Ye Olde Farmstead

“I was born on the dining room table in that old house.” “Yes, Dad, I know. You say that every time we drive by here!” That was a common conversation with my father when I was a teenager and we lived some six miles from the Hudsonville farm where Dad was born and where he and his five brothers labored under the stern rule of my grandfather, whom they called “the Kaiser” (which was fitting, since his father was born a quarter mile from the Rhine in old Prussia.) The old house on Van Buren Street is long gone and the foundation hauled out to enlarge the field of rich, loamy soil, part of which is also highly valued muck. Hundreds of acres adjoining it are now filled with crops or topped by dozens of greenhouses filled with flowers. [You can see it on Google Maps here.]

Last week I decided to amble out that way—compelled a bit by nostalgia, but mostly by my thoughts and feelings about creation care and how circumstances are so radically different now from when my father was a child. A hundred years ago he would have been nine and already doing the “chores,” which is a euphemism hard farm labor. Child labor laws did not apply to farmers. The farm he was born on was only one of three properties that my grandfather worked (he and my dad were both “Henry”—in a long line of Heinrichs that goes back to the Reformation). Actually, when he was nine, they were tenants on an even larger farm, which was between his birthplace and an 80-acre woodlot from which mature timber was sustainably cut to help supply hardwoods (mostly maple and red oak) to the furniture factories in Grand Rapids, then called America’s “Furniture City.”

As I drove the couple miles between Dad’s birth farm and the tenant farm last week, my attention was yanked to what is probably the largest agricultural rig I’ve ever seen—operating a half-mile from where my grandfather used draft horses. I discovered that it is the John Deere DB120 planter that plants seeds and chemicals at the same time. Here’s a description of it (along with a photo I took of it. Click on it to see it larger.):

The DB120 is an agricultural planter made by John Deere. Upon its release in 2009, it was the largest production planter in the world. It has a 120 feet wide tool-bar and plants 48 rows which are 30 inches apart. It is estimated that the planter should sow 90 to 100 acres per hour at 5 to 5.5 miles per hour ground speed. John Deere claims that the planter is 30% more productive than their 36 row DB90 planter. To transport such an incredibly wide implement, the DB120 folds into five sections. The planter weighs in at over 20 tons empty and almost 24 tons when loaded with seed. The DB120 had a limited release in 2009 with orders being taken for the 2010 season. It retailed at $345,000 dollars. The DB120 needs a GPS System to guide it as there are no row markers to indicate where to position the tractor/planter.

I have to confess that I was awed by the machine and the engineers and technicians who made it. I can’t image what my grandfather would think were he alive today! I guessed that it was half a football field wide, which, it turns out, was not far off: it’s 120 feet wide. The reality of the difference a hundred years has made in how we “do agriculture” is really shocking.

I drove another mile to the corner where the tenant farm was, already knowing that, contrary to Dad’s birth farm, there the farm fields were almost gone. But the house, barn, and old shed were still standing. West of the house, which has been added to and remodeled many times, is a huge complex of Little League ball fields. South of the house and across the road is a mega-church with a pond and fountain. West of the church lies the lone section of the farm on which corn is still grown—but probably not for long: The city of Hudsonville is one of the most rapidly growing communities in Michigan. [See the site on Google maps here. If you go to street view at the corner of 28th and Baldwin, you will be able to see the farm buildings from the street level. ]

From there I motored a couple more miles to the “woodlot.” The photo here shows what’s become of it: a lake surrounded by houses that run from around $400,000 to whatever (no doubt less now than when they were built!). My grandfather bought the 80 acres a couple days after my father was born (April 4, 1902) for $2,800 and sold it fifteen years later for $4,500. Years later after the forest was clearcut, I believe it was farmed for a while. Later yet, however, a gift of the great glacier was discovered below the soil: gravel. And when the gravel gave out (or perhaps because of the difficulty of dredging gravel out of the water-filled pit—the water table being close to the surface there) the entire 8th of a section was sold to developers who put up the houses. [See the site on Google maps here.]

It was a hot and humid the evening I took my drive, and nearly every house had a dock and a boat, but there was not one watercraft on the water! What does one get a boat for but for puttering around a lake on a warm night’s eve?

What are my thoughts about this history and all these changes duplicated thousands of times around America? For sure they are conflicted—especially since yesterday when I heard Diane Sawyer on an ABC news report that nearly all our store-bought produce still has pesticide residue on it even after washing, and some of it is actually inside the fruits and vegetables (strawberries being the most contaminated). The big John Deere rig, as the picture shows, carries three large tanks that instills insecticide along with the seeds. I’m not sure what seed was being sown (if the word “sow” is still appropriate) since most corn and soybean crops are already well above ground. (As my dad commonly said, it was a good year when the corn was “knee-high by the 4th of July.”) Perhaps it was another Monsanto seed product that is “Roundup ready” (seeds engineered to tolerate Monsanto’s flagship herbicide). I’m uncomfortable about that too, after reading a report today about Roundup being in our blood and linked to genetic deformity in children.

What a can of worms, eh? It brings to my mind Francis Schaeffer’s thoughts in Pollution and the Death of Man about the lyrics of The Doors’ song “When the Music’s Over”:

What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn
And tied her with fences and dragged her down

Says Schaeffer: “St. Francis’ use of the term ‘brothers to the birds’ is not only theologically correct, but a thing to be intellectually thought of and practically practiced. More, it is to be psychologically felt as I face the tree, the bird, the ant. If this is what ‘The Doors’ meant when they spoke of ‘our fair sister,’ it would have been beautiful. Why have orthodox, evangelical Christians not produced hymns putting such a beautiful concept in a proper theological setting?”

Yes, why? And what indeed are we doing to the earth, our fair sister?

See you outdoors!