“Time to fight the elements.”
This was one of many of Jeffrey Fuller’s quippy sayings. Like many Minnesota Dairy farmers, sayings like these were what I call “understated exaggerations” – a bit dramatic, but always holding a good measure of truth. Often, this statement was a reply to those asking him what he was up to, or how things were going. Yet more ingrained in the memories of his kids, this saying was the announcement that it was time to go to work for the day, which would bring a mixtures of groaning and reluctant acceptance in response. Depending on the weather, work clothes would be donned, boots laced, and out to the barn and to the land that Jeff called his farm, his kids would follow.
As his son, it’s one of my most vivid memories.
Life on a small family dairy farm is hard work, and located in a place like rural Minnesota, “the elements” are in no short supply. There’s the elements of fieldwork, prepping and fixing machinery, caring for and milking cows and more that leave the farmer physically exhausted. Then there are the elements of the extreme weather of Minnesota seasons. People tend to look at Minnesota seasons romantically, but to the farmer their elements to be faced and overcome in the name of making a living. Summers are for boating and camping, but for the farmer it’s being on the back of a hayrack or putting up fences in the scorching heat. Fall time is a time for admiring the colors of the trees, but for farmers it’s the frantic pace of harvesting all the crops before the temperatures drop below freezing and the first snow comes. Spring time’s unpredictable weather would often create worries that one would not be able to get their seeds planted in time, and where a couple weeks late planting can mean a smaller crop and thus not enough feed for cattle come harvest time.
Then there’s Minnesota winters. There is so much I could say about Minnesota winters, but I saw a picture online once with this caption that sums it up best: “The air hurts my face….why am I living where the air hurts my face?” Imagine doing chores in that!
Fighting the elements is a way of life for farmers like Jeffrey Fuller. Growing up as his son, I remember thinking it was a never-ending battle: milking cows, throwing hay bales, getting tractors unstuck in muddy fields, trying to thaw freezing pipes so cattle don’t go thirsty. In my youth, it drove me nuts but the battle to this day is ingrained in my mind.
“Time to fight the elements.”
At the time I was in the Navy. I was living on the East Coast, just having started my new shore assignment at my new command after a grueling sea tour. I had finished morning PT with my students when I checked my cellphone and I had seven missed calls from my older sister. “That’s odd,” I thought, and I called her back. When she answered, that word came: “He didn’t make it.” My dad had died from an aortic aneurysm. Jeffrey Fuller, Minnesota Dairy Farmer, still farming strong at the age of 55, left this world unexpectedly and suddenly.
So much of that day and the days to follow are a blur to me. Much of what’s left for me are simply the emotions that come when the most influential person in your life passes away so suddenly. The shock. The raw grief. The numbness. What I do remember is that when I finally reached the farm after a day of flying and driving from the East Coast, decisions had to be made, and quickly, because there was no one to tend to the farm. Of course, we – being family, neighbors, and myself – tried, but it was my dad’s farm. His whole being was invested in that farm – his sweat, his intelligence, his frustrations, his joy – and for us it was no use pretending: the herd needed to be sold. A buyer was found. Neighbors were called to help load dad’s cows into their trailers to transport to the sale barn. Gates were staged to help funnel cattle for easy loading. All that was left was one last milking at midnight. I didn’t bother to ask for help. It was something I needed to do – a son’s duty, perhaps. Or maybe a son’s guilt because he knew he couldn’t continue his dad’s trade – a reminder of my inadequacy, but more so a reminder of the grief I felt because my hero, my rock, was gone from this earth.
So as midnight approached, I put on my work clothes like I had done so many times before in my life. Clothes that had the distinct smell of feed and cows, covered in cow hair. I slung on my pair of work boots that hadn’t been worn in years, but had been left for me, kept by my dad….“just in case you come home and you might need them.” Pain welled up, but no time for that now. There’s chores to be done.
I took one step out into that cold, stinging air of the Minnesota winter, accompanied by the gentle falling of snow flurries. Within the first two or three crunchy steps in the snow, I stopped, looked up into the snowy night sky, and my dad’s voice crystal clear in my memory:
Time to fight the elements.
As I write this, thirteen years to the day later, my life has certainly been blessed beyond measure. I have a beautiful wife. I am now a Lutheran pastor and returned to the Navy, this time as a Chaplain in the Reserves. The life of service to others is something instilled by the very man I write about, the man who raised me on that Minnesota dairy farm so long ago. Despite some rocky years after dad’s death, my family is close as it always has been. The years have gone by, and they’ve been good. Yet I’d be lying if I said that after thirteen years, his loss isn’t felt anymore. Jeffrey Fuller was a pillar in the community, a man of strong and humble character, a man who was less than perfect, but above all a man who was loved by those who understood his significance and the significance of his contributions in this world.
As his son, his loss leaves me at times feeling lost, even today. It feels like I’ve fighting the elements for the past thirteen years. I wonder what could have been, what would be now, and in the midst of it all just realizing I miss him so very much. Yet it’s more than that. It’s a loss I feel every time I read an article or hear the news that family farms are an endangered species in our society now. Farming as become industrialized. The loss of such a man as my dad and his way of life signals a sadness in me as I watch a world lose some of the more important characteristics necessary to live well in it. Humility. Conviction. Commitment. Compassion. Servitude. Endurance.
I suppose that is what this essay is about: the will to endure. That’s what fighting the elements is about. Expecting nothing other than the day in front of you. Understanding the fragility of life – whether the loss of a calf or a crop or the loss of another human – is both something fearful and precious, but not something that paralyzed you from living life. You just keep going. You endure. You fight the elements. I try to remember that as I live my own life today. Keep fighting. Don’t give up and don’t give in. The elements may be different than they were in my youth, but the will to endure the same.
Yet the most important thing to remember is that you don’t fight the elements alone. My dad understood that in the ways he helped others, and allowed others to help him when his stubborn pride often would not allow him to ask for it. There were neighbors. There were his brother and sister. There were his kids. When a man is loved as Jeffrey Fuller was, one is never truly alone. And if you are not alone, you can endure.
On the winter night thirteen years ago, going out to a barn to milk my dad’s cows for the last time, I fully expected to be alone. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t ask for help. Yet, a neighbor came over. And then another. My older sister brought out sandwiches and cans of Mountain Dew and together, we milked Jeffrey Fuller’s cows on last time to complete a life of work he never got the chance to complete. We talked, shared a few chuckles, but mostly worked in silence amid the rhythmic noise of the milking machines. In that moment, not so much completing a task, but carrying out a way of life. It is a way of life that carries me in moments of doubt and struggle; in moments of cynicism and at times despair; and in those moments where the hole left by my dad’s death leaves me feeling lost.
I fight the elements, sometimes alone but usually with others coming along side me. In doing that, I not only honor the man who was so influential in my life,
I truly live.