Friday, November 20, 2009

Rural Delivery: Final Harvest

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1989. All rights reserved.

Standing in a field just a few hundred yards from the place where he was born 70 years earlier on "a cold February morning," the retiring rancher eyed the crowd gathered around his dismantled windmill.

An auctioneer cried out from the center of the throng, "Last chance! Two-twenty-five, give me two-twenty-five! Sold for two hundred dollars."

The auctioneer and the crowd moved on, away from the rancher and toward a rusty manure spreader. The man with the highest bid, a neighbor, lagged behind. He studied the metal fan blades of the windmill and then crossed over to the rancher. His round, flushed face was reflected in the older man's dark glasses.

"You're going to have to help me put this thing together," he said.

The rancher studied him a moment from behind the glasses, then announced in mock seriousness. "Nope, I can't help you. I told you not to buy the thing."

Auctions like this can be gloomy affairs. When a century-old ranch is sold and its equipment goes on the auction block, often there's a foreclosure or a death in the family. Neighbors stand around, hands in their pockets, and bid sheepishly. The owner may not even attend.

This southern Idaho rancher stood his ground, wryly watching three generations of tractors, trucks and farm implements pass into other hands. Friends and neighbors, farmers and ranchers with weathered faces and calloused hands, approached the lank old man in the tan felt hat. Like the land around them, their conversation was sparse, but not subdued.

"Does this baler work good?" the auctioneer called out as he started taking bids on a John Deere 216.

"Oh yeah," said the rancher with a slight grin. "You hook it on the tractor and it'll follow."

The 1,100-acre ranch had been sold to a developer from California. Soon after the auction, the old rancher would leave a land homesteaded by his grandfather in 1886, a place that he grew up on in the 1930s, and a family business he had owned for 40 years.

At various times during its history the ranch had supported a thousand head of dairy cows, nearly 500 head of beef cattle, crops of clover, seed, hay, alfalfa, wheat, barley and potatoes. Some years were tough, others prosperous; adequate water supplies were always a concern.

To keep the ranch operating, the owners purchased fleets of tractors and trucks over the years. Their outbuildings swelled with machinery and equipment. Long rows of those belongings spilled out across the field below the rancher's log home, and the ranch's final harvest continued.

A horse-drawn manure spreader sold that day for $235, a calf table for $140. A New Hiolland 1049 Super harrow bed stacker drew a top bid of $7,000.

In selling the family ranch, the old man kept title to 40 acres of unimproved land across the valley. What he'd do with it, he had no idea. But looking out across the broad plain that used to be his ranch, nestled tight against the southern flanks of the hills, it's not hard to understand why a man would want to retain some portion of that space, if only to have a place to stand and watch you way of life go down the road.

"I'm just getting too old," he explained. His three sons were not interested in -- or could not afford -- taking over the ranch. The rancher's wife had passed away 18 months earlier.

At various times during its history the ranch had supported a thousand head of dairy cows, nearly 500 head of beef cattle, crops of clover, seed, hay, alfalfa, wheat, barley and potatoes. Some years were tough, others prosperous; adequate water supplies were always a concern.

To keep the ranch operating, the owners purchased fleets of tractors and trucks over the years. Their outbuildings swelled with machinery and equipment. Long rows of those belongings spilled out across the field below the rancher's log home, and the ranch's final harvest continued.

A horse-drawn manure spreader sold that day for $235, a calf table for $140. A New Hiolland 1049 Super harrow bed stacker drew a top bid of $7,000.

In selling the family ranch, the old man kept title to 40 acres of unimproved land across the valley. What he'd do with it, he had no idea. But looking out across the broad plain that used to be his ranch, nestled tight against the southern flanks of the hills, it's not hard to understand why a man would want to retain some portion of that space, if only to have a place to stand and watch you way of life go down the road.

No comments: