Life on the Land

Work holds farm family together
by John Camp
May 12, 1985

David Benson sits on the seat of the manure wagon, behind the twin black draft horses, reins in his hands, and he says this:
"Machinery can be intoxicating. You sit there on top of a huge tractor, rolling across those fields, and you feel like God. It's an amazing feeling, and a real one, and I think some people get so they don't feel complete without it.
"That's one of the reasons they keep buying bigger and bigger tractors, these enormous four-wheel-drives tearing up and down the fields. Tearing up and down. They are incredibly expensive machines, they'll run you $16 an hour in fuel alone, and you can do in one day what used to take you three or four — but then the question arises, are you doing anything useful on the three or four you saved? You buy this gigantic machine with its incredible capacity, and all of a sudden, you're done.
"And you start thinking, 'My God, if I bought another 600 acres I could do that, too.' So you buy it, and then you find if you only had a bigger machine, you could buy even more. At the end of it, you're doing 2,000 acres on this fantastic Star Wars machinery and you're so far in debt that if anything goes wrong — and I mean if they stop eating soy sauce in Ireland — you lose the whole works, including the place you started with.
"And it's not the same as losing in the city. These people are going around asking, 'Jeez, what did I do wrong? They said this was the American way, you try to get bigger and take a few risks, but nobody ever told me that if I lose they were going to take away everything, my whole way of life and my children's way of life and our whole culture and the whole neighborhood and just stomp us right into the ground.'
"My God, you know, people are bulldozing farmsteads so they can plant corn where the houses used to be because there's nobody to live in these houses any more. That's happening."
David Benson. He has horses, but he's not a back-to-the-land dabbler, not an amateur, not a dilettante — he has a couple of tractors, and a barn full of machinery. But he finds a use for horses. He likes them.
And unlike a lot of farmers in Minnesota, he's making it. Making it small, but he's making it.
Go down to Worthington. Get off Interstate 90, off the state highway, off the blacktopped county road, and finally go down the gravel track and into the farm lane, listening to the power lines sing and the cottonwoods moan in the everlasting wind, watching a red-orange pickup a mile away as it crawls like a ladybug along a parallel road between freshly plowed fields, leaving behind a rising plume of gravel dust, crawling towards the silos and rooftops that mark the Iowa line....

A mailbox on a post

The landscape is not quite flat — it's a landscape of tilted planes, fields tipped this way or that, almost all showing the fertile loam of recent plowing. The black fields dominate the countryside, interrupted here and there by woodlots, by pasturage where lambs play in the fading sunlight, by red-brick or purple-steel silos, Grant Wood barns and Sears, Roebuck sheds, and by the farmhouses
There's a turn-of-the-century farmhouse here. Gray with white trim, it could be any one of a thousand prairie homes. There's a single rural-route mailbox on a post across the road from the end of the driveway. It says "Benson" on the side, but the paint has been scoured by the wind and the name is almost illegible.
There is a tire swing hung from a cottonwood with a yellow rope, and a kid named Anton kicking a black-and-white soccer ball in the driveway.
The walk to the porch is guarded by lilacs and lilies of the valley and a patch of violets. A tortoiseshell cat named Yin lounges on the porch, watchfully making way for visitors; a familial tiger-striper named Yang watches from the side yard. Just before the porch is a strip of iron set in a concrete block: a boot scraper, and well-used.
The door swings open and Sally-Anne Benson is there, navy sweatshirt, blue jeans, tan work boots.
"Hi," she says. "Come in. David is still in the field, with the oats."
From behind her come the kitchen smells of fresh bread and noodles and sauce, and the blonde Heather is turning to go up the stairs to her bedroom.
"We're going over to Grandpa's to do the chores," Sally-Anne says to Heather.
These are some of the Bensons. The Bensons in this house are David, 38, and Sally-Anne, 35, husband and wife, and their children, Heather, 11, and Anton, 8. Sally-Anne is small with thin wrists and curly brown hair, blue-gray eyes, a quick smile, and a tendency to bubble when she's had a few glasses of white wine. She answers to the nickname of "Sag" or "Sago" which is an acronym of her maiden name, Sally-Anne Greeley. David has a red walrus mustache and the beginning of crow's-feet at the corners of his eyes, smile lines at his mouth, and a storyteller's laugh. The children are blonde, blonder than seems real, or even possible.

