Witnessing the End of a Family Farm: Twenty-Five Ways to Say Goodbye

Richard Quinney —

I am a witness to the ending of a family farm in Wisconsin. This is the farm that was started in 1868 by my great-grandparents and farmed by the generations that followed. My brother and I inherited the farm and tried to keep its 160 acres as a working farm, even as we moved to other places and pursued other ways of living. What is a family farm, we finally asked, if there is no family on the land to farm it? I now grieve the death of my brother, and with his passing there is the ending of another family farm in Wisconsin.



A long time ago, from a place far away, John Quinney and Bridget O’Keefe sailed to the new world. Fleeing the potato famine in Ireland, they married and settled in Yonkers, New York, and eventually came to Wisconsin. After a few years of renting land, they purchased the acres that became the family farm. They built a frame house on a hill that overlooked a marsh and sloped down through an orchard to a pond at the bottom. They had five children: Katherine, Thomas, John, William, and Mary. My father, Floyd, was born to John and my grandmother Hattie. This place has been the center of my imagination, my consciousness, from the earliest time I can remember. This ancestral home has held all the meaning and mystery I have needed for a lifetime.


For some people, only one story carries them through a whole lifetime. I am one of these, and mine is the story of this farm in Wisconsin. It starts with my first memory: My grandfather John, the aging son of John and Bridget, nearing his eightieth year, is walking across the field from the old house. My father and I stand east of the barn and watch as he slowly makes his way toward us. I am startled into consciousness by my father’s exclamation, “Here comes the old man.” I knew immediately that I was part of something special in this world, and from then on I felt a calling that my life on this farm in Wisconsin is of special purpose and consequence. I realized that I would remember all of this and tell others about it. I became, at that moment, the one who would be like the ancient mariner, the teller of tales to anyone who would listen.


This is not a coincidence, the corresponding demise of the family farm and of my generation. The ending of the farm, as a family farm, began some years ago when my brother, Ralph, and I decided to seek lives elsewhere. Ralph once told me that, in the 1960s, he and my father talked about his staying on the farm and concluded that a small farm could not support a growing family. Ralph continued his education, eventually becoming a banker in a town two hours to the north. I cannot remember ever entertaining the idea of being a farmer; in fact, my father discouraged such a thing. I became a professor of sociology in universities far from the farm.

The fate of the farm was thus sealed years ago when my brother and I left and never thought about returning to farm the land ourselves. You could say that the demise of the farm began well over fifty years ago, with our generation.


My brother was the realistic one. When our mother died in 1999, his preference was to sell the farm, perhaps subdividing it into parcels for the building of houses. My desire was to keep the farm intact and to improve the land through organic farming, in keeping with the emerging notion of sustainable agriculture. The agricultural land was rented, first to the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, and managed by agronomist John Hall, and then rented to John, who pastured some of the acres and grew crops organically on other parts of the farm. Eventually a portion of the farm became home to a successful community-supported agriculture project. The rest of the farm was self-sustaining as wetland and woodland, becoming wilder with the passing years.


As my brother lay for days in the hospital bed, I whispered to him several times to be consoled by the memory of our farm, to remember how fortunate we had been to grow up there and to have the loving parents that we had. I hope, in retrospective, that these were comforting thoughts. He was losing his life and the farm that had formed him from the beginning of life.


Gradually, as our father and mother neared what would be regarded as retirement age in most other occupations, they began to reduce the number of milking cows and other livestock on the farm. New requirements for milk production were being administered, and they avoided the changes that would be needed. They continued their involvement in farm organizations and farm-related activities in the county. They traveled more often and took a few trips to places beyond Wisconsin. They flew in airplanes for the first time, visiting my family and me in upstate New York, Kentucky, and New York City. Tears came to my father’s eyes when he saw men sleeping in doorways as we walked the streets in the Bowery. He died at the farm on a November day, while walking between the machine shed and the tractor.

My mother lived by herself in the farmhouse for the next thirty years. I moved back to the Midwest to be near the farm and my mother. My wife and I drove regularly between our home in DeKalb, Illinois, and the farm. At the farmhouse, I held my mother’s hand during the last moments of her life.


