My dad grew up on a farm. I knew that my whole life, but I have only recently come to appreciate what it means.
Growing up, I knew that my grandparents were, in some vague way, “farmers.” My grandpa had an extensive garden, was retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and owned a piece of land larger than any I had ever seen. It was the farm where I ate my first mulberry and caught my first catfish. I was aware, without asking too many questions, that the vast expanse of land in southern Iowa was always in the background producing sweet corn and fish for me to eat. I had no sense of scale, as a child; no sense of the work that went into each year’s harvest of fresh corn. When my dad would talk about growing up on a farm, I pictured that farm, centered around leisure and maintained by unseen hands (my grandparents rented out the land in their retirement and kept only a tiny part of the crop).
By the time I was born, my father had lived in a city, or at least a large college town, for over a decade, and I came to know him only as a plant enthusiast. I was lucky enough to grow up with lots of berry bushes and a small vegetable garden, but there was no real connection made between that and a true-blue farming lifestyle. I came to view my dad’s “growing up on a farm” as a characteristic of one’s childhood similar to going camping a lot, or playing a sport with a moderate level of commitment. It was something you did, an interesting hobby or lifestyle, but only a minor departure from anyone else’s daily urban experience.
I ended up working in food as an adult and met a great many chefs and farmers. I learned a lot about food systems, about seasonality, about new ingredients and revived heirlooms, and spent a couple of days dirtying my hands in a small organic field. I began to volunteer with the farmer’s market and signed up for a CSA. I was interested, moderately knowledgeable and, above all else, a voyeur.
In 2017, my grandparents passed away within months of each other. As I drove to Iowa for the funerals, I thought about The Farm. I hadn’t been there in at least a decade; the last memory I could call up was catching bluegills at the age of 16 with my little cousins beside me learning to fish for the first time. I went through all the stages of grief not just for my grandparents but for the land itself; for the pond, for the mulberry tree, for the acres of corn stalks and the dilapidated silo.
It was not until my grandma’s funeral that I really started to think about a different farm, and a different generation. My father has a dozen cousins, and every single one of them have the same memories of The Big House that their parents and grandparents lived in. This farm was 60 miles northeast of the one I knew, and the address listing doesn’t show up on Google Maps. That is the farm that my great-grandparents bought and cultivated as newly married first-generation immigrants, and The Big House is the house that my grandmother was born in. That was a true working farm. It still is today. In fact, my grandparents were buried in a tiny cemetery across the street from that farm. I could see the house in the distance while the hot summer wind blew across the tombstones and rustled the tall corn stalks.
It has struck me that I am the first of at least three generations, on my dad’s side, not to grow up on a farm. I love the city. I love the people clustered close, I love the diversity and the hubbub and the city lights stretching into the distance on a dark night. But I feel a gulf, a void between my tidy house in the city and the farm — all of the farms of my family. My grandparent’s farm, The Farm of my childhood, was put up for auction after their deaths. There was a lovely video made, with expansive drone footage of the greenery and the pond, and I realized as I watched it how little I know. I realized how tenuous my connection to the land really was. The realtor described the land in words I didn’t understand: CSR2 average, tile drainage, Maxburg versus Sharpsburg silty clay loams. I felt embarrassed, in a way, to think that I had never really understood the true depth of what “grandpa’s farm” was.
My dad grew up on a farm. And, in a way, I did too. But my farm experience was just a tiny slice, just a foggy window into the reality of an entire lifestyle. Every fish that I caught, every mulberry that I ate, every cob of sweet corn that I shucked; it was only one small thread in the complex web of farmers and farming traditions that nurtured me.
Ian Krouth is a volunteer who serves on the Fulton Farmers Market Operations Committee. Support hard working local farmers when you shop at the Fulton Farmers Market, 4901 Chowen Ave. S. Join us every Saturday morning from 8:30 am–1:00 pm through the end of October.