Our Willamette Valley is a lush stretch of green running through the northern third of Oregon between the coastal mountains and the Cascades. It is the place my life is centered. From my home on the north outskirts of Eugene, I travel through farm country in any direction but most often toward the north where I have grown children and grandchildren.
It was those trips and watching seasonal changes on the farms as I passed that began to stimulate questions in my head. One particular farmhouse, located some distance back from the road intrigued me. There were no neighbors, just fields with changing crops. I seldom saw anybody, never a woman but the house and small yard looked well maintained.
When I returned from a grandchild's band concert or activity late in the evening, the single light glowing at the end of the isolated driveway was the only visible landmark on the dark road.
It seemed natural that my wondering about life in that house would lead me to create a story. The story of Cleo, a farm wife, became my first novel.
Never having lived on a farm, I began the framework from conversations with two older friends who had been farm wives. Many details of day to day farm life came from these two women but the character of Cleo's mother-in-law grew from my teen years experience picking strawberries at a local field.
As the story grew, so did my need of knowledge. I began reading articles in the Country Life magazine, hung around the women at the Lane and Benton County Fairs, went to some 4 H meetings with my grandchildren, attended events at Grange Halls and made regular trips to the fruit and vegetable stands along the back roads that connect our farm towns. When I needed more, I went to the extension service, talked to our local honey plant, and chatted with any farmers at the farm store who had time to answer questions.
I spent time in each of the nearby farm towns before I decided which sould be the center of life for Cleo and her children. I liked several but Harrisburg, about an hour north of my home, had the community feel I wanted.
As Cleo's story developed and my research went on, a secondary, larger theme overtook the tale. From one woman's struggle to survive in a culture she didn't understand, it needed to be more. I wanted to bring the plight of the family farmer to the attention of different readers. Those women who live and work in the city, buy their processed food at the chain stores and skip attending the farmer's markets and fairs in favor of other entertainments.
I spent time with teachers who work to support their families and the farm they live on, with farmers who work a second job, with farm wives who work in the neighbor's or their own produce stand and women who spend two or three days a week as salespeople at the farmers market in the city.
Even the roadside markets close to me need to have more than what they've grown. One farming family is partially supported by the nursery business the wife started while the men grew the traditional crops. Down the road from that historic farm, another plans special activities to attract more people. Senior retirement centers bring busses so the residents can shop and have lunch from a portable hot dog stand, finishing with ice cream and home made pie. Their season ends with a Halloween corn maze, horse drawn wagons to the pumpkin patch and fresh cider for all the visitors. All summer children can feed the goats, visit the other farm animals and play on playground equipment.
Different farms, different crops all had varying problems but the same dilemma. Growing the produce is no longer enough. To survive the farm family must learn and practice new skills. The business end is as complicated as being a steward of the land.
When my Preserving Cleo and the sequel, Cleo's Slow Dance were both on the market, I felt like I'd told a story of one woman's growth and made a small step toward illustrating a major dilemma in our contemporary life. Were I to write the story again, I'd choose to pass on a stronger message as I see more and more people ready to listen.