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Part III: Even Their 4-Year-Old Grandson Prays for Rain

August 2, 1988

HASTINGS, Mich. (AP) _ From Kurt and Dena Chase’s back porch, fields of corn stretch away toward the horizon, a healthy-looking green. But the stalks have no ears. The rains came too late in Barry County.

Day by day, as they endure the worst drought of their lifetime, the young farm couple try not to dwell on their worries, especially in front of their two small children.

But 4-year-old Jesse knows something is wrong.

″There’s not a prayer Jesse says that he doesn’t ask for rain,″ Dena says sadly, but with a mother’s proud smile. ″He says, ‘If there’s anything up there, Jesus, let it pour 3/8’ ″

And some rain has come.

When a pair of storms roared through in mid-July and dumped 2 inches of rain - more than farmers here had seen in several months - the cornstalks shot up a foot in four days.

The rain boosted morale. But the Chases know it did not arrive soon enough for most of the 350 acres of corn they farm with Kurt’s parents, Gordon and Jean Chase. Had the skies opened up two weeks earlier, it might have done some good.

The two generations of Chases, who live less than a mile apart off a gravel road, will see underdeveloped ears on most plants and none at all on others. Some stalks never made it out of the ground.

The soybeans and hay now have a chance at survival - but only if the rain continues. The helplessness the family feels has taken its toll.

″I’ve never really thought about doing anything else but farming,″ says Kurt, 28, as he relaxes on the living-room couch, Jesse and 2 -year-old Abby wrestling at his feet.

″But a year like this one kind of makes you wonder.″

Kurt has been helping his father on the farm ever since he can remember. Now he is a partner.

His 30-year-old sister, Kim, lives with her husband and two young children, and his 26-year-old brother, Kyle, works for an insurance company. They both live within an hour’s drive of the farm and come over often to help out.

″For me, it just felt right to stay in farming,″ Kurt says.

But he has felt the temptation to trade in 90-hour weeks of endless chores for a 40-hour week at a factory and more time with his family. It’s a temptation he resists.

Some days he doesn’t get to see his daughter at all. She’s sleeping when he leaves at 4:30 a.m. to milk the cows, and she’s been tucked in for the night by the time he gets home at 9:30 p.m. Sometimes, Kurt must ″baby-sit″ the irrigation system through the night to make sure nothing goes wrong and no water is wasted.

″I probably spend more time with my father than with Dena,″ says Kurt, who has his father’s thick blond hair, fair skin and football player’s physique.

He and Dena, a pretty brunette, met in high school and were married eight years ago. They are expecting their third child in January.

Their 115-year-old, five-bedroom farmhouse needs paint, and the rickety stairs out back need fixing. But inside, bunches of dried flowers hang from the ceiling, and art and ornaments grace the walls. The same attention to detail can be seen in Gordon and Jean’s home, right down to the flagpole and Old Glory outside.

Kurt and Dena find time together when they can.

Dena, 27, sometimes packs lunches and takes the children out to where Kurt is working in the fields, and they share a picnic. During spring planting, the children spent long hours with their parents in the cab of a tractor.

Neither Kurt nor his father can find the words to explain fully the sense of pride they feel in owning and cultivating land. But the pride seems to more than make up for the stress that, even in good times, accompanies it.

Kurt beams as he watches Jesse play with a miniature John Deere tractor in his sandbox.

″He does everything his dad does,″ Dena says.

The farming operation is based at Jean and Gordon’s home. As cows graze outside, a computer terminal inside shows the changing prices corn, soybeans and other commodities on the Chicago Board of Trade.

″There’s a lot of stress involved when your business is based at home,″ Jean says. ″It seems salesmen always pull in when you’re halfway through your meal. ... That’s probably why vacations are so important to us.″

It’s also probably why Gordon and Jean plan to build a home nearby, ″but not on this road,″ when they’re ready to retire. That’s when Kurt and Dena will move into their house.

Gordon and Jean believe their son and daughter-in-law will build a better, but not necessarily bigger farm when they take over.

″We see something different in their generation - they have different priorities,″ Jean says. ″Maybe seeing our parents come through the Depression, we thought bigger was better. But they don’t - maybe after witnessing all the hard times we’ve had.″

This year will surely stick in their memories.

The drought’s final impact will not be known until the harvest is finished in late fall. Much still depends on whether the rain continues.

″All we can do,″ says Jean, ″is wait and hope.″

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