In the 1980s, midwest farms were dying. Interest rates were over 20%, land prices had halved, and the embargo against the Soviet Union put grain prices in freefall. Every farmer felt like a chicken in the coop, wondering when the master’s ax would fall. My father was no exception.
I was a young child at the time, but even I noticed the change. We went from poor but proud workers of the soil to folks grateful for free school lunches and dinners made with government cheese. My parents hid much of it from my brother and me, but we were far closer to losing the farm than I knew at the time.
Still, daily life went on as usual, including helping my father with farm chores. One afternoon as we were working on the combine, I could see a neighbor family walking through our field across the way. The field was tall with corn, and they were pulling ears off the stalk and stuffing them in a pillowcase. It was theft in broad daylight, and I was outraged.
“Dad, the neighbors are in our field,” I said, and he nodded in agreement.
“They’re stealing corn,” I said. Another nod.
“Are you just going to let them?”
“Yep.,” he said.
“Because I can.”
Sometimes parents teach their children in the smallest acts. And sometimes it takes a while for a child to learn them.
Field corn isn’t like the sweet corn you grow in your garden. It’s mealy and tough and used mostly for livestock and processed food. You don’t eat field corn to enjoy. You eat it because your family is desperate for calories in a time of want. The neighbors gathered corn from our field several times, and my father never said a word. He also made sure other food went their way as well.
Much has been written about the 80s farm crisis, most of it focused on those who lost their farm, or nearly did. Less has been written about the others in rural communities. Those who lost their job at the ag store, or the children who were left with their grandparents while their parents tried to get city work. Farmers were hit hard, but many others were hit harder.
My father is well into his 70s now. Before the coronavirus hit he liked to putter on the farm while my brother does most of the farm work. He’d design and build farm implements and have coffee at the diner in town with friends. Now he’s stuck at home and gradually driving my mother crazy. He has to because at his age and health he is an at-risk member of humanity.
As the coronavirus spreads across the country, the message is that we should stay home, work from home, and physically isolate ourselves. It is the best way to slow the spread of this deadly disease. It also means some are being asked to do more. Lose your job, lose your business, watch your retirement savings or children’s college fund waste away. It’s a small ask for some, but a huge ask for others.
This also won’t end soon. The virus itself could pose a threat well into 2021 before a vaccine is found. Once it is eradicated, it will take years to rebuild society and the economy to its former state if at all. How we behave at this time will define the world we give to our grandchildren. That world will be built by our small acts, good and bad.
We can sacrifice the old and vulnerable to save ourselves, or we extend them generosity. The latter won’t be an easy path, but it is the right one. For those of us who are better off than our neighbors it is the path we should choose.
Because we can.