Family can make us better people

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Farm Forum

by Stan Wise

Farm Forum Editor

When I was very young – younger than 8 – my best friends in the whole world were my cousins. I didn’t have any other friends. Thankfully, I had a lot of cousins. My grandparents had six children, and almost all of them lived close to the farm. By that, I mean they lived within walking distance of the farm. That meant I had plenty of kids to play with on any given day.

At Sunday dinners at my grandmother’s house, my cousins were my companions at the kids’ table. We discovered foods together. We learned how to make conversation together. In the fields, we learned tasks together. As one cousin became old enough to drive a tractor or a truck, the younger ones watched the instruction and gloried in the newfound independence and responsibility of the older. In recreation, we learned skills together. We learned how to bait hooks or shoot a bird on the wing. We learned to play sports and games.

When the younger cousins would get in fights and arguments, the older cousins would break it up. The older ones were no saints, though. They offered plenty of their own teasing and practical jokes. Very few people are good guys or bad guys all the time, and so it was with the cousins.

When I grew older and met new kids and made new friends, I was a better friend for the time I spent with my cousins. I had learned what fairness was and that I should call foul when it wasn’t being applied. I learned to look out for those smaller than me. I learned to ask for help from those who were older. My cousins and I helped each other learn what it means to be people and citizens and family members.

It might not seem like it on the surface, but a big player in that story is the setting, and the setting is a farm. Now, I know people can learn life lessons in any place. It doesn’t have to be a farm. My point is that I gained something relatively rare these days by living in close proximity with my large extended family at a young age. And what kept that large family close?

A farm.

These days, I no longer farm. In fact, I live more than 1,000 miles from the farm where I grew up. My kids are growing up here on the Northern Plains where neither I nor my wife have any family. Most days, we just try to make it through our daily routines: work, school, afterschool lessons and sports, homework, housework, sleep. On most days, that seems normal, and it’s easy to overlook what’s missing.

Over the past week, some of my family visited us, and what has been missing was unmistakable during their stay. We cooked, enjoyed meals, explored the area, watched movies and played games — dozens of games — together. During these activities I saw my children come alive in ways they don’t get to experience in their everyday lives. They weren’t just enjoying the company of family. They were interacting with people who love them, interacting in ways they can’t interact with their mother and father. They were learning lessons their mother and father can’t teach them alone.

And my kids know it.

My daughter cried in my arms the night before our family had to leave because she didn’t want them to go. All my son can talk about is the next time he gets to go back to Mississippi for “Grandpa Farm Camp.” And now that my family are gone, our lives a little quieter, a little emptier.

While my sister was here, we had the beginnings of our first conversation about what would happen to the farm if something ever happened to our father. Those pieces of a conversation were gut wrenching for me, but I also knew exactly what I wanted to happen to the farm.

I want it to stay together for my nephews and maybe my own son one day. Or any other family members who want to build a life around it. Because I learned a long time ago that a place can bind a family, and staying close to family can shape people for the better.

A farm does a lot of big things. It helps feed the world. It can provide a living for a family. But if you have a farm, it might be easy to overlook the little things it’s doing. One of the little things it can do is keep a family together.

And as someone who moved away from the farm, I’m here to tell you that little benefit isn’t so little.

If you have a farm that’s keeping a family together, I urge you to remind your family members what a blessing that is and ask them to remember that when it comes time to make farm transition decisions.