Saturday, September 8, 2012

Newton County Farmer of the Year (Part I): A dying breed

Farm in Ben Hur, Arkansas, May 2012
Every summer, the Newton County Times, the weekly paper for my home county in Arkansas, runs stories about the Farm Family of the Year, the Farm Woman of the Year, the Senior Farmer of the Year and Junior Farmer of the Year.  These awards, given by "various farm service agencies" in the run up the County Fair, say something about farming in this sparsely populated, persistent poverty county in the Arkansas Ozarks where many people have long farmed, but where few now make a living solely from farming.  I offer these portraits here in part to contrast these farm lives with those more commonly associated with farming in the 21st century, in particular, with factory farming.

I begin this series Farm Woman of the Year is 83-year-old Syble Garrison of Ben Hur, not even a census designated place.  Ben Hur is in the far southeastern part of Newton County, amidst Ozark National Forest.  I took the photo of the church, below left, when I passed through the area this spring. It was the only civic or commercial building still in operation there.  Indeed, Garrison's musing suggest that Ben Hur might experience a resurgence--a second life, if you will, if it had any amenities to draw people back and if there was any land to buy--which isn't the case because the federal government buys up whatever it can to return it to wilderness.  Because of that, Syble Garrison is necessarily a dying breed.

The Newton County Times features a detailed profile of Garrison who, even as an octogenarian,  "live[s] on her own, raise[s] chickens and 15 head of cattle on her 80 acres."  Her small herd started with two heifers who calved a few days apart several years ago, and it has steadily grown since. She has a name and feeding tub for each cow.  She also takes care of her brother's six cows, and in exchange he helps her put up hay.

Garrison grew up on a nearby farm, and went to school through eighth grade at Moore, a school now long out of existence.  She recalls her childhood on her parents' farm:
Ben Hur Freewill Baptist Church
The family raised its own food.  They had milking cows, pigs that were allowed to run free range and plenty of chickens.  The hogs were butchered, salted and put in a hickory smoke house to cure.  ... [B]ack then you didn't have a tractor, you had horses.  
They plowed the land, planted crops of corn and beans, and Lespedeza grass for pastures and hay.  You didn't bale hay then, she explained.  It was gathered and stacked.  
Syble Standridge married at the age of 17 to a sawmill operator, Leon Garrison.  They lived in Arizona, California and Kansas before returning to Arkansas to farm.  Initially, their 80-acre farm had only 3 cleared acres.  Syble's husband worked off the farm for most of his life, operating a sawmill and working as a custodian and bus driver for the Deer School.  He died of cancer in 1997.  Mrs. Garrison is herself a cancer survivor.

In addition to taking care of her farm animals, Garrison tends her garden and harvests and cans or freezes its produce.  She also uses a sprayer she carries on her back to tame blackberry briars, and she sometimes cuts cedar trees on her property.  She no longer drives following an accident, but she walks the two miles each way down the state highway to get to church--yep, the one in the photo at left.  Garrison cleans the church once every other week.  (Now I know why it was as neat as the proverbial pin when I saw it).

Of the future of farming in Newton County, Garrison's outlook is not very positive, in part because communities like Ben Hur have essentially dried up.
A lot of the people [Garrison] knew have left the area.  Former farms have been bought up by the government and are reverting to wilderness.  
There used to be three stores between Ben Hur and Moore and both communities had post offices, Syble recalled.  Now for groceries the closest place to shop is Jasper about 40 miles away.  The nearest post office is at Pelsor, but it has been put on a list of rural post offices to be closed.  
Some people would like to live here, now, but there isn't anything to come back to and there isn't anything for sale, Syble said.  
Syble gave birth to each of her five children at home.  She also has eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.  All eight of Garrison's siblings are still living.  Photos accompanying the story show her with her canned goods in her kitchen, and feeding her chickens and cows.

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