Bristol dentist tells stories of life farming the Great Plains

BRISTOL — Bristol dentist Jim Cossaart will be flying to Kansas this weekend, as he does several times a year, to repair barbed wire fences and move some cows around.
The Cossaart family has been farming and ranching on the same piece of Kansas soil since 1870.
Jim Cossaart’s love for that land, his love of farming, his determined struggle as a young farmer to keep body and soul together during the farm crisis of the 1980s and his return to the farm as a Vermont dentist to heal the land and heal himself is the subject of his recent memoir, “A Piece of Kansas Soil.”
“After a while, you’ve just got to spit it out on paper, and so I spit out all the stories that I could think of,” said Cossaart, 59. “It quickly turned into a recollection of all of that. I remember living through this stuff and actually telling people, ‘Someday I’m doing to write this down because you can’t make up stuff like this. It’s stranger than fiction.’”
Had Cossaart followed in his father’s footsteps, he would have been wearing a suit and tie, working for a large corporation. Though raised on the farm, Cossaart’s father saw enough hard times in the “Dirty Thirties” that he left the plains altogether, moved East and worked for 42 years as an engineer for Westinghouse.
Cossaart’s love for the family’s 384 Kansas acres came from yearly visits and then summers spent working with his grandfather and uncle on the farm.
One of the happiest moments in the memoir is when at 19, riding around in the pickup with his Uncle Alvin, Cossaart finally got up the courage to ask if they might farm the family place together.
“How would it be if you and I were partners someday?” a much younger Cossaart asked.
Uncle Alvin’s reply sums up the love of the land and the joy in farming that kept Cossaart struggling to make ends meet for close to two decades after his uncle’s early death left him in charge of the farm at one of the worst times for small farmers in U.S. history.
“This farmin’, you know, ya never get rich but ya can’t beat the life,” Alvin said.
Alvin, who Cossaart describes as “the most kind, honest, fun person in the world” is one of many compelling characters in Cossaart’s memoir. Alongside Cossaart’s beloved uncle are a range of men, especially, who work long hours and endure hard times and find joy in simple moments. There’s Grandpa Reuben, who insists on working into his late 80s, hacking away at weeds with his corn knife, working hours at a job a weed eater could do in 10 minutes. There’s Russ Long, a highly respected nearby farmer, who mentors Cossaart and brings him into his far-larger farming operation as a kind of junior partner. There’s Harry the blacksmith, who sneaks peppermint schnapps in his metal shop — a terrain his second wife cannot enter — and still mourns the death of the love of his life, years earlier.
Loneliness — long hours spent without real companionship as young people flee the plains for jobs and lives elsewhere — is a predominant theme in Cossaart’s personal search for happiness. And ironically, Cossaart must finally leave the farm and farming, become a dentist and move to Vermont, to find a loving partner who can truly stand by his side as he returns and successfully restores his beloved Kansas home.
Alongside it all is the struggle to save the farm, to stave off bankruptcy — to take on extra hours as a tractor salesman, welder, windmill repairman — to cling to the soil at a time when the national economy chewed up thousands of small farmers and spit them off the land.
“I had a feeling I was the last of a dying breed out there,” said Cossaart.
Cossaart describes the 1980s farm crisis as “a 10-year financial tailspin with occasional injections of hope. With the normal 60-70-hour work weeks, one year I calculated that I earned about one dollar per hour. Some years I would borrow more money annually, to put in the spring and fall crops, than my net worth.”
His memoir provides a personal view of events that played out across the Great Plains, affecting thousands of farmers and thousands of rural communities.
Today Cossaart manages his Kansas acreage to produce organic, grass-fed beef. Among his most cherished projects is his ongoing work to restore his part of the tallgrass prairie. This majestic ecosystem once covered 170 million acres of North America, according to the National Park Service. Today only 4 percent remains.
For over a decade, Cossaart’s been using controlled burns, sustainable grazing practices and “stuff my grandfather taught me about the power of grass” and has been seeing the native prairie return.
“We’d go out and my grandfather’d show me the different plants and how to care for them, how to care for the grass. The grass — it almost has a holiness to it. You have to nurture it. You can’t abuse it. You have to work with it.”
Cossaart continued, “It’s like here it’s the power of the forest. Out there it’s the power of the grass. The grass will eventually dominate if you give it a chance.”
Although Cossaart’s 384 acres are surrounded on all sides by acreage conventionally farmed in corn and soybeans, he is part of a larger movement that has spread across the Great Plains in recent decades to restore the native prairie and preserve the shreds that remain.
Like many a native plainsperson, Cossaart loves not just the soil but the sky and the endless seas of grass that make up the prairie, a landscape many Americans dismiss. For anyone who’s lived there and truly felt the power of that landscape, what can seem merely “boring” or “flat” to those who zoom by on I-70 is awe-inspiring, even in its imperfect, farmed and parceled state.
“It’s like being at sea — what limits how far you can see is the curve of the earth,” Cossaart said. “The most incredible skies full of stars just astounding. And the fact that on our farm you could go for hours, days without seeing any other evidence of human beings on the earth.
“And when you can see that orange ball actually flatten before it slips below the surface … then you’ve seen a good sunset,” he said. “And the silence. The incredible silence.”
Cossaart notes too that the carbon-sequestering power of the American prairie rivals the rainforest:
“We all get so upset about the rainforest being deforested, well this is quite similar. Because of the complexity of the tallgrass prairie ecosystems, it has carbon-sequestering ability that will rival the rainforest. People don’t realize that because there’s so much of it that’s gone. But it was there.”
When asked if the Vermont dentist/Kansas farmer split in his personal history makes him feel like he’s lived two entirely different lifetimes, Cossaart answers no, just the opposite.
“I look in the mirror, and I still see a farmer,” he said. “I know how to take care of things, and I know how to fix things. It’s not that far removed. You care for things whether it’s the land or people, and if you treat both things right you get all that back.”
“A Piece of Kansas Soil” can be found at the Vermont Bookshop in Middlebury and Recycled Reading of Vermont and Almost Home Market in Bristol; amazon.com as both a paperback and an ebook; and at apieceofkansassoil.com.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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