Reinventing the Family Farm 1,000 Miles Away: A Farm Legacy Story
This story comes from Practical Farmers’ newest lifetime member, Dirk Mol, of Champaign, Illinois. We appreciate that he shared his story of how to continue a family farm legacy — while selling the Iowa farmland. Writes Dirk:
We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
It started with the land, as do so many immigrant stories. They came to have land to raise food for their families and for their children to have places of their own. They came to find religious freedom. And they came to escape the king who wanted to draft their sons into the army. But above all they came for the land.
I was born into that land. About a year after the end of war in the Pacific, where my father flew transports, I was brought home from the hospital to a farmhouse out in the middle of the Iowa cornfields. Since my eyes rested on that landscape for the first five years of my life, it is branded on my visual cortex as the template for how the world is supposed to be.
Sometime in my early teens I became aware of this primal connection to field and sky. It was a cool sunny morning in June, my first time driving a small Ford tractor, pulling a hay rake over the windrows. Between moments of anxiety about my inexperience, I began to notice the fresh breeze, the azure sky, and the grace of the barn swallows swooping around me to catch the insects that flew up as the hay was turned, their brilliant wings echoing the sky, a contrast to the emerald green of the field. The exhaust fumes of the tractor and the racket of the rake disappeared, and I was soaring with them under a vast sky. Even though I no longer lived there and was only working for my uncle who still operated the ancestral farm, I knew this as home.
Northwest Iowa was prime target for European immigrants in the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s. Most of the land farther east was already taken. Dutch immigration to the Midwest had started in 1846 in western Michigan and at Pella, Iowa, southeast of Des Moines. They came as church congregations seeking a place to worship as they saw fit, bought big parcels of land from the government, and divided them up. Twenty years after that first wave, there was no more land to be settled in eastern Iowa. So the community sent out a scouting party who reported the availability of prime land in northwest Iowa made accessible by the railroads. The Pella community sent some pioneers to stake out the territory and then directed the stream of newcomers from the Netherlands there. The agricultural communities that grew up in Sioux County thrived on the rich soil. Over the decades since the sod was turned, it has become some of the most valuable farmland in the Midwest.
The first of my family to arrive was my maternal great-grandfather, Wessel Jan Eppink. He left home at 19 and joined the tide of emigration, making his way across the ocean and then by lake steamer to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where he had cousins. For the next four years, he worked his way west across Wisconsin and Minnesota looking for a new home. In 1873, he found it in northwest Iowa, attracted by the open prairie that could be plowed immediately without clearing trees. He homesteaded 80 acres and over the next four decades shrewdly acquired almost a thousand more.
In childhood and adolescence, I heard stories of Wessel Jan and the thousand acres. I visited his homestead where his first child, my grandfather, was born in a sod hut. We toured the old low-slung frame building on the second farm he acquired to see the patched hole in the roof of what is now a hog shed to see where the stove pipe from the living quarters once exited, when the building was half home and half barn, humans and livestock under a shared roof as is still the practice in the rural provinces of the Netherlands.
For Wessel, and for rest of my ancestors, the need to acquire land was rooted in the austere Calvinist culture of their homeland. In the 19th Century, the rural provinces of the Netherlands fostered a deeply pietistic religious ideology that was in reaction to the Enlightenment theology that held sway in the cities and in the state- sanctioned Reformed Church. Being sure that you were one of God’s chosen (the elect) was paramount. And since one of the signs of being among the elect was God-given prosperity, the best way to prove your chosen status was to prosper. For my ancestors, the land became the sign of God’s approval.
Wessel’s son, Jan Willem Eppink, inherited that hunger for land. Having only one sibling, he inherited the 500 acres that were his half of the estate, and shrewdly used the equity to double his holdings; again, there were a thousand acres. By the time his children, my mother and her six siblings, were adults, there was a farm for each of them. But here the story takes an ironic twist. Of the seven children, five were women and none of them married except my mother. Three of the sisters left home to pursue careers. The eldest daughter stayed home to help maintain the family hearth and care for her parents in their old age, the classic spinster. Of the two sons, one became an engineer, and the other, who was mentally ill, failed in his attempts at farming, living most of his life with support from his parents and siblings.
That left my mother, whose marriage to a bright, ambitious young man put them in possession of the 160 acres that was her share of the thousand. It looked like they would fulfill Jan Willem’s dream of having children and grandchildren near him on the land he provided. I lived on that land for five years as a child but I was too young to appreciate my heritage. When my father left farm and home to become a clergyman, we moved to Michigan and began a more distant relationship to the land.
