The Joys of Farm Life and the Pain of Leaving It
I grew up on a 1,200 acre produce farm in a small Northeastern Ohio town called Norwalk. My family grew sweet corn, cabbage, peppers and squash, greens, apples, strawberries and the occasional patch of kohlrabi. We hired migrant workers from Mexico and every relative within reach. From the time I was old enough to pick strawberries, this was where I spent my summers and weekends and any other moment I wasn't in the classroom.
Life on the farm was one I fought. It made me bitter, to work in a dirty barn while my friends were out riding bikes or swimming. But like most things that you look back on 15 years later, embarrassment and hatred has turned into pride and a badge of honor. Life on the farm was, in fact, good.
My grandfather and uncles ran the operations on the farm and my father, just a stone driveway away, managed a large farm market that held a spanning sign on its roof spelling out our last name. My father had actually gotten away from the farm once. But after short-lived stint as a professor in Michigan, he brought my mother back to Ohio to build Boose's Farm Market in 1973.
My father worked as hard as any farmer or business owner should, getting up at 3:30 every morning to prepare the store for the its 9 am opening, and to ready the delivery vans with dozens of produce orders for the area's restaurants. Sometimes, after he closed the market at six p.m., my father would stop in the barns before going home. I can still picture him, all tired and ball-capped, grabbing boxes of peppers at the end of the conveyor belt to help the stacking person catch up.
In 2004- the year my father battled two hernias, a bad shoulder, and a new generation of customers who chose to shop in town rather than drive seven minutes out for fresh, local produce - my father retired. I came home from college to watch area farmers, Mennonites, and Amish bid on equipment. The same stuff that once depressed me upon sight as a 16-year-old, at that moment brought up painful pings of nostalgia. I was told that the reason the farm closed was because we either had to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into new technology in order to stay competitive or we had to shut it down. So we shut it down.
This past Thanksgiving my wife and I toured a different farm back home, this one just 15 minutes away from my family's old fields. It's operated by a Farmer Bob Jones and his sons Lee and Bobby, and it's been featured on Martha Stewart's program and caters to some the most famous chefs in the world. Guys like Charlie Trotter, Michael Symon, Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck regularly fill their plates with their produce.
As we walked the length of their farm, I thought about why this farm was still around when my family's was not. Instead of closing down after a devastating hailstorm, the Joneses adapted and evolved, they invested heavily into technology and carved out a niche. They have a sustainable and organic field known as The Chef's Garden in Milan, Ohio. Farmer Jones knew my father and grandfather well and often mentioned their names to us when retelling the history of Lake Erie farmers that afternoon. I believe it was for my benefit that he mentioned the Boose name so often, but it didn't stop my chest from swelling with pride each time.
However, with every greenhouse and barn that my wife and I toured with Farmer Jones, all I could think of was why we didn't adapt. Why didn't we invest? How we sold everything to hundreds of strangers and ended a legacy.
And I ask myself if it's my fault. If I should have come home from college with a genius plan like growing micro-greens for chefs, or if I should have offered to go into the farming business with any of my brothers. I know that my grandfather, uncles and father couldn't have worked any harder than they did. I know that they ran a tight ship. But instead of moving to big cities like Chicago and Cleveland and Columbus and Charleston, could I and my siblings have somehow saved the farm? Could we have forced our own children to someday pack wagon-loads of sweet corn all morning long, summer after summer, without having them despise us?
But perhaps it was just our time. Perhaps the end result of all the Boose children gaining an unparalleled work ethic and a penchant for fresh zucchini were simply the goals all along. And perhaps I can take pride in another local farmer doing well while my father and uncles enjoy grandchildren and retirement.