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Today’s Farmer

Is farming alive and well? Is the “family farm” anything more than a catch phrase? Or is it another one of those Catch-22 words? In the unthinkable extreme, do you suppose “farmer” might become one of those birds to become extinct along with the dodo? Probably not, but you shouldn’t count your feathers before they’re incubated.

After you’ve finished looking from the interstate and the parkway, take a turn up and down the back roads, and you’ll likely come upon a gathering of honest-to-goodness tillers of the soil. Gardening is right up there at the head of the list of positive things to be doing this summer.

Laughter, too.

Doughnuts and coffee. Hot dogs, cold soft drinks, and door prizes.

It’s Roger and Beulah Wilson’s customer appreciation day at their Ag-Wood store in Montgomery County. They’ve been weathering the pressures of supermarket pricing, not to mention volume.

“Have to do more different kinds of things to survive,” says Roger, who comes from a tall family tree of long-suffering, traditional farmers. That’s why Roger deals in a practical variety of wood, posts, and fencing hardware alongside staples, dog food, salt, fertilizer, and vegetable plantings—sorghum, turnips, and seeds enough to feed several communities.

“Whatcha need, Honey?” says Linda Webb, who offers to help Ag-Wood customers before they have a chance to ask her.

“Can I help you?” she wants to be sure.

“Don’t know,” says the voice belonging to the plaid shirt, the corduroy pants, the windbreaker, and the cap with the bill pointed any way but backward.

Claude Smith wears his World War II American Legion cap with pride—served with General George Patton, but straightaway he’s ready to share his Pike County memories of building “potato holes.”

“Potato holes?”

According to Claude, back when he was one of nine kids of a coal mining daddy and a mama working just as hard—“kind, church-going woman, fixed cornbread every day for breakfast, biscuits on Sunday.” No electricity—therefore, no telephone, no television, no computers—“potatoes dug in September, reburied in holes four feet across, four feet deep. Dig ’em out again as needed. Otherwise, sweat and rot.”

There are 355 ways to fix potatoes, according to Mr. Smith, but his two favorites were fried and baked, “ate the jackets, too.”

Before Smith migrated to Columbus, Ohio, to become a baker for 16 years—“122 loaves of bread a minute”—he and his Pike County family knew what it meant to grow corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and white half-runners of the green bean strain. That would have been in the time of widespread gardening and farming. That would not be the way it is on most back roads today. It’s outlawed on the interstate and the parkway.

Berkley Mark might be called a “farmer’s farmer” (1,200 rolls of hay, more than 100 cows). He knows reality when it whistles down the homestead lane. Son Tyler is a Purdue graduate in ag-business and economics. Son Corey is studying real estate appraisal.

“You doin’ all right?” a voice breathes toward the coffee and doughnuts.

“Go back there and get some lunch,” says Linda. “Have you signed up for the door prize?”

“Why, no.”

Charles Masters, who runs a sawmill up in Wolfe County, puts mustard on his hot dog and says his business is good. “People building log homes in Morgan, Wolfe, Breathitt, and Lee. Farmer can’t farm,” says Charles.

Maybe it’s the old Catch-22 again. If you’re going to farm, you have to want to farm. If you want to farm, you need a family that wants to farm. And if you have that, you’ll need a few things more than a potato hole, maybe a part-time job to fill in the gaps. Not to mention a home place to go to.

“Thanks a lot,” lilts Linda, “catch you later,” she smiles as the last customer walks away.

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