Of my three brothers, I was the one who most wanted to farm, and I’m the one not doing it. Well, Jack, my younger brother, he’s just on a hobby farm near Fergus Falls, Minnesota. “I sell insurance so I can pay for it,” he says. I always thought that meant, “If you had picked insurance instead of teaching, you could have had a little farm, too.” Fred, my older brother, he’s got the farm. Still planting wheat, although sometimes he puts down sunflowers and he has tried beans in patches. Complains about it all the time. Still doesn’t make any more money than our father did.
I was really into dirt, soil. When I was just seven or eight, I read a book on my dad’s shelf about humus and the whole ecosystem in soil and about worms and microorganisms and the elements that plants were taking out of the soil and the elements they put back in. That was probably the book that got me hooked on science. I spent a lot of time that summer out in the little patch garden my mother had, looking at the dirt, looking at the dirt in our wheat fields, looking at the dirt in the neighbor’s pasture, or around our house. I tried to talk to my dad about the book but even though it was his book he wasn’t very interested in it. He was the kind of guy who likes books on his shelves in case he thinks has a question and he might need to read up on the answer. But my dad never had a question he didn’t already have the answer to.
The next winter I asked if I could dig up a little bit of the grass near the garden, expand it a little. I wrote away for some seed catalogs and spent a lot of time studying. They had some heirloom varieties of plants, like tomatoes. I didn’t know what that meant, heirloom, so I went to the library to try to find out. There was nothing about that I could find, it was when this return to heirloom varieties was just starting. Some people say it’s still just starting. I was fascinated that there were so many kinds of tomatoes I had never heard of— tomatoes was what I was planting then, mostly. So I ordered some that looked regular and red and others that didn’t. I thought my dad was going to blow a gasket when he saw the packages. “You threw away all this money on foreign varieties of tomatoes? You said you hoped to sell some extra — nobody eats these tomatoes here.” But we were on a farm and we don’t waste things, so I planted them anyway. And y’know what? A few neighbors, the women, were curious about these things and bought them, even though they had enough homegrown tomatoes of their own. Made some good money, for me, even though I didn’t know what I was doing. So the next year, I expanded it out more, started planting squash and peppers. Did more varieties. By the time I was thirteen I had more than an acre going, a lot of the sunny part of the yard where it sloped down toward the fields. I had fixed up the chicken coop, too, and I was selling eggs. You wouldn’t think in a farming area, where most people have gardens on top of what they’re growing in their fields, that a kid could make so much money from a garden, but I did. I was even selling stuff to the restaurants in town. Saved up enough so I could go to college.
I was the only one of my brothers who didn’t play football. My brothers look like good sturdy farmers, not too big and broad but you can tell they are strong. They don’t talk a lot but they work hard. I was the scrawny one, slight of build and always talking. My brothers all played football, did really well on our football team. I played a little basketball but I wasn’t good at it. I was good at the idea of it, I knew how it should be played, but I couldn’t do it. I just wanted to work on my garden, anyway. You would think having a successful produce and canning operation would be a good step up the ladder into farming, but obviously it wasn’t. I guess you had to be a football player to be a farmer, in my family. My dad never thought I was use at it, despite all the money I earned for so many years at it, that put me through college. I guess for him, farming was all about tractors, equipment, the big metal stuff that the big guys would drive around and bang around on and keep running. Closer to the work a gear-head does than what a gardener does. He must have thought gardening was girl’s work.
I still do garden. Have a big plot cut out behind the house. The kids get mad because they can’t play football in the back yard because most of the field by football season is tall with tomato vines and peppers and beans and low hills of squash. And not only is there not enough room for a football game, they have to spend a lot of those weekends when the summer is fading and you want to be outside, and I’m making them pick endlessly, so we can keep the canning operation going in the kitchen. We get a lot of baseballs in there during the summer, big hits from other yards, and I’m known to be a little cranky about that, too, like I guess I am about everything.