Rhythm of work blissful

The Bensons in the white house up the road and around the corner on the blacktop are Gus and Bertha Benson, David's parents.
Gus, 82, is mostly retired, though on this day he's been fanning oats — cleaning the oats to be used as seed — for the planting. He has white hair combed straight back, a white stubble on his pink face, and powerful, heavy hands. Bertha is 75. Her hair is a steel brown-gray, she wears plastic-rimmed glasses, and after 56 years of farming, she still can't watch when chickens are butchered. She can pick them, the hens who make the fatal mistake of not laying, but she can't watch them topped with a corn knife.
David and Sally-Anne do the bulk of the heavy farm work now. Gus particularly likes to work with the beef cattle, and Bertha keeps house and recently has taken up weaving and rug-making, and cans and freezes produce during the summer; last year she got in 100 quarts of applesauce. Heather and Anton have their chores. Together they live on 160 acres of the best land God ever made.
And they work it hard. They have the crops, the cattle, a growing flock of sheep, chickens, geese, and a boxful of tiny turkeys on the back porch.
The day started with David getting up at 6:15 a.m. and apologizing for it. "Boy, I got up earlier, but I just couldn't.... Oh boy, I just laid back down and the next thing I knew, it was after 6...."
He's planting oats, and has been hard at it for the previous two days, sitting up on top of the John Deere, first disking, then chisel-plowing a small patch of compacted ground, then hooking up a grain drill to seed the oats.
"You sit up there, going back and forth, when you're disking, and your mind goes on automatic pilot," he said. "You can think of anything, and sooner or later, you do. It's a liberating experience, really. You put in maybe 400 hours a year on a tractor, and you spend a good part of it just... thinking. It's even better when you're working with the horses, because everything moves fairly slowly and you don't have the tractor engine, so it's quiet. There's a rhythm to it. It's almost... blissful, is that the word?"

The land comes first

At noon, Sally-Anne brings out lunch, cheese sandwiches and fresh milk from Bluma, the milk cow, and homemade bread and a chunk of cake. David climbs stiffly off the tractor and drops down into the roadside ditch and leans back into last year's tall brown grass, out of the eternal prairie wind.
"It's just going so well, going so well," he says, looking across the barbed-wire fence toward the field. "Just need to get it in, this is beautiful weather, but I wish the wind would lay off."
He looks up at the faultless blue sky. "And we could use some rain, use some rain, sure. We sure could."
He lies in the ditch eating, his face covered with dust, alternately eating and explaining: "We'll grow beans and corn and oats and alfalfa for hay, and the alfalfa puts nitrogen back in the soil; of course, we won't grow all those at once, we'll rotate through. You've got to be strict about it, you can't decide just to knock off a little extra here and there, or you'll kill it, the land."
He's normally apologetic about the chisel plow. "Normally we don't need it, but last year we brought in some heavy earth-moving equipment to build that terrace down there, and it compacted the ground enough that disking won't do it."
He needed the terrace to correct a drainage problem. "If you don't build water structures, you're going to get wash ditches, and that's another way you can kill it," he says.
Kill the land. The nightmare. The land must be cared for, the Bensons say. But the land is in trouble right now. Neither David nor Sally-Anne would be considered solemn, but David will sit in his dining room chair after supper, leaning his elbows on the strawberry-patch oilcloth that covers the tale, and talk like this:
"The strength of the Midwest culture was that it had a people who were developing an interest in the land, and in developing a community that had some continuity to it. Without that, we have an ethereal culture that just isn't satisfying to most people, and they can't be — a people who really don't know what they want.
"We are living in the middle of one of the largest areas of fertile land on the planet. Normally you'd think that people would go to a place like that. Would want to live there, to form a good rooted culture, where you could form your own ties to the land and to the neighborhood and even to those people you just see driving by, but whose whole lives you know and they know yours...."
The connections between the people, the land, the crops, the food, the neighborhood, the community — they're impossible to put a hand on, but they are real. Much of its connecting web can be explained in stories of times past, of incidents that somehow hallow a particular patch of ground or even make it a place of humor, or sadness, or dread.
Gus and Bertha sit at their dining room table, at what their children call the home place, and remember it.
"Spring is always the moving time for farmers," says Bertha. "We bought this place in 1938, and we moved here in the spring of 1939, from Stanton, Nebraska. That's where Gus was born, in Stanton, and two of our children — the other two were born here. Gladys and Shirley and Marilyn and David, 17 years apart, the four of them, and we enjoyed every one....
"When we moved here, we couldn't tell what color the house was, it was so bad, but we were more concerned about the land. When we bought it, the land cost $95 an acre, and we were trembling and afraid, because we thought if we did something wrong, we could lose it and lose everything we saved."
They had been married in Nebraska in 1929, and spent the next 10 years as renters, building up a working capital of $3,000. It all went into the new place in Minnesota.
"We moved up here because it was dry in Nebraska for so many years, and you couldn't farm. We came up here on a trip and we thought it was so beautiful in Minnesota, so beautiful," Bertha says.