After we left, the farm was rented to tenants. My parent’s land and the rest of the thousand acres became the family bank, producing income that augmented earnings and often supported the luxury of education, travel and living well. Everyone returned home regularly to visit the land, but they never stayed. The land labored on under summer sun and winter snows, faithfully producing good fruits and wealth for the family.
As years passed, my kinship to the land deepened through summer visits, when the landscape was lush with new growth in the fields, the birds and jackrabbits abundant in the groves and hedgerows, and there was work to be done. On these visits ‘home’, I learned to stack bales of hay on a wagon and then again in a haymow; hot, sticky work compared to sitting on a tractor but still I was part of the tapestry of that landscape. There were large family gatherings of both my parents’ families, reunions in the city park with dozens of people. The best were the late afternoon swims at Sandy Hollow, an old gravel pit that became the town swimming hole, surrounded by huge cottonwoods that caught the summer breeze and left dappled shade on the water.
I learned that ownership involves responsibility, as every summer there were buildings to maintain on the farm. I learned to paint barn siding and shingle a house roof, working side by side with the tenants. I walked the soybeans and navigated the cornfields with the children of that family, hacking out weeds with a hoe. For good Calvinists, the property one has been given by God needs to look good to prove that God is still smiling on you and we worked hard at it. At the end of each summer visit, I was again uprooted, returning to whatever place my father’s career had taken us; the land I was coming to love reverted to a distant place called ‘home’.
Our relationship to the land also had a dark side. I first sensed it at age 3 or 4. I was on a tractor out in the fields at night with my father. There was a circle of light from the tractor’s headlights; beyond was vast nothingness. When my father disappeared into the darkness to check on a fence line, I knew the terror of night for the first time.
This land is huge and mostly treeless, often visited by fierce and life-threatening thunderstorms, tornadoes, and blizzards. Farming is dangerous and people I knew were killed or maimed in accidents with machinery, as tractors overturned and arms and legs got caught in the gears.
There were tragedies in my family that were only recounted if you asked. When I started to collect family photographs, I found one of a seated man with his wife and four children gathered round him, his right foot turned inward at a strange angle, his torso leaning on a rough crutch at this side, and I learned the story of my paternal great-grandfather, Cornelius Mol, who was not as fortunate as my Eppink ancestors.
Cornelius and family arrived in the 1890s. After the transatlantic crossing in steerage, they boarded the train for Iowa. On that long trip, the youngest child died. Fearing that the body would be taken from them, the family hid it for the rest of the journey till they could bury it in their new home. Not an auspicious beginning.
They persevered and got a farm. Not long after achieving his dream of having land, Cornelius was disabled for life when his team of horses spooked while being hitched to a reaper; his leg was mangled by the cutting bar, and he never walked again without a crutch. His two sons, only young adolescents, had to take over and manage the farm. One of his daughters died before adulthood, leaving only three to carry on his dreams.
The events of a childhood and youth marked by tragedy left my grandfather, Jacob, a sober and taciturn man. But he worked hard to provide his children with an education. The farm he had acquired for raising his five children was seven miles out in the country. When my father, the eldest, was finding it difficult to walk the two miles to the state highway and then hitchhike into town for high school and was ready to quit, Jacob traded up for another farm within walking distance of town, which required taking on a substantial mortgage. Soon after the trade, the economy collapsed, and my father had to stay home to help save the farm. When the depression eased, he returned to school and his four younger siblings had an easier time but they still remember the years of living mostly on cornmeal.
For my mother’s family, the land was more benevolent as it allowed them to go out into the world with some ease. But the ties to the land followed them wherever they went and eventually the dark side emerged as well. The thousand acres became a legacy that was sacred and any thought of parting with it was a betrayal of the hard work their father and grandfather had invested.
My parents only lived on the farm they inherited for five years, but they held on to it until they died. It was rented for almost sixty years to one family, first the father and then the son. Over those six decades I watched my parents maintain the ties with annual trips back, over distances of up to 900 miles from places they lived. Eventually the buildings and 40 acres were sold to the tenants, but the remaining 120 acres remained untouched. Once there was no longer a need to go for building maintenance, the trips were made to negotiate the rent for the next year, not something they would think of doing by phone. You can’t seal the deal with a handshake via telephone lines. When my father died in 2000, my mother turned that job over to my younger brother who continued the pilgrimages.
