beans out in a week of hard work, sitting on top of the combine, churning through dark, clean fields. Not a time for talking. Just a time for the fields.
A bean combine, like most working farm equipment, makes no concession to beauty. It's an ungainly thing, like a giant green stinkbug, groaning and lurching through the fields, pulling dried bean plants in the front, spewing shredded leaves and stems from the back. The pale yellow beans go into an interior tank, to be dumped later in high-sided wagons.
Some farmers take the beans straight into the local cooperative elevator. On the Benson farm, the wagons are towed to the main farmyard and dumped into storage bins.
"You can't really know what it feels like unless you've done it. Gosh, it just feels so good to get them out," Benson said. "Remember going out there with the hoes and chopping the weeds out? This is the payoff. These beans are clean. Look at those beans."
Later comes a colder judgment.
"The beans, I'd say, were mediocre," he said. "I mean, they're all right, but we got maybe 30 bushels an acre, average. We've gotten used to more than that 35, 40 bushels an acre but that wet weather back in August maybe kept the pods from forming like they usually do. Maybe I don't know."
Though the crop was only fair, the feeling remains warm.
"I'm glad we got them off," he said. "Gosh, it makes you feel good."
Closing down the year. Snow whips through Gus Benson's farmyard, and wagons of corn wait to be unloaded.
"We've got to close the big door," David Benson said. "That's always a job."
The "big door" is the huge, drop-down door to the barn's hayloft. Eight feet wide and perhaps 10 feet tall, it hangs upside down beneath its open doorway all through the summer.
To lift it into place, ropes are run from the back of the door to a series of pulleys inside the roof of the barn, then down to the ground floor. A single thumb-thick tow rope emerges from a ground-level door directly beneath the big door. That end of the rope is tied to a pickup truck bumper, and the pickup hauls the door up.
On the first attempt, a side rope broke and the door fell back.
"Gol-darned rope has probably been here since 1938," Benson muttered. Working bare-handed to untie the broken rope, and re-tie the new one, was a slow, clumsy task. When he was done, Benson climbed back into the pickup and put it in gear.
"Easy, easy, easy... get the hooks, get the hooks...."
As the door swung up, the light in the barn died and the outside sounds were muffled. The change was anything but subtle, the loft changing from airy balcony to comfortable cave with the creaking swing of the great door. The metallic sound of the catch-hooks confirmed the closing.
Corn is last crop in
The closing of the barn is one acknowledgment of winter's approach. The final acknowledgment the final concession comes with the corn harvest.
"When the last of the corn is in, that's it," Benson said. "There's all kinds of other stuff you keep doing, but that's it, really. After that, it's getting ready for winter, and waiting for spring."
As the storm came in, Benson towed the broken corn picker back to the shop and left it. There were other tasks to be done two loads of waiting corn to be unloaded, the house to be converted to its winter configuration.
The high-sided grain wagons were towed under a rack that looked much like a child's swing set without the swings. A winch, run by a tractor's power takeoff, was hooked to the front corners of the wagon. When the winch cable was tightened, the front of the wagon lifted from the ground, and the corn slid through small doors at the back.
Beneath the back of the wagon was the lowest step of the corn elevator, which boosted the corn to the top of the crib, where it was dropped inside. The process was simple, efficient, and noisy.
"The corn is hardly worth growing, if you were going to try to sell it," Benson said as he watched the elevator carry the neat yellow ears into the crib. "We feed most of it, so we're OK. Even if we don't sell the beef, we can always eat it."
As the snowstorm intensified the television weathermen now were calling it a blizzard the Bensons began talking about the conversion of their home.
When David and Sally-Anne married, and then later moved back to his parents' farm, they bought an aging house. Although they worked to make it livable, it never had good insulation or modern heating systems.
The house needs winterizing
The Bensons heat with wood, kerosene, and sometimes oil; wood is the mainstay. In the spring, the big Ashley wood stove is moved out of the front room to storage. In the fall, it regains its dark, glowering prominence in front of the couch.
"It's always nice to have visitors at a time like this," Benson said cheerfully. "We can use the help moving the stove."
The conversion was quick but heavy. The big old upright piano was pushed and carried from one wall to the next while Sally-Anne ran around with a broom, chanting, "Wait, wait just a minute."
When she was satisfied with the new arrangement of furniture, the Ashley was mounted carefully on cinderblocks and the chimney pipe was fitted carefully on top of it.
