A Rural Community Comes Together for a Friend

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Friends and neighbors band together to help a farmer in need.
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Friends and neighbors band together to help a farmer in need.

Farmers are among the most independent-minded people in the world. For one thing, they like being their own boss – if they didn’t, they’d go to work in a factory, where they would enjoy the security of guaranteed wages and hours, as well as employee benefits. For another, they have a “Show Me, I’m from Missouri” attitude toward outsiders offering them advice – particularly if the people offering it are dressed in suits and ties rather than work boots and blue jeans. But that freedom comes at a high cost – working long hours in the rain, snow, dust and wind, in the hope that prices for the crops they grow and the animals they raise will hold firm (or even rise) so they can pay off this year’s bills and maybe have something left over for the next one. It’s like the joke about the farmer who won $5 million in a lottery. “What are you going to do with it all?” an acquaintance asked him. “Oh, I’ll keep farmin’ ’til it’s gone,” he replied.

But what happens when disaster strikes, when a farmer comes down with a disabling disease or suffers an accident that leaves him or her unable to do work that has to be done? When I was young, growing up in a small farming community in the southwestern part of Ontario, Canada, that was when your neighbors banded together and helped pull you through until you could get back on your feet.

Witnessing a rural community banding together

I first saw this happen when I was 10 years old. Billy Plaine, who lived down the concession road from my father’s farm, had come down with the mumps. That wouldn’t have been such a problem if Billy had been my age, but instead he was about 60, and he was so ill that even Doc Pardy, who still made house calls even though he was bent over almost double with age, couldn’t promise that Billy would survive. To make the situation even worse, Billy had fallen sick at the exact time the first crops needed to be sown, which in our case meant oats and barley.

Billy came down with the mumps on a Thursday. Toward the end of church service the following Sunday, Reverend Taylor announced that there would be a special meeting immediately following the service to discuss how to help out Billy. Everyone wanted the minister to act as the chair, but he suggested they nominate someone else. “I’m no farmer,” he said. So my father was nominated instead, since he was a member of the church’s Board of Elders and the chairman of the local school committee.

The problem was simple in outline, but complicated in execution. Billy, who owned 200 acres of rich, fertile clay and clay loam, had planned to sow 50 acres of it to oats, and another 20 to barley. However, because only some of the land had been turned under the previous autumn, we needed people to plow it, disk it, cultivate it, harrow it, roll it, and seed it, while others would drive to the feed store and load their trucks with seed and fertilizer – all, if humanly possible, in one day.

That was the challenge that my father presented to Billy’s neighbors that Sunday, and, in the typical “can-do” style of farmers everywhere, they rose to the challenge and had everything worked out within an hour. They had a plan.

Helping a friend in need

At daybreak the next day (or as soon as the farmers’ morning chores were finished), some of them would start plowing, while others would start working the fields that had been turned over already. When all the plowing was done, others would start disking, cultivating, harrowing and rolling, and a few more would go to town to pick up seed and fertilizer. Then, when all the land had been prepared, the farmers who had done the plowing would start running the seeders. None of this, of course, had been written down on paper; everyone knew what he was supposed to do, and when he was supposed to do it. As a bonus, everyone got a special, “one-time-only” dispensation from Reverend Taylor – if you needed to, you could oil, grease and repair your tractor and machinery on what remained of the Sabbath.

It was mid-April, and still cool enough at night that a mist would rise from the fields as the sun rose and started warming the earth. The evening before, taking Reverend Taylor at his word, my father and I had greased the plow, checked the oil and fuel levels on the tractor, hitched them together, and parked the tractor near the road. The next morning, we ate breakfast while it was still dark, then finished our chores as the first pink-and-gold light was peeking over the horizon. When we got to Billy Plaine’s farm, his barnyard and both sides of his long laneway were crammed with tractors and equipment, as well as cars and trucks; it looked as if there was an auction going on. A few minutes later, my father’s plow bit into the rich, dark soil.

Jobs for everyone

Back at Billy’s house, his wife, Mary, and the neighborhood women were setting up long tables on sawhorses under the towering sugar maple trees in the yard. Soon, those tables would be groaning under the weight of mountains of meat, vegetables, cakes and pies that the women had prepared for dinner and supper. Everywhere was hustle and bustle; people were doing what they were supposed to be doing, exactly when they were supposed to be doing it.

Not every story has a happy ending, but this one does. Billy Plaine’s oats and barley got planted that day, with no accidents, mishaps or mistakes, and Billy survived the mumps. In fact, he lived for almost another 30 years before dying in the same house where he’d been born nearly 90 years earlier. In addition, each and every one of us in the community got to see the words of one of the world’s greatest lessons translated into action: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.  

Jim Sutherland hails from Canada, where his family owned the same farm in the province of Ontario from 1868 to 1984. A former teacher in South Korea and China, Jim has had his work published in Internet journals like The Cynic, Hackwriters and OhMyNews International.