Know Your Roots

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The family farm, reborn.

By Graydon Royce • Photos by Caroline Royce

In November, 1956, our family moved to what was then known as Route 1, Box 722, Mound, Minnesota. More accurately, our home was two miles north of Mound on County Road 110 in the township of Minnetrista.

My parents both grew up on Minnesota farms and after their family of four children began to break the seams of our small rambler in Crystal, they looked for some acreage. The place on County Road 110 was 23 acres of land, stretching across fertile fields and a woodsy glade on the shore of Painter Creek. The asking price was too steep for the entire parcel, so they asked if they might just buy eight acres.

The farmhouse is original to 1895, added onto several times. This spring, we hope the bones of the home can take a thorough remodeling.

The prism of age reflects many dimensions in a place that has such a seminal place in our family mythology. My parents have become heroic as I leaf through the catalog of memories. Certainly flawed heroes, but capable of so much more than I ever appreciated. My father raised animals -- pigs, chickens, milk cows, beef cattle -- and six children ate well on the gifts of livestock. My mother tilled an acre and there she grew green and yellow and orange vegetables, strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes. We lived on what was ripe and fresh in summer and fall, and enjoyed what was canned and stored in the root cellar all winter. My father fed his flock by planting rows of corn and fields of alfalfa -- rotating the crops every few years. He rotated not because he’d read it in some trendy environmental treatise. He did it because he came from farmers who knew that’s how you do it.

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My childhood filled me with two competing visions of the farm -- an immersive love of nature and animals that was diminished by the sense that we were outsiders in the social life of Mound.

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I loved the open land, the nearby woods and the creek, the smells of autumn and spring, the mist hanging in the dawn of a still July day. The words still don’t exist to adequately distill the encompassing melancholy of an overcast December afternoon, sledding through snow-covered pastures.

But when we went to town, these farm joys turned to embarrassment. Here in the suburb, fashionable kids wore cool clothes, went to the rec center, rode their bikes on the streets and played football and baseball on the school grounds. One morning, my mom hastily got me to church for a Christmas pageant rehearsal and a classmate remarked, “You smell like a barn.” He was, of course, right.

When I left in 1974 to pursue life, I knew I would return here. Even after my father died -- too early -- my mother never entertained seriously leaving the place. Her children visited often and we celebrated every holiday for years. Going home was an escape from whatever pressures the modern world could hurl at me. The farm was my private greenspace.

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Life, of course, grinds up the energy and existence of every person and in 2007, my mother had to leave the home she had lived in for 50 years. In crisis, there is clarity and the farm’s future became my responsibility. No sibling wanted to commit themselves to keeping this essential family touchstone.

For me, there was little question. Even though the outlines and framework of the old place are unrecognizable, the land is still there. Where corn and hay grew in fields, junipers and pine trees have created small forests. The barn and the animals are ghosts now. Grasses and reeds fill the meadow. It is a place of rest, reflection, escape from city life.

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I learned to dream gazing into the rural vistas that still greet my eyes, and those dreams always as forward, not into the past. My youngest daughter, Addie, exercises her passion for gardening in the thick, black earth where our cows once huddled. She and I have cleared off a small patch, fenced it away from the woodchucks and deer, and grown our own crops. She does the planting and I do the weeding. When August arrives, we reap the fruits of our labor. Her interest in the old place fills me with a content joy, a recognition of the miracle that we could hold onto this farm for another 60 years. Maybe that won’t happen, and I won’t be around to see it, but hope sustains our love for a small landscape that deepens our family story.

As I walk the paths mowed in the meadows and small stands of trees, I often stop to marvel at the great gift we have been given. I have shed the discomfort of smelling like a barn and I feel that being an outsider has helped make me what I have become. 

How many people get to have a small farm within half an hour of their city home? How many people can walk through the fields and smell the same aromas of spring, the impossibly fresh air of winter and the saturated atmosphere of summer that they have inhaled all their life?

My parents were looking only for a chunk of land on which they could play at farming and raise their children 63 years ago. They could not have known that this little hobby farm would be refreshed over and again as a sacred family space.

Caroline Royce