It’s Country for Me Patricia Demuth
It was 11:15 at night when Joel, reading in bed, heard his mother call up, “Joel, come and feed Lamby, will you?” She usually fed the orphaned lamb, but tonight she had come home late from a meeting and did not want to go to the barn wearing good clothes.
The small dog, Jessica, jumped up from the doorstep as Joel came outside, a pair of overalls pulled over his pajamas, the laces of his boots dangling loose. “Hey, Jess,” he greeted her, ruffling the dog’s thick fur with one hand as they loped together to the barn. In his other hand he carried Lamby’s meal — milk replacement in a soda-pop bottle capped by a black nipple.
The March air was cold and the yard light caught the mist of Joel and Jessica’s breaths. A dim crescent moon hung low over the east hay field. Otherwise, the night was black.
“Here, Lamby,” called Joel, opening the door to the barn where the sheep are kept in the winter. The lamb sprang up from her warm straw bedding and sucked down the bottle in thirty seconds. Her mother had died giving birth to her a week before. This may have been Joel’s thirty-three-thousandth trips to the barn, since he goes in and out of barn at least ten times a day. Joel knows these farm buildings better than he knows his own bedroom. He surely spends more waking hours in them. He knows how to care for the animals they shelter as well as he knows how to care for himself. Farming is Joel’s world.
Joel Holland has lived on this 245-acre farm since he was born, thirteen years ago. It is the farm of his ancestors. He lives in the house that his great-grandfather built. The land he helps his father and brothers farm is land that his great-greatgrandfather James Holland bought in 1860. James was an Irish immigrant. He drove a team of horses to plough the land and make it ready for corn. Now, five generations later, Joel ploughs the same land atop a tractor that has the power of 120 horses. The rich, black soil has been pampered by Hollands for over 120 years. Farming it is Joe’s heritage.
The Holland farm is near Scales Mound, a tiny town of 400 people snuggled in the north-western corner of Illinois. The land there is hilly, rolling in great waves. In fact, just a few miles away is the highest point in the state.
Joel attends public school in Scales Mound in a split-level brick building with 235 other grade school and high school pupils. About half the students are farmers. This year Joel will graduate from eighth grade and begin ninth, but his class will not get larger. Except for three foster children who came and left, Joel has been with the same nineteen kids since first grade.
“I know every kid in practically the whole school,” he says. “Some of those guys in schools on TV don’t even know the people in their own class.”
Joel is a good student, though reluctant to discuss it. “Yeah, I guess I pull mostly As , some ‘Bs.’ ” In national testing Joel scored an overall 99 per cent, meaning that only 1 per cent of students scored higher. His studies are typical of any eighth grader’s in the United States. “We’re doing percent in mathematics. English, forget it. In history we’re up to F.D.R. In science we do experiments like taking this chemical HCL and blowing up pieces of chalk.”
But when the school bus drops Joel off and he runs up the quarter-mile lane to his farmhouse, slips out of his sneakers and pulls on his boots — then his life is no longer typical of an average teenager. His footgear is the clue. Joel wears boots every day, no matter what the season is. That’s because he does chores every night after school and for several hours on weekends. The chores are boot-work
hard, heavy and sometimes dirty.
The daily chores that Joel does help are to run the farm and to support the family. Joel is a teenager, but he does the work of an adult. Unlike most families, where the parents alone make the money, farm families work together. Each child’s labour is not only important to the family’s well-being, it is essential.
The Hollands operate a self-sufficient farm, typical of many in the Corn Belt. They raise livestock — cattle, and a few sheep. In each herd, they keep some females to replenish the stock. The rest of the animals are sold for slaughter and land on America’s tables as beef and lamb. The Hollands grow virtually all the food their animals need — corn, oats, and hay. They sell the surplus, though most of their money comes from selling the animals themselves.
3 (To run a farm like this, farmers have to have many skills. They have to be machine operators, driving immense and powerful vehicles; they have to be mechanics, repairing them; husbandmen, raising livestock; veterinarians, tending them when sick; agriculturists, growing food on a large scale; and businesspeople, managing (like Joel’s father) a farm operation worth nearly one million dollars. As Joel works on the farm, he is all these workers.