Ralph motioned to the nurse for paper to write on, as we sat in the hospital room the last night of his life. With a black marker he wrote: “I want to terminate life. I love everyone.” He had been through several years of increasingly poor health. The operation for an aortic valve had been successful, but for years he suffered bouts of pneumonia. His family had cared for him over the several years of his various illnesses. He knew that nothing more could be done to save his life. Still, what courage it took for him to write that note to us. I uttered to him that he was a brave person.  My last words to him were about his courage in this life. He was not alone, not in terms of the presence of loved ones around him, as the oxygen to the mask was terminated.


For several years I had been on the verge of asking my brother the question: “How can we prepare for the future of the farm—or how can we prepare for its ending?” But to pose the questions to Ralph as his health declined was to confront impending death, his and mine. We were avoiding the end of things. We did not know how we might help our children make decisions about the farm. Wills and trusts provided for the inheritance of the farm, but decisions about its future were being passed to the next generation, without instructions that could be helpful. We who remain are hoping that the decisions will be life affirming, grounded in compassion. I am certain that Ralph wished, and prayed, for the best, as do I.


That the farm could be a demonstration of sustainable agriculture has been my dream. That it could be a farm that would support a family. Or, that the acres of the farm, including the agricultural land and woodland and wetland, might become an open space, a natural area, for the public to enjoy. Where children could explore and have the adventures that I once had on this land. The farm could be an oasis in a landscape that is becoming developed for enterprises and activities removed from nature and agriculture. This is a vision of diversity and preservation for our times.


The physician’s assistant displayed the x-ray image on the computer screen. My right hip joint presses against the socket; all cartilage is gone. This leg of mine has served me well. It has taken its share of stress and wear through the years, from kicking the pedal of the Oliver tractor when I was young to forcing a shovel deep into the ground while planting trees in retirement. On a winter afternoon when I was in first grade, my leg was broken in two places while I was skating on the frozen pond during recess. Several years ago the leg was weakened when I had a brain hemorrhage while cutting grape vines from the oak tree at the bend of the road at the farm. With advancing arthritis, a hip replacement became necessary. I hope to be able to walk the land again.


A sense of mortality is part of the wisdom of aging. You hope that as you grow older you will come to terms with your own mortality and develop a greater perspective on the nature of all things, animate and inanimate. All things are made of atoms and particles and energies that have existed from the beginning of the universe, and perhaps before. Nothing is lost, and all things are in the process of becoming something else. The human body is a temporary entity that someday will become matter and energy in the universe it came from. Where were you before you were born? The human mind is not capable of knowing the true nature of existence.


One winter day, after a weekend at home from college, I tried to leave the farm. A huge storm had filled the driveway with snow during the night, and the next morning my car got stuck in the snow before reaching the road. My father maneuvered the tractor into place, and with the log chain attached pulled the car free. I shouted into the cold morning air, “I’m leaving this God-forsaken place and I’m never coming back!” I still lament the words I shouted to my father. I wish I could thank him for clearing the snow—and helping me leave home for yet another time.


My brother might have become the farmer. He had the natural inclination for the work. I knew from an early age that I would become something other than a farmer. After each of us pursued other careers, after the farm became ours through inheritance, it was I who argued most strongly for the farm to be continued in some way. My desire was based on nostalgia for the farm I knew when young and on my wish to demonstrate a sustainable agriculture and an enrichment of the land through organic farming. Yet, it was Ralph who had the expertise needed for managing the farm. I was left with the farm but without my brother to help with the practical knowledge of farming. I am left with my dreams.


My brother was right. The farm that we once knew is gone. Nothing in this world can bring it back as we knew and experienced it. The family farm essentially ended with the deaths of our father and mother. Only the memories can remain, Ralph would tell me. Keep the memories he advised, and sell the farm. Or turn it into something else. I kept hanging on to the notion that the farm could last forever. Ralph’s death brought the ending of the family farm one step closer. I am the last one remaining of the four generations on this family farm.


