Ninety-four-year-old farmer Charles Bradley on his family’s 450-acre land that he has cared for all his life in Weston, Missouri. “It’s altogether a different situation,” he says as he reflects on the past. “There were many farms up and down the road, but now it’s operated by one fella who has 2000-3000 acres. Back in the old days, if we had 200 acres we had a lot of ground.”
THE LAST FARMER
WESTON, MISSOURI (2014)
With his capable, trembling hands 94-year-old farmer Charles Bradley, referred to as “Mr. Charles,” continues to work on his 450-acre farm that has been in the family since 1883. He lives with his wife Mary, 93, who is often confused yet maintains a joyful spirit as much as is possible with her advanced dementia. They manage to live independently with the support of an attentive daytime caregiver. Their story is all-too-common, as small family farms lose their profitability and large-scale farming is becoming the norm. Yet what remains is Mr. Charles, who according to Mary, has never been “a rocking chair kinda guy.”
Charles and Mary Bradley were married on March 8, 1941. They continue to live in the home in which Charles was born in. He clutches a photo that was taken shortly after their wedding, which they say was a very simple ceremony attended by only one best man and a maid-of-honor. Mary contends that the secret to a good marriage is a good farm. “It’s all I have ever known and I’ve been happy all my life,” she says.
Mary drifts in and of lucidity frequently. She says she has good days and bad days as her dementia worsens and is frequently forgetful.
Charles begins his daily ritual with waking up at 8 AM, despite sometimes not getting to bed until after midnight. He is almost never seen working without his overalls and straw hat. He says his hat is “old and ugly and ought to be discarded. It’s been around for too long.”
Charles moves slowly as his quaking hand grazes a blade of wheat while taking half an hour to search for a misplaced item.
The farm is taken care of well, however, paint continues to peel off of the walls of a shed.
Charles sits in his 1973 truck as his neighbor helps him move manure. On his land, he breeds 50 cows and grows corn and soybeans.
Charles with his neighbor, who refers to Charles as his “best friend.” He helps him with tasks on a regular basis.
After putting in an 8-hour day, Charles puts his tractor away. He says, “Most people want to retire. I never wanted to retire. I do as much as I can do as long as I can do it.”
Charles performs his daily ritual of washing his hands and cleaning his hearing aid. He was born in this home, where he grew up taking bucket showers and living without electricity.
Mary takes an extended pause to make a wish on a single candle on her birthday cake. The cake was given to her by her loving and attentive caregiver Tammy Prisner. Tammy cooks and cleans for the Bradley’s seven hours a day, five days a week. She always sits by Mary’s side keeping her company, despite Mary’s mood swings and persistent forgetfulness.
Charles returns to the home each day at noon to have lunch with Mary. At times, she has trouble remaining present. Charles remains patient when she slips out of lucidity and answers her repetitive questions with grace and a palpable love.
Mary clutches her great grandson, Alexander, 7, as he says goodbye to her after a visit.
Mary watches Charles work through the front door. She says that what she loves most about a life lived on the farm is the quietness and being surrounded by nature. Because of her dementia, she often repeats herself. One of her favorite refrains refers to her husband: “You don’t see him in a rocking chair, he’s not a rocking chair kinda guy.”
Charles pauses after a day’s work as he heads back to the farmhouse for dinner. It is uncertain who will take over their farm and continue his family’s legacy.