This is what the farm looks like, looking west from the little house. You may have seen this photo before. It is not, however, what the land looks like at this moment when I’m writing. Now it looks black. So here’s the story.
Actually, it’s this story because I can’t yet add to the memoir in the last couple of posts. That’s because said memoir wasn’t working with the I/you bit and I’ve had to revise. In the meantime, I’ve been reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and John Banville’s new memoir, Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, to see how other writers have dealt with the past/present conundrum.
At any rate: the burned farm story. Actually, the farm has been much in my consciousness, phone calls, thinking, and doing for the past several months. It began in January with the taxes. That was the easy part. Okay, done. And then, since the farm is in a conservation reserve program (CRP) and has been lo these past forty years since Dad retired from farming, I had to follow up the taxes with more pressing farm demands. The FSA (farm service agency) rules are such that every few years, I need to get the prairie burned off, all one-hundred-twenty-acres. I recently posted an old story on burning the prairie which adventure convinced me not to try to do it myself again. The other piece of FSA rules was that I needed to get someone to cut trees out of said prairie because once trees get hold, they prosper, and the prairie is no longer prairie. And then one takes these invoices, which we’ve paid, to the FSA and have them logged in so the fall payment for CRP, which supports the farm, will be paid.
So. It has taken me countless hours on the phone to find someone to burn and to cut. Hours and hours. For months and months. Keep in mind, I began the search in mid-January and only now is it done. We had the local fire department do the burn the past few times and gave them a donation of around $1,000 (having a farm in conservation is a pricey business) but they can no longer do it. 1. the men are too old; 2. Kansas law now prohibits fire departments from doing it.
After many many calls and just as many estimates, I found a man who would cut out the trees for around $1100. It turned out to be closer to $1200 but it was done. And at the same time, I was calling leads to find someone to burn off the prairie. One estimate was $5,000. I mean, really???? I finally found a guy with whom I’d been in high school, but he was across the state line at the Liberty Fire Dept. and had several ahead of me in Nebraska and they had to come first but he’d do what he could. Keep in mind the farm is 1/2 mile from Nebraska.
And then, by a happenstance I can’t really remember, I found the Linn, Kansas, American Legion who were burning prairie to raise funds for the Legion. Whew! Linn is about 45 miles from the farm, so I sweetened the pot by adding $400 for a total of $1400. And they burned it and did a great job.
Now, after all that backstory, Stephen, my son, and I went to the farm over the weekend. Cliff had school papers to catch up on so he stayed home, did laundry, and had a good dinner ready for us when we returned on Monday evening. Which, all in all, is a fair trade. Our primary goal was to plant grass and put straw over said grass in the hopes that it would keep away critters and birds until it sprouts.
I’ve no idea where the essay is stored in this copious record of my life on WordPress, but there is an essay, perhaps the one where I pumped out the basement, on what a mess the area around the house became after construction. I’ve been struggling with the five feet times 90 feet of ground around it since. Earlier this year, I guess over spring break, Cliff and I went up, cleared out all the weed stalks/sunflower stalks/weird red berry something or another that seems determined to root, and left bare ground. Which Stephen and I covered copiously with grass seed. A neighbor brought up two bales of straw which we then used to cover said seed. No doubt, at some point in the future, I will update the story on whether or not I finally have grass instead of very tall weeds around the house. In the nonce (doncha love that word) it’s done.
And Stephen and I drove into Marysville, turned in papers to the FSA, re-certified the CRP for the next three years….and learned that the end of 2020 may be our last year in the program as the government has cut funding for conservation and instead is buying bombs and airplanes. I have no idea what we will do then, but as Scarlett O’Hara said, I’ll think about it tomorrow. What I know is that prairie roots are 12-14 and more deep and it’s hard to put it back in cultivation. (Which I don’t want to do anyway. It’s one half section of wild in the midst of corporate farming.) Stephen and I had lunch at the Wagon Wheel Cafe which has done steady business since I was a kid, and then we drove the three hours back to Kansas City.
However, I have to tell you one more story which Cliff said I should tell. Cliff, a city boy from Baltimore, is somewhat tool challenged, in a kind way of putting it. He also began wearing a C-Pap a few months ago which, as all C-Paps do, has a harness. It has strong magnets on the harness which tend to clasp onto themselves and usually, I help him get the harness adjusted. Well. I was on the farm. He had to do it himself. He said it took a while as the harness kept tangling and at one point it was in a knot on top of his head and he said, “I looked like a Polish grandmother with a babushka on my head!”
He was glad I was home.
23 thoughts on “The Farm….again”
There’s definitely something here Janet. You said there’s an essay here somewhere – I’d bet there are several essays … even enough to fill a book. Your experiences on the farm remind me of poet Donald Hall’s in New England. He’s written about the cycles of life at Eagle Pond in New Hampshire. The small moments, and how the small moments connect into larger ones. You might check him out for inspiration. Banville, by the way – – give us a full review when you’re done please! I’d love to know what you think. take care
Thanks, Nick.Actually, this essay is saved in a folder of collected essays for a book of essays, “Captured by Wind.” At least that’s the working title. I’ve been reading Banville for years. I think I have six of his books now, or thereabouts. I love his Irish sense of humor and words.
Thanks for the heads up on Donald Hall’s book. I will look him up! …just did. I recognized his face from a Times Mag essay on him. So, yeah. I’ll get his work. He has a couple that might be interesting for me.
