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1107 PD: The View from Here

Mike Gangwer Published on 29 October 2007

A farm auction was held today

A farm auction was held today. The equipment list was published about three weeks ago. Two days ago the auction was announced in the local farm paper. And single-sheet fliers were posted on several of the farm store doors. At the truck stop where I buy my diesel fuel, a flier was posted in the window.

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The auction was more of an estate sale, yet farm equipment was sold. I spent two hours here today, standing among farmers in my community. Wearing typical fall clothing and talking about the poor corn yields (dry year), these fellows were still anxious to begin harvest. The sale began with the auctioneer introducing the estate owner, who stated all sales would be final. Then the owner told us that he and his three sisters all lived somewhere else, and with their mom now confined to a rest home with Alzheimer’s disease, the farm house was vacant and would be offered for sale, but not at the auction.

There was a hush over the crowd as he spoke about his mother. Perhaps a hush of empathy swept over the farm men there because many were my age or older. Some were a lot older and probably had similar stories about the moving of time through generations; a time when a farm house is empty and must be empty for many reasons.

Here in the Corn Belt and upper Midwest, as I drive through rural towns and farm land, there are many empty farm homes. Not only empty but beginning the downward spiral of decay. There are a half dozen such homes within a few miles of our place in Alma, Michigan. Yes, the acreage around them is farmed and in most cases farmed well. But the farmstead itself is empty. And today, on this site, another home joins that list.

The son was my age 54 years old. All three sisters were married and lived outside Michigan. Interestingly, all had college degrees from Michigan universities, but all had jobs in other states. The son, Jarrod, did live here locally, but he worked as a geologist for an energy company. He lived in town with his family.

I thought he might tell us why he chose to live in town rather than here in the farm house, but he did not.

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The estate items were ones we might find in an antique store. Yet the machinery had been stored in barns and sold well. All were in good shape. The top-selling item was the grain dryer – the most recent addition on the farm some nine years ago. For this one, the future location would be about 15 miles east. The grain tanks were practically given away. The costs of disassembly, moving, then assembly are significant. Yet they were sold.

These kinds of auctions have a social component, too. We have many Mennonite farmers in our community, and the women huddled together over a collection of pies on sale. I know several of the Mennonite farmers, and we talked about the price of milk. They had smiles except when the topic shifted to the cost of grain.

The big topic today, however, was the construction of the Liberty Fuels Ethanol Plant in Ithaca, just 15 miles south of our community. Destined to be the largest in Michigan, many of these farmers have invested the minimum investment of $20,000. The plant will be ready for corn harvest next year.

I started thinking about tomorrow or the next day, when all the equipment is removed, the signs are taken down, and there is a hush once again on this farmstead. I have written many times about the life cycle of a farm. This cycle has little to do with economics and everything to do with family dynamics.

Just as certain as I am of this family dynamic, I am sure that what happens around the family table, the kitchen table or the farm office, has more to do with whether the next generation remains, or in the case of this farm, all four children are gone.

They are contributors to society and bring into their lives authenticity. I am sure of these. Yet these contributions are outside of agriculture.

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Jarrod’s father, by the way, died of cancer in this house about six years ago. While many suggested he enter the hospital and undergo therapy, he refused. A hospital bed was rented and placed in the living room downstairs, and there one day as his family gathered, he took one last breath. He is buried in a cemetery just down the road, and there is an adjacent plot for his wife.

As I drove back home, a trip of no more that 10 minutes, I wrestled with all that I had seen and heard. It was the end of a farmstead and the transition of a farm family who were now spread out across three states. I pondered what will happen: Will someone else lease the farm land? There are no prospects for someone renting the farmstead and few likely buyers. There were two dogs, farm dogs, and I am wondering what happened to them. They surely miss the farm.

Auctions like this are held every day somewhere across the Corn Belt, and the story in this article is common, not unique.

Perhaps that is why when I meet a young person just home from college, with the eagerness and passion for farming, I grant him or her the warmth of a smile and the words of encouragement. To wit, the farm lives on another generation, children are raised, families celebrate the ritual of life on the farm and when that new piece of equipment arrives, the celebration is found intrinsically.

A farm auction was held today. The many items sold will have new homes tomorrow and days afterwards. The fliers will be removed, and this farmstead will be a very different place.

One that will be silent for perhaps a long time. PD

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