Below the Surface: Not In It Alone

Ag folk have each other’s backs

Published online: Dec 18, 2019 Below the Surface, Feature Tyrell Marchant, editor
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This column appears in the June/July 2018 issue of Sugar Producer.

Everybody’s got a story. The interesting thing about agriculture, though, is how good so many people in the industry seem to be at telling those stories. It seems that literally making a living out of the dust of the earth imbues ag folk with an innate ability to spin a yarn that can make you laugh, cry and hit your knees in a prayer of thanksgiving, all in a matter of a minute or two.

I recently heard such a story, and I think it’s worth sharing here.

It happened 100 years ago, in the fall of 1918. Northern Utah had been hit hard with early winter weather and, more devastatingly, an epidemic of Spanish influenza. George, a farmer in Lehi, had two sons serving in the Great War and a crop of sugarbeets stuck in a layer of frozen topsoil. With only his youngest son Franz for help, George had just begun the labor of getting his beet crop out of the frozen ground when the first of the dreaded news came: Some 60 miles to the north, in Ogden, his oldest son, Charles, and his family had been stricken with the deadly flu.

Over the next week, Charles and three of his children died, and George spent those days in the melancholy task of bringing his loved ones back to Lehi to lay them to rest in the family burial plot. George and Franz dug the graves themselves.

When no news came on Day 4, George broke the somber silence at the breakfast table by telling Franz, “Well, son, we’d better get down to the field and see if we can get another load of beets out of the ground before they get frozen any tighter.” They hitched up the team and headed down the road to their beet field.

On their way, they passed wagon after wagon, each driven by another neighborhood grower and loaded down with beets headed for the factory. Each neighbor smiled and waved at George, well aware of the grief with which he was dealing. George waved back, wishing his beets had already been harvested and sent to the factory.

When George and Franz arrived at their field, they bore witness to a miracle: George’s wish had come true. There wasn’t a single beet left in the field; the wagons he had passed on his way had been loaded with his beets. In the words of George’s son Les (who at the time was serving in the war):

“Dad got down off the wagon, picked up a handful of the rich, brown soil he loved so much, and then…a beet top, and he looked for a moment at these symbols of his labor, as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. Then … this amazing man who never faltered nor flinched nor wavered throughout this agonizing ordeal—sat down on a pile of beet tops and sobbed like a little child.”

I’ve got to tell you, when I heard this story, I dang near sobbed like a little child myself. At its very core, this is what agriculture is: people who genuinely know and care about each other, even as their businesses may be actual market competitors. Tech companies and car manufacturers and fast food chains spend millions of dollars and countless hours dragging down one another’s products. But when farmers like George have some sort of crisis that could drive them to financial ruin, every grower in the county—for whom George’s farm’s loss would be a financial gain—rallies to help.

From a purely economic standpoint, American agriculture would not be where it is today without the incredible cooperation of its participants. More importantly, without that spirit of collaboration and good will, the industry would be sorely lacking in its most basic necessity—growers. As anyone reading this knows, farming is not always fun. It involves a significant amount of risk and requires long hours in often less-than-comfortable working conditions. To make it this line of work requires an actual, genuine love for the work—and for the kind of people who do it.

There are a zillion ag interest groups—promotion boards, lobbying associations and the like—all looking out for the industry as a whole. They do worlds of good to that end. But what those efforts are really about is protecting the individual grower, without whom the whole system would fall apart.

Frank and Bruce and Jim spend their summers and falls carefully monitoring their own crops, but they’re also each keeping an eye on Mel and Joe and Jerry down the road, just in case they need any extra aid. They don’t need to be asked; like George learned 100 years ago, if you’re in agriculture, a helping hand is usually extended long before you look for it.