Kelly Hagler left her family’s farm in northwest Missouri for the bright lights of Chicago, but her family and the farm are never far from her thoughts. (Jeremy Bernfeld/Harvest Public Media)
This is the fifth 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.
Kelly Hagler, 25, is among the millions of young people who have left rural communities for the bright lights of the city, in this case Chicago.
But Hagler has not left completely.
Here’s what she told us last year when we asked people to share their “My Farm Roots” stories through the Harvest Network:
“The drought and fear of not making contract yields, mixed with the pressure of new house expenses, is aging my already Old Man,” she wrote. “It's also so strange to be detached from them. It's something that few other non-farming families have to deal with: The guilt of leaving behind older parents to work the farm, all because you're trying to make your own living where more opportunities exist.”
Hagler is from Bethany, Mo., a small town in northwest Missouri. The 1,000 acres her parents Rex and Jan Hagler farm are not far from the center of my own rural roots (though I am two generations removed from the farm). Hagler moved to Chicago right after she graduated from the University of Missouri — Columbia in 2010.
I wanted to know more about her mixed emotions about her city path. So on a trip this spring to Chicago, I visited with Hagler at her office in midtown Chicago, where she works as program and community manager for Chicago Ideas Week.
“Growing up in Bethany was a really, really good time,” Hagler told us.
She talked about high school life in a small community — “a lot of driving around, and a lot of partying” — and the bane of farm chores — “castrating calves; that’s never fun.”
And then there is the 100-year-old home she and her sister Sarah grew up in.
“It didn't have air-conditioning. It was just an old terrible farmhouse,” Hagler said. “I hated it because the bathroom was off the kitchen because they had to build it on after the house was built.”
Not only did she have to share a single bathroom with her sister and parents, but the windows were always open, which was a problem because of her severe allergies, and there wasn’t much privacy. Her parent's room was off the living room.
“So the stairs going upstairs were right by their bedroom, and the stairs of course made so much noise. So if you're late, I'd be tiptoeing up the stairs and I'd hear ‘Kelly Lynn,’" she said. “You never got away with anything.”
A year ago, her parents built a new house – just 10 or 20 feet from the old house.
“It's this beautiful home that they've always wanted,” she said, and it has three bathrooms. But she misses the old house, which was pushed into a hole, burned and covered up.
While Hagler lamented the loss of her childhood home, it was when she hit on family that she really conveyed the underlying (and constant) tug on her heart.
“My dad is a character. He is straight out of a movie. He's this rugged dude with the cutoff plaid shirt, his belt buckle and his Wranglers and his cowboy boots, and his Winston Light hanging out of his mouth,” she said.
And her mom, a city administrator? Hagler says she helps bind them all together.
“Mom is a carpenter, and is sensitive and a cook,” Hagler said. “She is like the ultimate lady to me. “
The longer she is away from them, it seems, the more she questions where she belongs.
“There's nothing worse than sitting at a desk and looking outside and it's awesome out there,” she said. “And you know this time of year is the best time to be there because (Dad)'s getting in the field, the nights are late and you're outside all the time. And you need to go check the cows and you're planting gardens. And things are growing. It's just the best time to be there and it's the hardest time to be away.”
The older she gets, she said, the more she realizes maybe there is a possibility of going back.
“It's still something I'm kind of wrestling with, and trying to figure out if it's like father guilt-induced or if it's I actually want to.”
She wonders about starting a nonprofit program to help kids in rural communities develop creative skills, a resource she wishes she had.
“People forget that rural communities exist, and I feel like kids are kind of forgotten about there,” she said. “I think that the notion of teaching kids to do what they love and that they can come back and bring it into their community is something that's powerful.”
Hagler painted such a vivid picture of her early years in Bethany that I sent Harvest intern Payne Roberts to visit the Hagler farm and family. Roberts’ work is included in the My Farm Roots story we share this week.
Kelly Hagler’s father Rex brought home the view from the farm left behind: “You’ve got to let loose the reins sometimes, let the reins drop and see where the horse takes you. That’s what Kelly did. She pretty well did it on her own.”
And Sarah Hagler, Kelly’s sister, explained the pull to and from those deep farm roots: “We both want to have roots and wings.”