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A case of the vanishing farmer

News item: About one out of four Americans lived on a farm in the 1930s. The figure is now more like one in 33. EVERYBODY must know an ex-farmer -- there are so many of them these days. The ex-farmer of our special acquaintance was a city boy who fell in love with Thoreau. There are farmers, born to the farm, who inherit the calling as naturally as they will inherit their parents' land. Then there are the converts -- the first-generation farmers who seek out their farm as if it were the Promised Land. Our friend, who still talks a bit like Humphrey Bogart, was retreating not only from a tough neighborhood but from a war he had just survived.

The century-old farmhouse and the 120 acres of land he bought for $2,500 represented a constellation of values. Peace. Space. Solitude. He regarded the chance to make things grow a religious act, though he remained an agnostic.

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In short, our friend romanced the country, as only a boy could do who lived in an apartment above a railroad yard and played his stickball in the streets, with manholes as bases.

For five or six years the experiment continued. Our friend worked hard, extracting income from everything he owned. He purchased a chain saw and cut the winter fuel for his wood furnace and sold cords on the side. He bought a second-hand boiling pan and buckets to harvest maple syrup. His old city chums got invited up for a sap party. The reward for collecting and emptying dozens of battered buckets was all the syrup you could consume, packed into late-winter snowballs and passed off as frozen candy. He did a mail-order business in black walnuts. He kept goats and hens and a pig he made the mistake of naming Ferdinand. After that, he became too fond of him ever to take that little piggie to market.

There were good times. In the winter the farmer and his friends skated on a pond deep in his woods. In the summer there were berry-picking expeditions and softball games in the north pasture.

But the cash crop our friend needed to keep his ancient car and even older tractor rolling never quite materialized, and at last he had to ``get a job'' -- a phrase bitter with humiliation. He had served, he thought, as the worthiest kind of human being: a farmer. Now he became a statistic in the diaspora.

Our friend has lived a good life as a teacher -- the second-worthiest occupation, by his reckoning. He sold the farm but stayed in the country, becoming a gardener instead of a farmer, and most of the time keeping sheep.

But he can't help wondering how things would have developed had he survived as a farmer. His favorite poet, Robert Frost -- another short-term farmer -- wrote about ``the road not taken.'' What does it do to a person to take the road, and then have to turn back?

Our friend speaks with such satisfaction as he guides a visitor about his garden and mini-orchard, as if the bean poles and apple trees stretched as far as the eye could see. He is even fonder of his sheep than he was of his pig. When they dance and caper, his laughter booms after them across the field.

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The more complicated, the more abstracted the world has grown during his lifetime, the more our friend believes in farming as The Way. Innocence, the work ethic, family honor -- all seem to him to spring from the soil. Wearing a tie and business suit, he quotes Hesiod, the most ancient of Greek poets next to Homer, who also thought that virtue was rooted in the farmer's field -- the ultimate bumper crop.

Our friend is a romantic without being particularly emotional. He can hold you at a distance with his heartiness. But when he lays his hands on a plant or an animal, his face relaxes -- he has made his connection. It is still the story of his life that he could not do what he wanted to -- keep that connection. Compromise is not an uncommon lot, and he has long since ceased to feel bitter. But because his values have not changed, he still thinks less of a world that cannot feed those whose hands feed it.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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