I wasn’t exactly new to the area. I’d grown up in a mid-sized town about 60 miles away from where we were. The farmers here still treated me like I was a total outsider. Granted, I’d also gone to Lawrence for my communications B.A. as soon as I was out of high school, but they’d called me “country boy” and “Jethro” my first three years there. I’d spent my childhood fishing creeks, playing football on the grass. I even hunted geese and whitetails with my dad a few times as a teen. How much more rural did I have to be?
They weren’t rude about it. They were about the most polite people I’d ever met who wouldn’t say more than five words to me. They just mostly acted like I wasn’t there, like folks do with security or… homeless people. Which I guess was a good thing, really, since I was supposed to be filming candidly for the press video (the union reps would get permission from them later). Easy job, and pretty high profile for Kansas.
So I squished down my hurt pride (which was stupid, getting hurt over being thought too urbane for farmers?) and got on with the filming. I’d gotten the job because.. well because a professor had introduced me to the union chapter’s Media guy, but I like to think it was also my knack for finding the really good personalities for the screen, and there were a few here alright, all along the Cowboy/Working Class Hero spectrum. I had a set of people I looked out for, especially when they got together. There was Tyson with his worn Stetson (I don’t know if it was really a Stetson) were wearing John Deer caps. Then Josh with his almost-epic beard and just as long hair in a ponytail (I thought the glasses ruined it a little, but what did I know, being a city boy?). Tully, who stook six-four and seemed half that wide, coppery skin always seeming to glistening and graying dreadlocks held back with what looked like yellow honor cords (I knew from my own, graduating cum laude, thank you very much). And last was Stella, who I admit was a little bit eye candy. Relatively speaking, anyway; probably late thirties, the streaks of silver in her auburn hair only showed that it was natural, athletic but curvy under her overalls, and a smile that dazzled.
I’d spent the first day scouting and picking them out, then I focused on one of my stars each day of the next four of the four day event, with a preference on getting two or more of them at the same time. These were going to be the face of farming in Kansas this year. I don’t know if I’d heard it before, but it was Tyson who first said the phrase, while i was filming a little huddle of himself, Stella, and three other farmers who weren’t top billing material.
One of those had just said something about hands being stretched tight around the farm. Josh nodded and said, “Yep. Same with us. Gonna be tighter, though; I decided last year to go do a turn on the homefarm.”
Every one of them nodded at that, seeming in deep approval. “Must be just as tight up there,” said another extra. “Exactly,” Josh nodded. “But we all gotta our part. Future–”
That’s when Stella stopped him with a hand on his elbow, then gave a short glance in my direction. The others followed it to me, dropped the subject and wandered off.
And right there’s where I decided had to know. What the hell was such a big secret the camera guy couldn’t hear it? My first thought was moonshine. Did people even make moonshine anymore? Then I figured, maybe it was a weed farm? Was there a huge underground weed production syndicate in the heart of Kansas? Or was it “hofarm”? Sex trafficking? My mind started getting a little out there.
Then I noticed the word “homefarm” — I was sure it was one word — coming up a few times a day. Sometimes it would get cut off with a glance, and sometimes not, but it was always kept vague, no mention of what was actually done there, just concern with how it was getting along, and occasionally people going there to lend a hand or “do a turn” there. As the days went by, the glances came quicker and more often, and by the last day it had dried up completely, and I was getting suspicious glances from near everyone.
After everyone had packed up their trucks and trailers and churned up half the dust in Kansas driving off to where they’d come from, I went back to Union headquarters in Manhattan (Kansas, not New York) to help with editing. While working late the first night, I decided to ask Phil Tockton, who I was working with that night. “Hey Phil,” I said, “You ever hear of something called ‘homefarm’?”
Phill looked up, thought about ti a few seconds, and shook fat, bald his head. ”Nah man. I mean, I’m not a farmer, though. I’m a tech guy just like you. You should ask Gary, he was a farmer before he became a chapter leader.
