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Between some rocks and a hard place

If you were looking for our farm 10 years ago, it would have been hard to tell where our place ended and the next began. Back then, this was dairy country. The view was nearly one continuous vista of forestland and emerald-green pastures dotted with black-and-white cows.

Since then, two seemingly unrelated calamities have pockmarked the scenery as radically as a bomb. First, the milk business turned sour, forcing us and many other farm families to find more lucrative uses for our land. Then the hurricanes of 2005 ravaged the Gulf Coast, creating an insatiable demand for construction materials to rebuild. That’s where the farmland of Washington Parish comes in.

Our soil isn’t the finest in the state. It’s sandy and shallow and can’t hold a candle to the fertile, legendary topsoil of the Mississippi delta. But the riverbanks here do conceal a buried treasure, a natural resource that has incited a latter-day gold rush in these parts: gravel.

Scratch the ground alongside the Bogue Chitto River and you’ll uncover millions of tons of little rocks, scattered here over millennia by the meandering waterway. They’re the kind of rocks needed to make aggregate concrete –– the kind that skyrocketed in value in the frantic scramble of hurricane recovery.

If you are looking for our farm today, we’re hard to miss. We’re that solitary oasis of grassy fields and shade trees bookended by jarring expanses of barren sand, unnatural terrain and violent gashes in the earth. Hemmed in on three sides by gravel-strip-mining operations, we’re the stubborn holdouts on the block. In other words, we’re the ones with the pretty scenery, the 12-year-old pickup truck, the kids who’ve never been to Disney World and the gnawing anxiety about our finances.
It’s not that we’re short of gravel or opportunities to cash in. Before they gave up and moved on, gravel-mining companies were buzzing around our door like bees. In fact, we got a standing offer that, if not too good to refuse, is too good for anyone halfway sensible to casually write off. Naturally, an offer that sweet came with a catch. To get the big bucks, we’d have to mine a lot more land than we want to sacrifice.

A new gravel startup is a costly investment. The mining companies have to bring in gargantuan pieces of equipment, build roads to truck the gravel out, clear-cut most of the trees and remove any other obstacles between them and what’s underground. However, depending on the mine, one gravel pit can produce for years. So the gravel company’s offer was sweet but contingent on us turning over enough land to keep the rocks flowing for a long time.

I’ll grant you we are passionate, perhaps a little too idealistic, when it comes to this third-generation family farm. But we aren’t total idiots. The financial prospects for hay farmers and freelance writers are uncertain at best. We may have turned down the gravel company’s jaw-dropping offer, but it still looms ever-present in our minds, lurking in the recesses, whispering in our ears. Depending on how well things are going on the farm, our day-to-day attitude about the possibility of pumping gravel fluctuates between When Hell Freezes Over and Hell Yes.

More than once, we’ve been tempted to reach for that phone.  So far, we’ve never gone through with it.

Well-meaning friends and family who’ve watched our ongoing struggle to make a living off this land since the dairy business imploded can only shake their heads. They try to persuade us that gravel mining isn’t as destructive or irreversible as we think. They point out that it leaves behind clear, sparkling lakes good for fishing and swimming. They argue that strip-mined land can be “reclaimed” through topsoil replacement and replanting of greenery.

Maybe so, but we just don’t get how it’s possible to bulldoze the trees, uproot the grass, completely rearrange the topography, haul away massive volumes of terra firma and end up with anything that remotely resembles the farm you knew and loved. Most of the gravel pits I’ve seen look as blasted and desolate as the surface of the moon.  My in-laws pumped gravel here on a tiny sliver of woods in the 1970s. Thirty-plus years later, the vegetation in that area remains oddly sparse, like a bad hair transplant. There’s still a faintly post-apocalyptic feel.  Perhaps time heals all wounds, but just how long can a middle-aged couple afford to wait?

Ruining the view isn’t all that that troubles us. The main spot that has the gravel prospectors salivating is a 25-acre field encircled by woods like some enchanted fairy ring. It’s almost entirely flat except for a strange rise in the middle, next to a grove of magnificent century-old oaks. Family lore has it that this peculiar outcropping is an ancient Indian mound. That may or may not be true, but it is indisputable fact that my husband’s plow has unearthed dozens of arrowheads and primitive stone tools there.

In a way, these artifacts just confirm what we already believe: This ground is sacred. This is the field where, as boys, my husband and his brothers terrorized squirrels with BB guns and bombarded each other with cow patties. This is where they saw a mysterious light racing across the treetops one night. An equally excitable farmhand grabbed his shotgun and opened fire on the “UFO.” This is the final resting place of many a good dog. This is the spot where my husband has spent untold hours of his adult life coaxing crops out of the earth, rounding up milk cows, fixing fences and chasing does of out watermelon patches. This is the place where every afternoon a red-tailed hawk screeches as predictably as a 3 o’clock whistle and every springtime the scent of blooming privet hedge intoxicates you like a drug.

Sure, we could probably get rich if we tore this farm apart for money. But we might just be the poorer for it.

So when the gravel man comes knocking, we never say yes. And though it grieves me to admit it, we never say never.

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