Yet he is a boy still and, like an apprentice, continues to learn new skills. Joel takes his learning seriously because his goal is to become a farmer. He is extremely alert and watchful, like a cat. Even when not actively involved in a chore, Joel can readily answer any question about what is going on. He listens as his dad counsels a seed customer in the kitchen, as his brother Terry consults a vet about recent deaths in his hog herd, as his older brothers discuss soil planning while they mend a fence. Knowledge seems to be constantly seeping, sometimes flowing, into Joel’s mind.
Joel is the youngest of Ed and Betty Hollands six children. Only he and his
brother, Marty, sixteen, still live at home. Two other brothers, Bill and Terry,
come home each day to eat meals with the family. Bill and Terry rent
neighbouring farms. Each has his own livestock herd, but they farm their land collectively with their father.
Two other children, Kevin and Kathy, do not live at home. This year Kevin, twenty-two, will graduate from college in Chicago. He will be the fourth college graduate among the Holland children. “We insist they all go to college and get a taste of what it’s like off the farm,” says Betty. “Then if they want to come back to farming, that’s fine.”
Kathy, twenty-four, is the oldest child and the only daughter. She is now a Roman Catholic nun doing graduate study in Dubuque, Iowa. But, like her brothers, she grew up farming, and she still misses it. Kathy called this May during her final exams and said, “I’d give anything to be ploughing instead!”
As the youngest, Joel has at times had more farming “teachers” than he’s wanted. One night he sat at the kitchen table listening to his dad and brothers talk about the rewards of farming.
“It’s a good, independent life,” said Bill. “You’re your own boss.”
“I wouldn’t know,” said Joel, grinning “I’ve got bosses.” “Who?” asked his dad. Joel pointed to each one around the table. They all laughed!
Joel used to be largely at somebody’s side, watching and listening, lending a hand, or going on the run for a tractor or forgotten tool. He took the occasional bossing he got in stride. Now, he is so busy with his own work that he is no longer available to be everybody’s “go-fer.”
“If I had just one word to describe Joel, it would be enthusiasm,” says Betty. He uses his youthful energy indiscriminately. On one summer day, he jumped 15 fences, drove farm machinery 25 miles, fed 320 animals, opened and closed 8 gates, walked and ran about 8 miles, jumped on and off the tractor 26 times, lifted 900 pounds of grain, shovelled 4,000 pounds, ate about 2600 calories!
On weekends and during the summer, Joel works outdoors anywhere from eight to fifteen hours a day. The only time he minds it is during early spring. Then the snow melts and rain often pours down daily, turning the farmyard into a swamp. Mud sucks at his boots, making walking itself a tedious chore. More than the
bother, though, Joel hates the ugliness. “When it rains, everything seems so awful.”
Regardless of how much energy his work consumes, Joel has plenty left over for sports. He hunts deer and traps wildlife in the fall, and snowmobiles in the winter. Spring brings softball and basketball games, and summer provides weather for water-skiing and fishing. Nearly all his favourite sports are played outdoors.
If he had to live in the city for a year, Joel says he would mostly miss “the land. I’d miss seeing things grow. The change of seasons.” In fact, if Joel could choose any place in the world to live, he guesses he’d live “right here. It’d have to be country. After living out here, I don’t think I’d ever want to be in the city. You just don’t have the free doom. Or the responsibilities. I’m not saying a city kid doesn’t have responsibilities. But you don’t work as a family the way you do on a farm. It’d just have to be country for me.”
About the Author
Patricia Demuth and her husband grew up in small towns in Iowa where they had friends who were part of a family farm team. When they decided to write a book about rural America, they found a farm in Wisconsin to serve as a setting for their story. They took their young sons with them and lived in Wisconsin where she wrote the book, Joel: Growing Up a Farm Man, which was awarded Best Children Book of 1982 by the Society of Midland Authors.
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