My great-grandparents on the Laufenberg family farm

My great-grandparents on the Laufenberg family farm

Anyone who knows me, even a little, knows that I grew up on a farm in west central Wisconsin. Even though I left the farm at 18, it has never left me. There is one thing that stands out to me after all these years away from the farm, that I try to replicate everywhere I can, and that is a sense of community; and not community in the digital, 21st century, ubiquitous kind of way.

Today when I called my parents they relayed a story that best epitomizes the sense of community that still exists in small, rural towns. The Hagens, Julie and Jewell, live up the road, and have done so since before I was alive. Their son, Terry, was a year older than I in school. The father and son team run a dairy operation with 150 head of cattle, machinery, etc. The business supports two families and is pulling off what few families have in the last few decades on America’s small farms; the family farm.

Friday night, just after midnight, my Mom bolted out of bed, unsure of what had woken her, but knew something was wrong. A few minutes later there were sirens coming from all directions down our little road that scarcely sees a vehicle after midnight. My father, hard sleeper extraordinaire, slept through all the commotion. Knowing that my father would want to see what was happening and help if he could, my mother woke him up. As my father turned west out of the driveway, the cause of the commotion was abundantly clear.

The Hagen’s barn was on fire. This was not a small fire, burning machinery, hay, straw, equipment and worst of all, 44 head of their best milking cows. Four volunteer fire departments responded with probably close to 100 people up and out of bed to help in the middle of the night. My dad buzzed back to the house to pick up the cattle trailer to help get the remaining cows to a nearby pasture. Almost immediately, one of the men present remembers that a local farmer just sold off his cows the previous week and there was a barn still set up for milking, about 15 miles away. The only thing missing was a compressor, as that had been sold off already. A local electrician, and close friend of the family, chimes in with, you get the cattle there and the compressor will be in and ready. Men and women spent the bulk of the night trying to make sure the fire didn’t spread to the rest of the buildings and stand in support of the family. No one received a dollar or compensation or anything but the knowledge that if it was their home or barn or livelihood, the same would apply.

In the recent political season, the scene is one that I almost can’t bear to watch anymore with the spewing of anger and the skewing of fact. But, as I listened to my mom tell me the story, it occurs to me that none of that matters if we don’t have communities like the one I grew up in, continuing to help when help is needed and celebrate when the good times come. It may be a little overly simplistic and/or Pollyanna’ish’ to say so, but I think that America is really in trouble when we cease to be the kind of place where neighbors help neighbors, let alone know their neighbors. Living in the city is really unreal with fabulous opportunities and wonderful events… but I am not sure that the sense of community that exists in these rural pockets of America translate well in our cities. The loss of that feeling that your neighbor will get out of bed in the middle of a Friday night to help salvage your life’s work… is one that America can’t stand to lose.

It is in my classroom that I try very hard to help students to feel that sense of community, that sense that someone will help you because it is the right thing to do. SLA is an easy place to foster such a feeling because the community is already so strong. But I often think about what it must be like to live a life without the strong sense that your network will support you when you stumble. To have grown up in it makes me a better person, to know that it is still alive and well, gives me hope.