Storing the past is not a matter of nostalgia. On a farm what you keep is a form of preparedness, an arsenal for the unknown; whatever cruel season, whatever broken part, the answer is but a cutting torch away. In potato farming and very likely farming in general, there is an occupational resistance to getting rid of spare parts and plausible solutions. As one of the last large potato farms in Sagg, we have ended up with bits and pieces of other farms. And their spare parts, too.
My family has been farming in the same place long enough that we have, on the property, a chronological portrait of the agricultural technology my ancestors once literally harnessed to profit from the land. They did well, could afford to purchase new innovations, while never letting go of the original, the foolproof, the horse-drawn plow. There are two I uncovered this winter, both in workable condition. There are several ox carts, disassembled but complete, each massive wooden piece reinforced with heavy, hand-forged steel. Equally heavy sleds, made for cargo, but once brightly painted, were used in winter to take potatoes to the train station. When I find these things, I am romantic enough to imagine my home as it was then. And the hardship my ancestors were so ambitiously working their way out of, I sink into. I smell the animals, hear their bodies move against the single tree and traces. And the load begins to move. I know that from here to Bridgehampton my sturdy team and I won’t be interrupted by anything more menacing than the wind.
Instead of the cross-stitched “Home Sweet Home” one might expect in a farmhouse kitchen, ours bears the statement “Blessed Be Nothing” on a large plaque hanging above a wide doorway. My mother gave it to my father as a present. It was something his father used to say. Familiar visitors take years to notice it, and I sometimes forget it is still there, though I never dismiss the quandary. Because it is ambiguous, I interpret the meaning of those words to be a piece of secret wisdom that I’ve yet to comprehend. I automatically decide that there must be proverbial truth to it. One afternoon, I was deep into an untouched corner, cleaning and trying to organize, when I chanced upon buckets of old bolts, chain and unsized wrenches.
The old tools are stoically beautiful despite their sad fate-which is to be of no use, fitting no known part. Like a tantrum, those words come to mind. Blessed be nothing, indeed.
If you see how my family handles equipment both old and new, you should have some indication as to how we attach ourselves to the land, which, like the horse-drawn plow, is original to this farm. A few nights ago, the accountant who has been helping us with something called “estate planning” asked us to convene as a family. I put “estate planning” in quotes because in my estimation the only sort of estate planning I think really matters goes like this: My brother asks me what I want to do. He asks in a way that lets me know he knows my answer. When I tell him I would like to keep farming he nods, folds his arms, “Me, too. What else is there to discuss?”
Our accountant hands us each a sheet of figures and scenarios that estimate how much the estate tax on this farm will be. For a while I had faith that the government would intervene and stop accepting current IRS policy, which is to appraise family-owned and farmed land as if it weren’t family-owned and farmed. But after a few trips to Washington, I see that this had nothing to do with a misunderstanding. We would have to find a different way, because the paper she hands us is an ultimatum and a financial obligation that inaction will not meet. It’s an awkward moment. I feel faint when I see the numbers; tragic, mortal, hopeless. I look around the table and see my parents and siblings feeling stunned, too.
My brother breaks the silence, puts his paper calmly down on the table and says, “Well, it seems only obvious what we have to do.” And in the moments that my heart begins to beat again, I hear my brother asserting the path he sees out of this mess. My father sits straight up in his chair, my mother slowly exhales and I look at my brother and see that he’s probably thought about that sign over the kitchen door, too, and already he might have gleaned its most useful lesson.
Marilee Foster farms and writes from Sagaponack.