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Give and Take: the Romance and Reality of Food

“I like dust,” she repeated, as if to confirm the idea for herself. “I mean I would have never thought when I was growing up … I like to stand in a dusty field.”

That scent of dried earth is one of many simple pleasures—“the stuff of life,” Oney said—that seems to infuse the milk on this northern Ohio dairy farm.

“Of course, there’s beauty all around us,” said Oney, a Huron County Farm Bureau member.

Surrounding the farm, wagonloads of straw dotted a rolling landscape, hay was raked into neat rows and deep green fields of corn flickered in the warm breeze.

It’s an image of family farming that has saturated American culture, from children’s books to truck commercials. But some critics of today’s food system argue that depiction is misleading at best, deceitful at worst. They say food production has grown into an increasingly industrial, corporate process and refer to attempts to characterize it otherwise as “farm-washing.”

That contentious debate has overshadowed a different reality for many of Ohio’s family farms. It’s an ongoing question of how to remain committed to core values regarding animals, the land and people while maintaining economic sustainability under increasing pressures.

Oney attempted to capture that reality in her book “Cultivation of a Lifestyle: Preserving the American Dream.” There, she chronicles a month in the life of her family through pictures and personal reflections on the challenges they face.

Finding balance
Her words reveal an unwavering commitment to those basic values as well as a reluctant acknowledgement that farm life is not idealistic, but a process of give and take.

“The Earth brings great riches to me, yet as our family struggles to make a living from the land, it’s tested me as nothing else in my life,” she writes.

To understand this conflicted statement, you can look to the balance found between Oney and her husband, Gerald.

She tracked him down outside the farm office. He squinted through his glasses in the mid-morning sun as he instructed his grandson about the afternoon’s work.

“We need to make it rain, so we’re going to mow some hay down,” he quipped, hinting at a lifetime of experience with nature not cooperating with the task at hand.

As a child on this farm, Gerald had milked the family cow. Eventually, he and his brother were hand milking 25 cows every morning before school. He later bought the farm and grew it into a diversified family business that milks 575 cows three times a day while growing more than 2,000 acres of crops.

He relies on a team of employees, including his three grandsons. Several years ago, he formed a corporation to allow his son to become a partner in the farm.

But for every step that Gerald took to gain something, Oney took a step back to question what simple pleasures they may have lost.

In her book, she describes a new barn the family built after a fire.

“There are wonderful vents that keep condensation from forming, but I will miss seeing steam rolling from the backs of warm animals bedded to their bellies in clean straw on a cold winter evening.”

Considering modern farm equipment, she talks about the smell of warm dirt and growing corn, refreshing summer rain and soft breezes.

“All of these reasons to farm are lost in the cabs of our green tractors.”

She no longer asks how many cows the family is milking. To her, it’s simply too many. To Gerald, it’s the number needed to keep the farm going.

Oney looks back fondly at their farm’s beginnings when they took on “huge monetary debt” to pursue their dream.

She used what little money they had to paint a water pump behind their farmhouse as their children played around her and Gerald plowed a field in an old rusty tractor.

“It was a close and wonderful feeling making our living, just our family, in this way,” she wrote. “Now, many years later, I’m adding another of many subsequent coats of red paint to that same pump, but typical of changes in farming, a hired man I hardly know is working across the road in our field in our huge, cabbed tractor.”

The commitment
Oney admits her vision is a romantic one.

“Myself, I would be a poverty-stricken, organic artist-farmer,” she said, noting that her husband’s business sense is what put a roof over their heads.

Still, she’s nagged by some of the things she feels they’ve lost.

“I’m fortunate in marrying such an understanding girl,” Gerald said. “She’s been patient in a lot of things she didn’t agree with what I did, but she accepted it and we went on.”

The couple will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year.

“There’s a lot of times when she wished I was sitting on the front porch, but maybe I was down here at the barn delivering a calf,” Gerald said.

Since he “retired,” Oney laughed that her husband has gone from working 90 hours a week to 80.

“I’m not going to go home and sit in a rocking chair,” Gerald said with a smile. “I thought at one time I might retire at 65, then I thought at 70, now I’m thinking at 75 I might retire. But I don’t really have a desire to retire.”

On the farm, he finds his own balance.

“We try to be as efficient as we can and have as high of production as we can, but still be as gentle as we can or as kind as we can to the acre or the cow or the people working here,” he said.

He goes on to describe the pleasure of standing in the field watching a sunset, the satisfaction of a job well done and his continued joy in the sight of a newborn calf.

But then he cautions, “Most people don’t realize the amount of work and the intensity of keeping an operation like this going. From the outside it looks like it’s just happening.”

And while Oney maintains a love for the old ways of farming, she also shares a different perspective with nonfarmers who might look critically at agriculture.

“I just think that they would have to be realistic,” she said. “If they want that romantic notion of farm life, they’re going to have to pay an awful lot of money for food.”

For all of the gains and losses that came with the growth, the constant is the couple’s passion for family and this way of life.

“I wouldn’t want anything negative said about our family operation, because it hasn’t been anything negative,” Gerald said.

He remains enthused by the prospect of handing a viable farm to the next generation.

“Farming is so hard, it’s so hard,” Connie said. “It doesn’t usually work out the way you want. But even though you’re living such a hard lifestyle, you can still be happy.”

As she wrote, “There are still many places in all countries where people rise in the morning and labor until dark, then come in at evening with the weariness only hardworking people can appreciate. Home never looks as good and food never tastes better than after a busy day of toil when the world outside shrinks to a very small one contained within four walls.”

To purchase Oney’s book, visit www.ConnieOneyPhotography.Wordpress.com