November 9, 2014: The Farm & Family
Our farm has been in the family since my father’s grandfather homesteaded there in the 1800’s after returning from the Civil War. The original house was built shortly thereafter and still stands today. The house isn’t perfect by any means. Over the years we’ve put a lot of work into it. It still needs more work. It is, however, fairly wind and water-proof for a building that’s more than 120 years old. There is a wood-fired cook stove in the kitchen and a Franklin stove in the parlor that heats the main floor quite nicely. My parents, my youngest brother – who’s single – and my second-youngest brother and his wife have taken up residence in the original three-bedroom farm house.
My second-youngest brother (I’m the oldest of four brothers), Joseph, and his wife had been living in Milwaukee since he graduated from college there in the mid-2000’s. His wife had a large family in the Milwaukee area and convincing her to move to Nebraska had been almost impossible. As it turned out, much like when my wife and I moved back to Nebraska from Minneapolis, returning to Nebraska may have saved Joseph and Heather’s life too.
About five years ago my wife and I built two small cabins about 100 yards due east of the original house. The cabins are about 20’X24’ with lofts for sleeping. Each of the cabins was equipped with appliances from salvaged travel trailers. The refrigerators, stoves and ovens all run off of propane. Each cabin is equipped with an on-demand propane-fired water heater. My oldest brother and his two daughters have taken up residence in one. My uncle and his wife have taken up residence in the other.
Late last year we completed a larger cabin with three bedrooms. Miriam and I have taken up residence there with our son and my in-laws. It’s a little close for comfort but, hey, it’s the new normal.
All of the cabins and the original farmhouse have photovoltaic (PV) electrical systems with backup diesel generators. Water for all four houses is provided by a well. A solar-powered pump draws the water from the well and fills a cistern located uphill about 150 yards to the north of the houses. Each of the houses’ water systems is gravity-fed from the cistern. We also have a small run-off pond for the cistern’s overflow. The pond typically runs between ¾ of an acre to an acre, depending on rainfall and snow melt, and is stocked with Bluegill and Largemouth Bass.
Septic is handled similarly with a shared tank. There is a traditional outhouse near the original farmhouse and two more near the cabins. Both of the more modern outhouses, near the cabins, are built with urine diverters that allow urine to be captured, mixed with gray water from the cabins and then added to compost for use on the garden. We considered doing something similar with the feces from the outhouses but decided against it as we have plenty of manure available from the farm’s livestock.
Our original farm is comprised of 160 acres of rolling hills. The soil is rich and rains have historically been adequate to raise corn and soybeans without the aid of an irrigation system. There is also a small alfalfa field that generally yields three cuttings of hay every year without any irrigation.
About three years ago the neighbors to the east decided to sell out and move into town. They were getting older and their kids had no interest in the farm – other than the money that its sale would generate. The whole place had been largely in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for many years. The CRP was a voluntary program for agricultural land owners managed by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. The CRP began in the 1950’s and encouraged agricultural land owners to convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover, like native grasses and wildlife food and shelter plantings. Consequently, the nearly 160 acres of tall native grasses, deciduous trees, fir trees and cedars was a haven for wildlife. At the home site on the neighboring farm were an aging farmhouse and a handful out-buildings in various states of collapse. There was also a small pond in the southeast corner of the farm, fed by Union Creek, stocked with fish.
When the neighbors decided to sell, they approached us before listing their farm with a broker. I had hunted on the western edge of their property for several years and had expressed an interest in buying it if they ever decided to sell. Selling to us saved them the real estate broker’s commission and allowed us to buy the farm at a little below market. It was a great deal for both families. The purchase of the adjoining 160 acres to the east gave us a half-section of land well-suited to a small farm, a large garden and plenty of hunting and fishing.
The two combined farms were bordered on the north, west and east by gravel roads. To the south was another half-section farm owned by a farming corporation. All of the buildings had been removed. The farming corporation wanted as many acres in crops as possible. Union Creek divided our property from the corporate farm.
Given the distance to the closest town and the size and tax revenue basis of the town, the roads near our farm received little maintenance. Before the crash we were lucky if the county put a load of gravel on the roads every other year. Snow removal was spotty at best. Even before government services officially came to a halt, we were quite likely to be snowed in at the farm for a few weeks every winter. Snow melt and spring rains usually left the roads like a series of washboards. Four wheel drive vehicles with mud-terrain tires were an absolute must. Good shocks and suspensions were nearly as important. Two years ago this past spring, the aging bridge a mile and a half south of our farm washed out and we had to travel several miles to find a bridge that would support the weight of a modern vehicle. The county never replaced the bridge.
In the past we often complained about these inconveniences associated with living in a relatively remote location. Now, based upon what we’ve heard over the short-wave radio, our remote location, poorly maintained roads and natural snow and missing bridge barriers appear to be more beneficial than not.