Gary Holbrook was head off the chapter Media department. He was definitely not a tech guy, but from what i could tell from previous years’’ videos, he had a great eye for cutting things together. I found him the next day and said, “Hey, Gary. Video’s coming along great, should have it for you to look at tomorrow. One thing. Do you know what a homefarm is?”
He looked up in surprise at that. His eyes got wide and then really quickly went back to normal as he looked back at the papers he was holding, but didn’t really look at them, just shuffled them as he talked. “Where’d you hear that?” he asked, shuffling.
“Oh, heard it a lot at the meetup,” I said. “Got a bunch of video of people mentioning it but they never really say what it is or what they do there.”
He nodded. “Oh, it’s a just a farmer’s term around here. Everyone has their home farm they learned to farm on, before they got their own. Mine was my parents; same for most folks. They say you always come back to your home farm.” He frowned. ”Well, that wasn’t every really true, especially when the bank foreclosed. That’s why when I retired from the farm and left it to my son, I came to work here, to help the little guys fight the Goliaths, the banks and big agra.” He tapped the bottom of the papers on the table to line them up, then said, “I gotta go now. Talk of home farms is kind of personal around here. You shouldn’t let any of that get into the video, it’ll just cause trouble.” Then he headed off a little faster than he usually moved.
I was starting to get weirded out, my brain supplying increasingly weird scenarios. I mean, it wasn’t that bad a lie. If I hadn’t already been suspicious, I’d probably have bought it. But tuned in as I was, it was so clearly bullshit. And he really didn’t want me letting it get into the video.
I didn’t mention it again while I was working, just put in my time and effort and earned my pay, which would keep me going for another month.
For the next few days of that month, I looked everywhere on the Internet for anything aout “home farm,” which turned up pretty much what Gary had said — farmers talking about their homes. On the farm. So I decided to focus on “homefarm”. I searched every farmer and agriculture discussion board and social media page i could find. It was only when I went back to about the early 2000s that I started getting hits. It was still vague, but I started to see the patterns. It seemed like there was one homefarm in every state. And right around 2002, “homefarm” started to be replaced with “HF.”
That was my key, and I was ablet o push back to present day. It was everywhere once I knew where to look. Farmers were setting up carpools (truckpools, I guess), chartering busses, to take groups on trips. Some were going for a week or more, some for the whole summer and into august,
I had to find out. This was… well you have to call it a conspiracy, don’t you? A real one. Didn’t seem to be political in any way I could find. I figured at least white supremacy, right? But no, there were a ton of hispanic and indigenous folks involved in this, and a good number of Black farmers as well. IT was an… agriculturalist conspiracy? It didn’t seem to have any direct connection with any farmer’s union, either. Nothing about this made any sense.
But I was going to find out. I didn’t want to chance anything with the Kansas homefarm. Too many people knew me there. So I went a step south to Oklahoma. From what i could tell the HF of Oklahoma was about 5o miles northwest of Oklahoma City. I checked on the Internet maps and to my eyes it was an indistinguishable patchwork of fields in different shades of green, with nothing but gas stations and quikmarts. It seemed there was a bus making pickup stops in a few places the next week. I gathered supplies and became a farmer.
There wasn’t much to the disguise. Farmers dress pretty much like everyone else these days, with hoodies popular and work boots universal. I got a John deer hat and sunglasses just in case someone from the Kansas union showed up, and wore a camo vest over my regular blue hoodie. I’d been letting my facial hair grow in to look fashionably rugged — or as close as i could come.
On the day (really the night before), I drove down to the Ace Hardware parking lot in Woodward, where the bus should pull in at 7am. My heart jumped a little when I saw a half dozen people dressed more or less similar to me, with bags and luggage, waiting by a handwritten sign that said “HF”.
My sources didn’t say anything about a fare, but I’d brought a hundred in cash with me just in case. I wasn’t going to be the first one on, so i’d follow everyone else’s lead. I got expressionless nods of welcome as I came over — I guess I finally looked the part and everyone waited more or less in silence for another 20 minutes, during wich two more joined us, until the buss rolled in with a hiss and the doors opened with a clack..