You will note in my account of the farm the element of mystery. As narrator, I maintain a certain distance from the dynamics of the story. In fact, the mystery of the farm, my sense of the mystery of the farm, gives me a certain remove that would otherwise make the demise of the farm a prospect too tragic to contemplate. I welcome the mystery, the uncertainty, of the land’s future and the place of the farm on the land. There is much that is beyond my vision and my control. The farm is a lesson, and a practice, in letting go.


On Sunday afternoons in winter, my brother and I would take our ice skates and walk through the fields to one of the frozen ponds on our farm or another farm. Neighbor kids often accompanied us. Sometimes we took our hockey sticks and a puck for playing a game or just knocking the puck across the ice. One afternoon, which I still remember with chills and fright, Ralph fell through the ice and vanished. We located his hand and pulled him back through the hole in the ice to the surface. His clothing was freezing to his body as we made our way home. The thought of losing sight of him under the snow-covered ice frightens me to this day. We recognized the possibility of loss when we were young.


Wintertime was the time to think about the future, a time to plan for spring, when another year of farming would begin. The land was slumbering under the cover of snow, icicles grew longer each day along the eaves of the barn, and the cows went outside in the warmth of a sunny day. Early each morning we dressed warmly and made our way to the barn to milk the cows. The radio on the shelf in the barn brought the daily news. We went to town most days, ordering baby chickens at the hatchery, purchasing seed corn at the mill, and watching and waiting as the blacksmith sharpened plowshares. I listened as my father and mother sat at the kitchen table making decisions about farming the land for another season. All these years later, I sit at the same table, now in my own home, and contemplate what the next season might bring.


I never felt as close to the farm or as removed from it as I did on a wintry morning at LaGuardia Airport. My parents had been visiting us in New York, and as we were bidding farewell my father took my hand in his—I cannot recall this gesture with my father before that morning—and said goodbye. I was wearing my smooth yellowish-brown leather jacket, which I realized separated me even further from my father, as he and my mother were waiting for the flight that would take them back to the farm. That was the last time I saw my father alive. He must have known that he had only a few more days to live. At the funeral, I would not look into the casket, wanting instead to imagine him still holding my hand.


I could go back to the farm to live. Maybe I could build an efficient little house overlooking the marsh. But I am in my eighties now, and I don’t think that I have the energy—or the advantage of years—to begin a new project and a new life on the farm. If I were to move from my home in the city, it would be to downsize, to move into an apartment, or a small house, perhaps in a town near the farm. These are uncertain times, and mysterious and magnificent times.


My coming of age—as reality and as story—took place in the marsh at the bottom of the hill at the old place. On the day of my thirteenth birthday I wondered about the meaning of life and of death. In my imagination, I walked out of the driveway at the farm and went down the road to the old place of my ancestors. After a night of resting in the basement where the house once stood, I entered a passageway that led into the marsh. For a year, through the seasons, I had several adventures with the creatures and spirits of the marsh. A voice in the marsh asked questions and spoke words of wisdom. For the rest of my life, the mystery of the marsh was my inspiration and the center of my spiritual and daily life.


I write to think about how I am living. The writing becomes part of the living. This form of life I learned growing up on the farm. Born any other place, any other time, I would have become a different person. My life is that of a farmer who plows and tills with pen and ink rather than with horse and tractor. My hours are of solitude, looking to the far horizon as I go back and forth in the field. The words that come to me are more easily committed to paper than spoken. I am very much myself when I am by myself. I am free of expectation, and my thoughts and feelings are rendered without judgment. Oh, how I would like to explore the marsh and the woodlands again on a Sunday afternoon.


The glaciers and the weathering after the glaciers with drift and outwashes made this land that we know today, these few acres that make up this farm of tillable agricultural land and wooded highlands and lowlands of ponds and marsh. Others, the “natives,” were on this land before we settlers from the old country claimed it. We imprinted the land with the artifacts of our livelihoods.