Sally-Anne further winterized the house by taping large pieces of transparent plastic over drafty windows. All of the Bensons worked together to shovel snow around the house's foundation to prevent wind from getting beneath the house.
"The hardest part of living here is the winter," Sally-Anne said. "The wind never stops, and when it's 10 below, or 20 below, you feel like it's cutting your face open. It can go on like that for days. You don't go outside except when you absolutely have to. You feel like you're living in a cave."
As the Bensons rearranged the living room for winter, the storm intensified.
"Can you see Bigelow? The lights?" Sally-Anne asked at 9 p.m.
No. There was nothing out there but the suffocating white mill of the storm.
Near dawn, the storm began to weaken. By mid-morning, Bigelow was visible again. Drifts blocked the road outside the house, but David, expecting them, had left a car in a non-drifting area of the road during the night. The Bensons were still mobile.
The next two days were cold. On the third day, the weather turned milder, and Benson thought about the corn again.
"Maybe I could use the bigger tractor and pull the picker through there," he said. He decided to try. Repairs on the picker took two hours, and he pulled it down to the cornfield and through the snow. It worked.
"I figure two hard days and it'll be done," he said with evident pleasure, ice bristling from his mustache, as he towed the first full wagon back to crib. "You see us go through there? She pulled right through." He patted the tractor.
It didn't quite work that way. He spent the rest of the week struggling with increasingly crusty snow and breakdowns with the picker.
"It's the ice going through it," he said. "It puts a heck of a strain on all the machinery."
But he did finish.
For the work he had done, for all the planting, cultivating, hoeing, the waiting for the rain to stop, the tension of the late fall for all that, he finished without fanfare, although you almost expected there to be some.
There was not. He pulled the picker over the last rows of corn, through the snow, and drove home.
On a cold, snowy November day, I climbed the soft steps of baled hay to a place near the peak of the Bensons' big red barn, and made some final notes.
A barn is a place of mysteries. A place of birth and death and endless sweat. A place of hatches up and down, of unexpected turnings and gates and barriers, a place where you can build a castle or a fort or a nest in the bales of hay.
In seven months of reporting on the Benson family and their farm, I had been in and out of the barn 20 or 30 or 40 times. So, on the last day, as I left for the barn, Sally-Anne asked, half-teasing, "Going to think?"
I was. When I stepped inside the barn, I found Gus Benson's big hound, Moses, curled up on a bale of hay a few feet from Bluma, the aging milk cow. I stepped over Moses and climbed the steps made by the bales until I reached the peak. Six half-grown barn cats four tigers and two calicos, the survivors of the summer litters climbed right along with me, curious about the intrusion.
A barn is basically a large wooden envelope designed to keep the worst of the weather off whatever is stored inside hay, animals, miscellaneous equipment, and tools. It is not designed to be as weatherproof as a house. Up near the top of the barn, light and snow were filtering in through cracks around the big door, a hole in a windowpane and other places.
The cats stepped carefully around the snow and sat down to watch. And I sat down to think about the year, the faces and names, the things we did, the way the farm looked and felt.
To tell the story of a farm family, over a growing year, is difficult if you are determined to do it honestly. As you accumulate information, you find too many bits that will not fit into a smooth-flowing story the low cards in the deck, in a way.
But an accumulation of low cards can make a powerful hand you'd bet the house on four deuces in draw poker. So what do you do with the small bits, the pieces that characterize the land, the people, the work?
In the months of interviewing and writing, I never told how the Bensons fight occasionally, as any sane couple does, and how, when they have a difference of opinion, they call each other "honey" in every other sentence.
Nor did I say much about the killing of animals the butchering of chickens, the transportation of sheep to the locker, David's comment that the beef cattle "represent a lot of corn and work," or his suggestion that he can maintain a personal relationship with his animals at the same time he quite happily sends them to slaughter.
I never wrote much about Sally-Anne's hunger for seafood or about Heather playing beginner's Bach on the old upright $25 piano.
I never wrote anything about the stock tank used as a swimming pool, about the tire-swing in the backyard, about the sweat-inflamed forearm cuts left by haying, about how the handles of the hoes are worn concave by years of use, about how drivers wave to each other when passing on country roads under the assumption they're acquaintances or wouldn't be there.
I never wrote about the peculiar cast of the sun on the prairie at dawn. I never wrote about Gus Benson's hands, which all by themselves look like 50 years of farming or how the Bensons link hands, big and small, rough and smooth, to say grace before meals.
In a year with the Bensons, I've been writing about the face cards. I could have done as well with the deuces and treys.
27 February 2020
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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