It was only when we boarded that he mood changed. A wordless roar of hoorah welcomed us aboard. No one presented a ticket, exchanged funds, or showed any kind of ID or certificate, just found a seat and settled in with the 20 or so people already aboard, so I did the same. The people I’d waited with in silence were all smiles now, looking around, starting to talk to one another, those they’d sat among. A few seemed to know one another, but it didn’t seem to matter. As the bus started to move, the energy increased, and soon jokes were being told, songs were being sung: fortunately, half of it was a Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, with some Roy Orbison, mostly stuff that had been top 40 in its day, so I was able to fake it; a few younger kids tried newer country artists, but it didn’t take.
I started getting doubting my ability to pull off convincing these people I was one of them, so I started pretending to fall asleep behind my sunglasses tried to get me to wake up and join in., but the woman next to me. “We’re on our way home, child, this is no time to be sleeping, this is joyous!”
Home? I smiled like it was a struggle. “Oh, I get that, it’s just I haven’t gotten but a couple hours each night lately, and I wanna be rested when we get there.” That got a lot of sympathetic nods — there were people who knew exhaustion — and pointed me to an empty seat in the back where I could get some better erst. I thanked her for the idea and hunkered down there, pretending to sleep while I listened and recorded. It was 50 miles as the crow flies, but the roads were gnarled and winding, and it took us
There was something religious in the mood on the bus, even though there were no more Christian music than you’d expect from Oklahoma radio. The trip was theoretically about 4 hours by car, but the bus made four more stops on the way, picking up a total of about 20 new people, and had to pull off the highway for each one, so we started nearing the destination at about 2 in the afternoon. The mood had quieted a bit by about one, awhile after the last group had been picked up, but as left the highway for the last stop it picked up again, and I decided it was time to wake up.
At first there wasn’t much to see. We’d passed farm lot after farm lot, and it looked to me like just more green until we got close. Then at first I thought it must be an orchard, growing trees about 10 feet high, like apple orchards I’ve been to. But as we got close enough to see, I saw they weren’t trees, the “trunks” were green stems, just hugely thick and long. I remembered pictures of giant hogweed, and these were the right size but the wrong shape. The leaves, too were off. I thought back to my first thought of weed, and the leaves were a little similar — with five or so pointed lobes — but not as long or spiky. I hadn’t seen anything like them before.
Then the bus stopped and the doors opened, and everyone rose from their seats (some of the the older ones with exaggerated groans) to pour out. I forced on a grin and echoed some of the whoops and cheers around me and followed. Once outside, everyone — every single one — fell to their knees, most of them with eyes shut, put their hands on the earth and scooped the crumpling earth together in them. Of course I followed suit, and looked at the earth in my hands. I’d never seen such dark, rich, loamy soil. Hardly a pebble to be found. It could have come from a bag of the most expensive organic potting soil. I noticed everyone else pouring the earth back out through their hands, and di the same. Only then, as everyone got back to their feet, did I get a good look at the farm. It was active; people were tending things, thought I wasn’t sure what they were doing, and the occasional flatbed truck loaded with sacks drove up and down, distributing sacks which farmers tore open and started working into the soil.
I almost asked what they were doing when I realized that that would probably mark me as suspiciously ignorant. I was saved from saying anything when someone came walking toward us from the field; for all I’d said about farmers dressing like everyone else, this one had a more classic look; red plaid flannel shirt, worn blue jeans, straw hat in cowboy style, and of course work boots. He reminded me intensely of Wilfred Brimley, down to the glasses and mustache.
“Hey, welcome home, folks! Very glad to see ya.” He didn’t sound ike Wilfred Brimley; his voice was higher, almost squeaky, but plenty loud. “I’m Billy, and i’ll get you settled in. First off, who here’s planning to stay the whole season?” About a quarter of the group raised hands. “Alrighty, and I’m gonna guess the rest are plannin’ on about a week or two, right?” Most people nodded their heads, with some “more or less” hand wiggles. “Right. Well, let’s get you settled in, the room houses are this way, not too far, just careful where you step.
