More than once while I was listening to Paul Horel's stories about farm life in Iowa, I felt like I was at a family reunion. With his glasses and balding head, mild Midwestern accent, and talk about plowing and politics, he could easily have been my uncle.
After all, Horel says his childhood was pretty typical for a kid growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s: he did chores in the morning and evening, spent long summer days playing in the fields, and attended a small country school. When he got older, he raised livestock for 4-H and helped his dad and brothers with the farming.
Yet in other ways, he wasn't your average farm kid.
“Unlike my brothers, I can't say that I enjoyed farm work,” Horel said. “I really was not very good at it. And I think partly because my mind seemed to be sort of elsewhere.”
Instead of a farmer, he day-dreamed himself a baseball star and war hero. He enjoyed schoolwork and followed politics pretty closely. He imagined growing up to be a politician.
Horel did have a few non-farmers in his family. His father had played the trumpet in professional jazz ensembles before settling into farming in his early thirties. Horel's maternal grandfather was a pharmacist and World War I veteran. He says it was partially his influence that got him interested in the world beyond the farm.
“In 1958, my grandfather bought me a world almanac,” Horel said. “He bought that for me and I just devoured it; I loved that thing. And I would read it literally from cover to cover. I had to be the goofiest kid in our house, because I would be buried in the world almanac.”
Reading about the rest of the world was more fun than hot, sweaty hay baling. But as Horel grew up and went to college, worked in education and then crop insurance, he started to appreciate the values he had learned as a kid on the farm. Taking care of livestock had taught him responsibility. Living far from the amusements of the city taught him to appreciate simple pleasures. He found, as fewer people grow up on the farm, those sorts of values become harder to teach.
The demographic shift from rural to urban has personal consequences, as well. Horel says that for lots of people his age, childhood on the farm is a memory without any physical reminders.
“When I go back now, there's nothing there,” he said. “Even though, as I said, I didn't really want to be a farmer, I'd still like to be able to go back and see the old house, and it'd be nice to know that somebody was still living in it.”
After the interview, Horel showed me around his backyard in suburban Kansas City. It was beautifully landscaped, but there was no cornfield, no creek, no large tree to play make-believe in.
“From 180 acres to this,” he said, “to a tiny little backyard.”
It has been nearly four decades since he lived on a farm, but it seems Paul Horel still feels a little like a transplant.
This is the seventh installment of the 2013 edition of My Farm Roots, Harvest Public Media’s series chronicling Americans’ connection to the land. Click here to explore more My Farm Roots stories and to share your own.