I did not have to go to negotiate rents, but I was also drawn back, and made pilgrimages home every few years, a journey of over a thousand miles during the three decades I lived on the East Coast. I went because the place had gotten in my blood, even when I knew that I would never live there. Like my father, whose restless mind could never have been satisfied as a farmer, I would have found that life and that culture stifling. And I began to sense that someday I would betray the family tradition and part with the land when it became mine, because I could see the way it tied the hands of my parents, aunts and uncles.
Particularly for my mother’s sister, Alice, who made a career as a librarian, living in large cities from Seattle to Washington, DC, even going to France in the 50s to create a library for an American Air Force base. She was cultured and sophisticated, the most worldly of the family. When she retired, she wanted to buy a house in DC in which to enjoy her remaining years. To do that she would have had to sell her share of the land; her siblings talked her out of it. Her dreams withered and she lived her last years in the lonely isolation of an urban apartment while the land continued to grow wealth for her tenants and the beneficiaries of her will. When she died, I resolved that the land would never own me.
My desire to free myself from the family yoke of ownership was reinforced by my disdain for industrial agriculture. By the mid ’80s, my periodic visits to the land became sullied by the pervasive smell of manure; not the sweet scent that comes from animals roaming the pasture, but the acrid stench from thousands of animals confined under one roof in massive feeding operations, their sewage ponds producing enough methane to power a small factory.
The bucolic life of the family farm was disappearing and the landscape being ravished. Fencerows were erased to open up massive fields that could be worked with huge equipment. The jackrabbits and birds I knew in childhood were gone, corn and factory farms replacing most of what I loved about that land. The Dutch peasants who came to till the land with their own hands had become very successful capitalists, investing the wealth the land had given them in a very different way of life. Fast was better and bigger was necessary. The bottom line trumped beauty and the saying was ‘”that’s not manure you’re smelling, it’s money.”
That land was no longer my home, no matter how much I once loved it. I knew I could not save it from the larger forces at work in the culture.
During the decades of my growing ambivalence about the family legacy, I watched as its potential benefit to me loomed large. I knew that someday I would inherit some of the land and it would likely make me financially well endowed. After my grandfather Jan Willem died in 1965, I did that math. By then, the land was valued at about $1000/acre. That meant he was a millionaire, in 1965 dollars, no less. But true to their peasant roots, my grandparents lived simply till their deaths, passing on the land to their children.
When my mom’s siblings began to pass on in the ’90s, her sisters’ farms went into trusts to benefit each other while they were still living. The last one finally died in 2004 at 99 years of age and the land owned by the four sisters came down to the five of us in the next generation: myself, my two siblings and two cousins. After fairly lengthy negotiations on how to divide four into five, we settled on a way that gave me sole ownership of a 108-acre piece. As I expected, my siblings and cousins kept their slices of the pie, faithfully perpetuating the family tradition.
I sold mine to the long-time renters, whose milking operation involved stuffing grains and supplements into 500 Guernsey cows so that three times a day they could be milked for all they were worth while never feeling the warmth of the sun on their bodies or smelling fresh clover in a pasture. I could probably have gotten more money by selling to the highest bidder, but loyalty to the tenant farmers was a part of the legacy that I was willing to honor. I invested in socially responsible funds and felt good about not profiting from the rape of the land by chemical companies like Monsanto.
When my mother died seven years later, my brother, the executor, agreed to sell our parents’ land. While the economy was in recession, land prices were skyrocketing, fueled by the race to grow more and more corn to feed the ethanol craze. The tenants couldn’t afford the appraised value and they weren’t really working the land themselves, just contracting the work out to others and taking a cut before paying the rent, so we decided to go to auction.
On a cool, sunny day in October, 2011, I stood under the autumn sky on a piece of land that had been in my family for almost 100 years and watched as first three, then two bidders voraciously drove up the price per acre. Twice the auctioneer took a break so they could consult with their bankers on how high to go. The third round ended with a new record for sale of agricultural land in Iowa. The land had once again been good for my family. And I was out from under the burden of the legacy, free to use the wealth as I saw fit. Industrial agriculture would not be a part of it.
