Lessons of the land

Nowhere does the earth seem more closely linked to everyday life than in rural areas. Be they farmers, gardeners or environmentalists, mid-Missourians work and live in tandem with the ups and downs of nature. This series gives voice to those who shared what the land has taught them, in their own words.
Sunday, August 17, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:31 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

A farmer's destiny: Andrew Stanton relies on the earth to sustain him and his future generations

Andrew Stanton has a hard time thinking of other folks who farm full time, people who rely solely on the land for their income instead of picking up part-time work in town. It’s all he’s ever known, though. He and his wife, Judy Stanton, and their two boys, Dustin, 10, and Austin, 6, farm about 1,000 acres and then some just outside Centralia. They raise cattle, hogs, soybeans and milo and hay. The land was passed down to Andrew, and he wants to pass it on to his boys — though he hopes that when the time comes, they’ll have an easier time of it than he does.

My dad was born and raised down here. He was born in 1912. And he was up in his 50s before he had me, so that’s why, when I talk about generations, it don’t take a couple generations to get to me. My grandfather sat on the porch of the homestead house where my dad was born, and he watched the Civil War when he was a child. My dad’s mother’s father was a colonel in the cavalry. He came and basically settled the land when the Indians left.

My dad, Eugene, took over all that land, and he was farming over 600 acres, with horses. I started helping in ’72, ’cause he had a heart attack and prostate cancer, a whole lot of things went wrong with him at once. We only farmed 60 acres then, and he’d just bought a tractor — first new tractor he’d owned since the late ’50s. And about that year and from then on, I farmed. Even when he got well, he’d come to the field and sit in his pickup, and then he’d take a round or two on the tractor and then I’d do a few rounds on the tractor. He basically taught me that way, by example. I was 8 years old.

Back then, I’d just walk up at school in the afternoon and say, ‘You know, it’s dry, I want to go combine,’ and I’d come home and combine. Now, the superintendent of schools, he came out several times and rode on the combine with me to see if I knew what I was actually doing (laughs). ’Cause I was only 13, 14, and I was combining. And you know, I drove to school, I drove an old truck. It’s unheard of now, but I’d drive in. My dad’s eyesight was real bad; he had cataracts. My mom, she wasn’t any better, so I drove them to church and to get groceries. That was when I was like 11 or 12. We had the pickup, an old 3/4-ton Chevy pickup, four-speed on the floor, no power steering, no power brakes, and I drove it to school.

There are probably about five or six now farming on this road, Double C, and there was probably at least close to 20 when I was growing up, and we’re just talking this 10-mile stretch of road here. Out of those five or six farmers, one of the few that has no off-farm income would be us, me and my wife, that I know of. It’s just a sign of the times, and a lot of it isn’t the big money they’re making in town, it’s the benefits they have. I mean for farming, you know, your benefits is your land. You really don’t have an IRA, a retirement fund. We have to pay our own health insurance, too. That’s probably most important, and a lot of people work in town just for the health benefits.

My dad sold beans back in the ’50s for $5 and $6; $4 was the lowest he ever got. We’re talking 60-pound bushels. Back then, the seed was sold the same way, in 60-pound bags, and cost about $2 or two-and-a-half (dollars) more than the market value. Now, in the ’70s, beans were $7, $8. And even in the ’80s, the general price was between $7 and $9. Today they’re $6 and this is the highest beans have been since ’96. And this is fantastic, but back in the ’60s, when my dad was selling beans for $6, six-and-a-half (dollars), he bought a pickup for $3,000, a 3/4-ton fully loaded pickup, that one I learned to drive with and everything. In ’88, I sold beans that year for $9. The only thing bad in the ’80s was interest; prices weren’t bad. We had some dry years, but I sold beans for $9, and I bought a one-ton pickup, four-wheel drive, for $15,000.

I wanted to buy one — my old pickup is wore out, they don’t last 20 years anymore like my dad’s did — last August. We looked at one, it didn’t look super fancy, just white, plain Jane, and the first figure was a four, it was 40-some thousand.

What you do is just farm more and more acres. That is why you don’t see many husbands and wives staying on the farm together. One of them’s going to town to make money, put food on the table, keep things going, keep the bills paid. My boys, they’ve got egg money, chicken money, for allowance. Dustin is 10, Austin is 6. Dustin wants to farm. He wants to be a farmer and an author. He’s a great story-writer. Austin wants to be a mechanic. Since he was 2 years old when he started talking, he’s wanted to be a mechanic. He doesn’t want sports cars, he wants a wrecker truck. This Christmas, we bought him Craftsman tools, that’s what he wanted.

I used to enjoy farming a lot; I don’t enjoy it as much as I used to. It’s almost drudgery. When you’re working a job where it’s hard to see a future — I keep hoping for a future — you know I got a couple boys I want to pass it on to and have them have a future. But I really used to like smelling

the dirt in the spring. But really you don’t have time to stop and smell the roses. That’s the bad part. You don’t have time to enjoy it. You’re so

busy trying to make enough money or trying to keep things going. Now, my wife talks a lot about selling out and going to town and getting a job. But when you stop and think that, you know, we’re going to have to get up in the morning, go to work, we won’t see the boys when they get on the bus. Or you got to move to town, and that’s not an option (laughs).

Despite all the struggles, Andrew says farming is all he knows and all he’ll ever do. It’s what he wants for his boys, too.

I have a friend who was working in Mexico making fine wires. He was a mediator with the union, one of the top seniorities in the company. He had planned to retire there. It was the week of Christmas or a week before Christmas. I talked to him about how things were going, just shooting the bull. And that day he got his pink slip. The plant was gone; everybody was gone. Now he doesn’t have a job. In other words, he doesn’t have control of his destiny. People in town think they have control of their destinies, but they don’t.

You know, here, anything can happen. God has more control of our destiny than any of us. But at the same time I know whether I’m going to have a job or not. You’ve got to leave God in this: God’s got the most control of my job out here. He makes it rain or not rain, but I make decisions whether I’m going to farm or not. I work all my life and I may not have a lot, but I still have what I have. As long as you’ve got ground, my dad always says, if you’ve got some land you can live. You can raise crop, you can hunt squirrels, you can feed yourself. My dad was an old-timer (laughs).

I hope my sons have a better future. I hope farmer isn’t a dirty name. You know farmer, anymore, the connotations, it’s getting to be a dirty word. You know, ‘You rape the ground, all these nasty chemicals out here.’ I hope the boys, when they get up and start doing it, farmers is thought of like a doctor and a lawyer. Well, lawyer sometimes (laughs). But you know, you always want your kids to grow up to be somebody. I hope farmer is thought of as being somebody.

Lessons of the land: Patricia Lopez

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