Unfreezing the car

And it was cold, and windy, and the life was rough. They laugh about it now, Bertha and Gus, but at the time....
"When Marilyn was born, it was so cold I had to start a fire with corn cobs in a pan, and put it under the engine to get it warmed up so we could start it," Gus recalls. "She was ready for the hospital, 4 in the morning, and I can still remember the cold...."
"And remember, when we got electricity...."
"Oh, yes, when we got the electricity," says Bertha. "That was in, when, 1948?"
"1948, that's when it was."
"I remember," says Bertha, a glow in her face, "we got an electrician from Dundee to do the house, all the way from Dundee because all the other electricians were busy. The whole neighborhood went on at the same time. We were one of the last, because we were so close to the Iowa border, we were like in a corner. But I remember how the lights came on, and we sat with all the lights all evening, sat with the light on us....
"The electricity is the best thing for farm wives. Before that we took soft water from the cistern, and regular hard water from the well in a pail. I think I could go back to that way of living, except that I want my hot water. Hot water is the most wonderful thing!"
"Oh, we had a wedding here, too." says Gus.
"One of Shirley's girls, Christina," says Bertha, "they had their wedding in the yard, and dancing in the corn crib, and a hay ride in the afternoon."
"They decorated the corn crib," says Gus, "they cleaned it out and decorated it and danced in there."
"We never thought David would come back," Gus says suddenly. "We thought we'd be the last. We thought he would be an engineer. He was living in San Francisco, and one day he called and said, 'Don't sell the farm, we might come back.'"
David and Sally-Anne have their memories too, some of their courtship in Sally-Anne's hometown of Lexington, Mass., and some of San Francisco, where they spent some time when they were in their early 20s, and many, now, of their 14 years on the farm.

Memories grew fast

Of walking the beans. Of haying time. Of rebuilding the aging machinery. Of David on the John Deere, dragging a plow, Sally-Anne on the David Brown 990 with the disk, the wind whistling across them both, the sun beating down....
Sally-Anne, laughing: "You remember at a party putting those chickens asleep?"
David: "Nothing like it. Hypnotizing chickens. We had one asleep for three or four minutes, I think, just stretched stone cold out on the ground... a rooster."
"By the way," he says to Sally-Anne, "do you see we've got another transvestite rooster coming along?"
"Oh, I saw that, he's getting big, too, he's almost as aggressive as the top one...."
"Well, not that bad...."
David explains: "We decided to get rid of all our roosters. We ate them, every one, or thought so. Then all of a sudden, here comes this chicken out of the flock. I mean, we thought all along he was a hen, but he starts getting bigger and growing some wattles and pretty soon he's crowing all over the place. He was hiding in there, pretending to be a hen. Now we've got another one coming out of the closet, he's getting bigger....
"I remember when we were kids, we used to chase the chickens down here — chickens have got pretty good speed over the short haul, and have pretty good moves. Anyway, you'd get a rock and just chuck it at them, and every once in a while you'd lay it right alongside their heads, just throwing it at them on the run.
"And then you'd be hiding out behind the corncrib, because it'd drop over and you were sure it was dead. But it never was. It'd always get up and walk around like nothing happened. I'm not sure you can hurt chickens, to tell you the truth.
"No kid should grow up without chickens; chickens have got to be good for you...."

Some memories difficult

Some of the memories are funny, like the chickens. Some are not.
Sally-Anne: "One time we had this horse, named Belle, and that year there was an unusual mold that grew on the corn stalk, and Belle ate some of it. It turns out that it destroys your muscle control. She couldn't control the way she moved... like polio in people. Anyway, we had the vet out, and he said that's what it was.
"There was nothing we could do, and David had to shoot her. David got the gun and brought her out of the barn, and kept backing away from her so he could get a clean shot and she kept going to him, kept trying to walk up to him, because she trusted him and she didn't know what was wrong with her..."
Sally-Anne shivers as she tells the story. "I didn't want to watch. It was just awful, but finally he got back and shot her. The vet said there was nothing wrong with the meat, so David and a friend skinned her and butchered her... it was still pretty bad, but then, after a while, another friend came over and said 'Ah, Taco Bell, huh?' And that made it better, somehow. God, it was awful."
A farm of 160 acres can't really support six people, and the Bensons know it. They talk about buying more land, of going into debt, the very experience they saw drag down so many of their neighbors.
In the meantime, Sally-Anne teaches at the Worthington Montessori school in the mornings, and David does casual work as a mechanic. Sally-Anne brags that he can fix most things, especially Volvos. "If you live anyplace around Worthington and own a Volvo, you probably know him," she says.
The life suits them. More land would be nice, but the spectre of debt is overpowering. The Bensons, for now, have no debt — they don't even need spring operating loans. Between grain sales, auto mechanics, and Sally-Anne's job, they are sell-supporting and self-financed. They're proud of their ability to survive, but there is no sense of victory when they see a neighbor fail.
Instead, there is a sense of loss. It's their community evaporating, the Bensons' along with everyone else's.
"I don't know," says Dave. "Maybe what we need is some kind of creative financing like they do for home mortgages. Some kind of rent-share program where younger farmers can have a chance, can move into these homesteads and take them over and work them like they should be.
"And if they fail anyway? Well, at least we tried. If we don't try, we're going to kill it, the land."
Strong stuff, deeply felt; but it's hard to stay solemn for too long at the Bensons.
"When are you coming back?" they ask the visitors at the table. "Three or four weeks? Gee, that'd be just about right time for haying."
Sure would like to see you for haying, yes indeed, they say. Bring a hat. Bring gloves. Bring beer. Love to have you.