The opportunity to use this legacy for good came through my 30-year-old son, Greg. He had started out studying political and economic theory in college. He also worked in a food coop on campus. Halfway through his junior year, he announced he was dropping out to go work on an organic farm for six months. Four years later, he had worked his way from Virginia, up through Pennsylvania, to a large farm outside Albany, New York, that had a community supported agriculture program with over 700 members, many of them in New York City.
When he said he was ready to return to school, Cornell was an option. Two years later he had a Bachelor’s in Econ from the land grant branch of Cornell and lots of contacts in the alternative agriculture community in the area. In cooperation with Thor and Eric, two of the pioneering organic grain farmer in Tompkins County, Greg rented space, found a used stone mill, plugged it in and taught himself how to produce flour.
When I sold the land in Iowa, Greg had outgrown the rented space and was also hankering to get back into the fields. We agreed to look for land to farm where he could build a new mill on site. Seven months after that momentous October day in Iowa, I closed on 37 acres a few miles south of Trumansburg, New York. By fall, twenty Amish carpenters had put up the 30 by 60 pole barn that would house the new mill. We were reinventing the family farm 1,000 miles from its original home and I felt the family karma calling me back to my roots.
Six months later another opportunity came along and I acquired 123 acres just a mile from the first purchase. The land in the Finger Lakes region is not the black gold of the Midwest prairies but it’s still high quality, and produces well. It’s also more affordable: I got four acres there for every acre sold in Iowa. And the topography and landscape make it difficult for industrial scale operators to take over. Using the small parcels that dot the landscape and capitalizing on the rising tide of interest in organics, an extensive small farm organic culture is taking root in central New York State. Ithaca is a foodie town (the well-known Moosewood Collective, with its famous cookbooks, has been there for at least 40 years) and the New York City markets are only four hours away. When I visit, I hang out with a lot young farmers, mostly couples with infants and toddlers, who live simply on the land, work hard, sometimes use horses for cultivation, all the while dreaming of a healthier future for their world.
When Greg started working on farms, I joked to friends that his Dutch peasant genes were finally kicking in. But it was only half a joke. When I fled the Midwest after graduating from college in 1969, I lived in very urban environments for about a dozen years, content to explore a different world. Then in 1982, I bought my first house, in the suburbs of DC, complete with the requisite quarter acre lot. Suddenly, a deep need to get my hands in the dirt rose up in me and I started gardening. I have since created (and left) two extensive gardens. I’m now working on one that covers the whole lot around my house, with nary a blade of grass to mow.
My next garden will probably be in New York, somewhere on my land–land that I will not have to leave in my lifetime and that I hope will stay with my descendants for generations. It’s not home the way the land in Iowa was in my childhood, at least not yet. It’s less vast, more intimate, but dramatic in its own light. Long before I knew it would become part of my life, I was drawn to it on occasional visits to a college friend who taught at Cornell. Between each of the Finger Lakes, the land rises up to ridges a thousand feet or more above the surface of the lakes, only to drop off again to the next lake. The hills are covered with old growth forests, and always there are hedgerows between the small fields, laid out two centuries ago when the trees had to be cleared by hand to get a place to till. It hasn’t changed that much since then.
After starting out on the land and then living away from it for so long, my relationship to a farm in New York is a kind of homecoming. Arriving full circle, finding oneself back at the starting point but in a different place, is the stuff of poetry. The landscapes are different, yet the kinship to them is the same. The way people put down roots and live close to the land is similar no matter the time or place.
There is an innocence about the love of the land, a combination of the naive and the romantic, that inspires people to dare the arduous task of farming. As I watch Greg and his fiancé, Michelle, make a life in the one room cabin they mostly built by themselves, with running water in the kitchen but no other indoor plumbing, a composting toilet out back, I see the 21st Century version of homesteading in sod huts. Michelle, who works in town near the campus of Cornell, takes her showers after her swim at the fitness club on her way to work. Recently they had a barn raising, assisted by dozens of friends from the organic community.
When Greg talks of acquiring a team of horses for cultivation, fear creeps up my back as I remember my great-grandfather Cornelius. But Greg is taking lessons from an experienced horse trainer and will buy a seasoned team from the Amish folks up the road so I can hope he will be safe.
This is not farming as my grandparents knew it; yet there is continuity. And I have come back to the land and know it, in some deep way, as a place where I belong. I dream of the future in relation to that land, a dream of fields blossoming green and healthy in harmony with the people who love them, the way I knew it to be once long ago.
Note: Dirk can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org