I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta in the 1980s in a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch house with a romantic dream about farm life. No doubt, this fantasy came from my favorite books as a child: Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. I thought about the hard work of chores, the hearty breakfasts and the thrill of risk that everything could go wrong and lead to ruin, and a chance to start over. It was the same kind of boyhood, wistful dreaming my brother had about being a military fighter pilot or my father had about the West.
Arlo Crawford, in contrast, did grow up on a farm in central Pennsylvania, about two hours from where I now have a house. He had grown up and moved away but decides to return to his family’s farm for one full growing season to work and reassess where his life is headed.
From the beginning, the book is about farming but also about so much more. Growing up and moving out into the world to create your own life, yet never fully being able to give up the place you came from. Recognizing your parents’ strengths and accomplishments, what they have passed onto you. For Crawford, these things amount to an appreciation of hard work, recognition of the beauty around him and the ability to keep going past disappointment.
The work is unusually honest about the realities of farm life. While my youthful thinking about farm life had me thinking about the negatives, I mostly focused on the romantic, bucolic charms. These are described beautifully, but the book chronicles the hard work and unromantic realities—hard physical labor if crops, worries, financial maneuverings, problems—that modern family farming entails. Because he does not try to romanticize his parents’ way of life nor paint a brutal picture, Crawford is able to entertain and educate.
His parents had moved to their farm after having grown up elsewhere and it is in describing the cultural differences that I think the author gives the most vivid picture of contemporary rural life: “…there was also a culture gap, a basic lack of communication that had separated my family from many of the people who lived here… There was no real animosity between us, just a distance that nobody bothered to cross (p.13).” These differences, sometimes intriguing and often an unfathomable chasm are real and not often addressed. They are discussed here with honesty and with a sympathetic eye to all parties involved.
For me the farming aspect had me hooked and entranced, but by the end, I realized it wasn’t really the point of the book. It is the fact that, no matter what background we come from and wherever we go in life, we all face similar obstacles, we all long to belong and to do something meaningful. There is no magical solution to finding out those answers, though I will continue to dream about an idealized farm life.
Crawford, Arlo (2014). A Farm Dies Once a Year, a Memoir. New York: Holt. 258 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8050-9816-7.