Billy led up about a hundred yards to a large bungalow-type building, with apartments along both sides. It had to have been 20 or more cabins long, with two floors on each side, for 80 or so rooms in total. “This is where the short-termers will stay. I’ll start showing you to the available rooms. Two beds a room, if you came with someone you’re staying with, stick together.”
I ended roomed with a short guy with a full beard and mustache a few shades darker than his blonde hair. I learned that this was Pete, and this was his first time back. I asked, “So you’ve been here before?” and he looked at me funny, so I laughed to show I was joking.
Billy came back about an hour later to hand out our work schedules, and said that no one was going to work that day, to rest up before dinner, then get a good night’s sleep before we started at daybreak the next morning. In the meantime, we should feel free to walk the grounds and “reminisce”.
By then I was genuinely tired from the early drive to the bus stop, then pretending to sleep on the bus, and the general off and on stress of feeling like I was going to be discovered at any time… and still none of this making any sense. I was tempted to take a nap as per instructions, but resisted it; this seemed my best chance to look around on my own. I took only my phone; much as I wanted to get everything on the good camcorder, I couldn’t be seen walking around with it. I left the bungalow and went back to examine the not-trees, which seemed to be all that was grown here. They were in several stated of growth, the ones nearest the bungalow only the height of my chest and thickness of my thumb, but with the same lobed leaves — yes, I counted and there were five lobes on each. People with sacks were spreading what looked like fertilizer on the soil and gently cutting it in with hoes, which seemed ridiculous. These weren’t Amish, they were using trucks, why not other machinery?
I walked back to the larger trees near the road. I examined them but dothere than their size I found nothing much different form the smaller ones. As thick as my forearm at the base, my wrist where the branches began (around my chest, teh same high that th smaller ones topped out at), same shade of avocado green and leave the same five lobes and slightly darker green color. I touched the leaves, which i hadn’t before, and found them strangely thick and rubbery, like succulents.
I heard people working further in, but couldn’t see them for all the leaves; the outermost leaves of each tree just brushed those of its neighbors, and I had to either duck under or pass through them. I chose the latter and it was an easy passage, the branches bending flexibly out of my way, not stiff like woody branches. I made my way to the songs and, when I could almost see the, I crouched and watched from under the leaves.
It seemed someone had fallen, and two others took his hands to help him up. But the one who’d fallen had gotten covered in the rich, black loam. Once he was up, one of the others, a woman, gave him a full body hug, and then so did the other, a man. Then they both began to brush off the loam.
Underneath, he was naked. A boy, barely a teen. It was hard to see their faces, which were above the leaves, but his manner seemed disoriented.The began helping him into clothes: a hoodie. Blue jeans. Then socks and work boots, which they had some trouble with.
I sat there the whole time, not knowing what to do, how to react, what I was seeing. Then, once they’d helped the boy sit down against a trunk, the two bent down as one, each took hold of something in the dirt, and pulled.
They pulled up another person form the earth, again covered in loam. This one, when they brushed off the loam, was a girl Darker skinned, hispanic or aboriginal maybe, I really couldn’t tell. THey hugged her too, and started getting her into her hoodie.
Quietly as I could move, and slowly, I got to my feet and walked again toward the road. AS I did, I wondered what I would do about the camera. It was going to cost half of what i’d just made on the video, but I wasn’t going back for it. I was elated to find I still had my wallet.as well as my phone. It had felt like about a mile up the road to the highway. I could make that in 10 minutes if I hurried, and I had a feeling I could hurry. Then hitch a ride, or flash the cash until someone stopped for it. Get somewhere where i could get back to Woodward, get my car, and get home.
I wished I’d never come to Homefarm. I never would again. I’d forgotten to take any video with the phone, but it was just as well. WHo could I show it to who’d believe it? Weed would have been believable, but no one would believe what they’re growing here.
No one would believe that this is where they grow the farmers.
© Sean Miner 2022