Hope in the Heartland
Guideposts|May 2021
Amid the struggles of rural America, a lifelong farmer sees signs of renewal
RAYLENE NICKEL

I’d practiced my talk for weeks. Agonized over my words. What stories from my life as a farmer in central North Dakota were most likely to inspire hope in an audience of farmers just starting out? Was there any hope for them? Their young faces looked so eager, so hopeful.

It takes a lot of courage to embark on life as a family farmer these days. Success is far from guaranteed, no matter where you live. Land is expensive. Banks are reluctant to lend to new farmers. The farm economy favors large growers.

That’s why I agreed to address this audience convened by a North Dakota nonprofit organization called the Foundation for Agricultural and Rural Resources Management and Sustainability (FARRMS). The foundation supports sustainable agriculture and strengthens local food systems through farmer education, peer support and microlending.

I’m almost 70 years old. I’ve been a farmer all my life. I’m not a natural public speaker. I’m most comfortable on my 468-acre cattle ranch. Most of my days are a quiet routine of farming and prayer. Often I talk to God more than I talk to other people.

I’m a widow. My beloved husband, John, my partner in life and farming, died of cancer nearly a decade ago. Since then, I’ve kept the farm going by myself. The organizer of the speaking event insisted I had lots to offer an audience of young people.

“Tell them how you and your husband got established and improved the soil,” she said. “Encourage them.”

What encouragement could I offer? The world had been very different when John and I started farming. What could I say to these fledgling farmers that would really make a difference?

A voice sounded in my head. Hope, Raylene. Tell them your story. Share your hope.

Was my story hopeful? Would it be relevant to these young people? The talk I’d prepared was based mostly on my own experience as a farmer. I had to trust that was enough.

I took a deep breath and began, trying to sound more confident than I actually felt.

My husband, John, and I started farming 30 years ago,” I said. “We floundered at first. We could barely afford equipment, and not many lenders would lend money to untested beginners. Our first decade, we almost went belly-up. Some days I didn’t even have money to buy a can of soup or a stamp to mail a letter.”

Heads nodded.

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