Wow! Awesome information about cherishing a bit of prairie. As an apartment dweller in the end, I appreciate what you are doing for the environment its future pioneers. Also, I love hearing about the process of writing your memoirs. I look forward to reading the finished product.
Thank you so much Vivian. Although every year it gets to be more of a challenge, each time we go up there to just stop and stare out the windows, it’s all worth it.
Dear Janet, this is a lovely post and a genuine insight into life on a prairie. I know so little about it that your account of the burning requirement came as a shock! Why? How can burning fields be of any good to anything? And at great financial cost too. Glad that budgetary cuts will put an end to this, I guess, although the alternative purpose of increasing military spend is “interesting”. I thought Trump wanted to shrink military involvement to the benefit of domestic concerns. Anyway, I’m digressing…the point here is that I loved your post and it made me stop and think, which only a good piece of writing does.
All the best, Of glass and books xx
Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply! And thank you for saying it made you stop and think. So I’ll fill you in on some details: “fields” are cultivated, like corn fields or wheat fields etc; “acreage” can either be fields or it can, as in this case, be in conservation. I’m surely hoping budgetary cuts will NOT put an end to it for many reasons. Here’s an earlier essay that gives more information: https://janetsunderland.com/2018/01/13/on-fire-and-family-an-essay/
In short, burning prairie is what has happened since prehistoric days after the glaciers receded from the Great Plains, flattening the land. It’s where the line “the deer and the buffalo roam” came from. In those days, Native Americans burned the acres and acres and miles and miles of prairie for several reasons, chiefly to drive the buffalo during a hunt. But lightening strikes also started fires. So, the way the prairie grew was to adapt to fires and drought and rainy years. It grows about 4 feet tall. The roots run 12 to 14 feet deep. If it isn’t burned off periodically, it mats and the rabbits and prairie chickens etc etc who have their home near the ground can’t get through. Nor can new growth.
So much of the land in the plains is corporate farming, miles and miles and miles. With a lot of chemicals. There’s no fence rows with trees or grass anymore as there were when I was a kid on the farm. Just miles of fields. And so, having a small place in the middle of that gives me some peace. Deer and turkeys and rabbits and various wildlife make their home in it. We’ve even had a visiting cougar from time to time who’s been chased out of it’s natural habitat in Colorado. Haven’t seen him in awhile though. There’s just not much space for wildlife anymore.
Thank you again for reading and for commenting! It was thoughtful for both of us.
I read your essay and loved that too; the tension, excitement, live images jumping at me from the screen, as well teaching me more about the practice of burning grass. And thanks for your patient reply! I’m so glad I found you on WordPress. Keep up your wonderful writing: it’s a real pleasure to read it!
‘Til the next post xxx
Thank you for reading that previous essay. I thought you might find interesting info there. And thank you for your kind words. I’m glad we found each other, too. Janet
I love that you have the farm as prairie!! Was that correct: $12,000 instead of $1,100??? That’s a BIG difference! I’m glad you found someone to do the burning at a cost not too much higher/worse than previously. Farms really can be expensive, whether in cultivation or not.
Janet, thank you! No, it wasn’t 12,000 it was 1200. So glad you caught my error. I’ve changed it. I expect you also have land to deal with if for nothing else than pasture. Farms are expensive. And a lot of work. Thank you for keeping yours going, too. We fight destruction one little piece of land at a time!
I wondered about that. 🙂 We have tenants and a farm manager as we don’t even live in the same state. But it’s a joy to know that the farm, originally my grandparents’, is still going. There’s just something about having land…
As for work, farmers work harder than pretty much anyone and for not much money.
I can see how much this farm means to you, Janet, by the view in the photo. I hope that things work out for you and those in your situation. The Prairie lands are definitely worth saving for future generations.
Thanks, Allan. Yes, it is worth preserving. It’s hard to know how this is all going to go, but at least we have three more years in contract for now. I’ll start investigating other avenues for conservation if the CRP program doesn’t get extended. There’s always the Wildlife Federation!
You might want to take a look at how some ranches here in west Marin County worked out a way to stay viable. Here’s a link to get started: https://www.nps.gov/pore/learn/historyculture/people_ranching.htm
If there are more farms around you that are in the same situation, you might be able to band together and find a common solution.
Thanks so much, Allan. I’ll check them out. Unfortunately, everything for miles in each direction is corporate farming.
A formidable task. Good luck.
Oh wow, I really hope you don’t have to farm it! Unbroken prairie is so precious!
I imagine people in other places would probably find it amusing that the fire department is prohibited from burning!
Hi Rachel. Hadn’t thought about it, but you’re likely right! A fire department prohibited from burning…. well, sometimes that’s how politics roll. However, we have three more years before it has to be done again and we’ll see what happens. We’re not going to put it into cultivation. After 40 years in tallgrass, it’s not likely easily broken up. As I said to Allan, if all else fails, there’s always the Wildlife Federation to approach and maybe donate that land.
In Chase County it’s the Nature Conservancy. They have a pretty strong presence here. I wonder if they’d work with you where you are.
Rachel, thanks for the feedback on Nature Conservancy. They are high on my list. I also want to check the conservation dept. at the FSA. They seem to have something too. So I have three years to figure this all out.
Fascinating. I need to get back to this. To read it proper… 🙂
Hope you’re still having fun in So. America. What a gift to be able to go there.
My in-laws all live there. We go at least once a year. This time was just a week.