The millions and billions of years before human habitation, before our human existence, are beyond our daily comprehension. Still, we attempt to hold on to what we think of as ours through a series of deeds and mortgages over a mere 150 years. Someday all of this will return to what it was in the beginning. We humans will return to matter and energy in the things and forces that our science calls by such names as protons, neutrons, quarks, photons, and dark matter. Our lives in human form, as individuals, are very brief. Rather than death, let us think of our individual ending as being a return to origination.

We are of the universe, or what we conceive to be a universe. In truth, we don’t have a clue, for a clue must come from the mind’s ability to know ultimate reality. We are much more than we conventionally conceive; we are everything. There is nothing to lose. And maybe there is a memory of us on the edges of the universe.


And what will become of the land that once was this farm? Planet Earth will eventually fly away and fall apart, and perhaps a new universe will emerge out of the one we have known. With this perspective, on the one hand, and our human desire to preserve the land, on the other, what are we to do? Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. This dear little family folds itself into bed, and whispers a few words into the night. In the morning, they will rise to do the chores and then gather around the kitchen table for breakfast. Work and play will follow the seasons. Each day will end with another night. I pray the Lord my soul to take.


I am not able to completely let go of the family farm. Not after a lifetime of knowing that the farm and I are one. My dream had been to keep the family farm as a monument to the generations that made it. Not being able to keep the farm in the family, to preserve it, I had a surveyor mark and secure a five-acre portion of the farm that includes the Old Place, the pond and the grove of trees at the bottom of the hill, and the hill with prairie flowers and grasses. This parcel of land will be a nature reserve at the side of Quinney Road in Sugar Creek Township.

This Old Place where my great-grandparents settled in 1868, a few years after fleeing the famine in Ireland, now remains for future generations to cherish, to honor the lives of our ancestors, and for anyone who passes by to appreciate and to explore. And family descendants, those of the future generations, will know this place as the source of their beginning in the new world. May they find spiritual sustenance and happiness in these few acres of land made sacred by their attention and meditations. And may the Old Place be for the sustenance of all people who seek response, reflection, and renewal. Let this be our country churchyard.


When you have been born on a farm—and have lived in the shadow of the Old Place—your life has been uniquely shaped. For a lifetime you have walked the fields and explored the woods and wetlands. You have ridden the tractor back and forth in the fields, looking to the far horizon. At night, after all the chores have been done, you have listened to the soft voices of your mother and father and brother as the day ends and the night of sleep is about to begin. You have known neighbors and seen the lights in their windows across the fields. You have heard the wind blowing through the trees that surround the farmhouse. In winter a blanket of snow has covered the land and the trees have dotted the landscape. All of this has stayed in your mind—in your imagination and your soul—the whole of your life. You will tell the story of this farm and the generations that made it. This will be your elegy written for a family farm.

Richard Quinney

Richard Quinney is the author of several books of autobiographical writing and photography, including Journey to a Far Place, For the Time Being, Where Yet the Sweet Birds Sing, Field Notes, A Lifetime Burning, Once Upon an Island, A Farm in Wisconsin, The Morning Hour, Still Life with Camera, and Mystery of the Marsh. His other books are in the field of sociology. Quinney’s retrospective book of photographs is Things Once Seen. He is the founder of the independent press Borderland Books and has had a career as a professor of sociology in American universities. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

2 thoughts on “Witnessing the End of a Family Farm: Twenty-Five Ways to Say Goodbye

  1. I sent Richard’s essay to a friend who grew up on a farm in Northern Wisconsin. This is what he said: “This Wisconsin history is thoughtful and well-written….It reminded me of so many experiences I had raised on a farm in Northern Wisconsin. All that remains of the old home farmstead is a well-casing. It is sad to see, but I find myself visiting the land from time to time. Thankfully it remains farmland as it was bought up by neighbors some years ago. And to this day it does return a profit, from what I hear.”


  2. Well-written, sad, and a sobering insight into something important and awful that has happened in America. Children are taught the family farm stereotype but grow up consuming the product of industrial factory farming. Cruel, unhealthy for consumers, and I grieve for your loss and that of all whose family histories were rooted so firmly in the family farm.

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