By Frank W. Martin
Updated February 23, 1981 12:00 PM
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In a country where the traditional nuclear family—a married couple living with children—constitutes only one-third of all households, the Brophys of Yuma, Colo. (pop. 2,820) might seem a throwback to an earlier America. On 1,920 acres of farmland 150 miles northeast of Denver, Jim and Dorothy Brophy have raised corn, wheat, beans, livestock—and seven children. Their late parents farmed nearby, and all the Brophy children and five grandchildren still live in Yuma. The family expects to pass its land on to a fourth generation. Yet for all the history they represent, the Brophys, like the Volkmans (see page 72), are not immune to the pressures of modern life: hard times, divorce and even despair. PEOPLE’s Denver correspondent, Frank W. Martin, recently spent several weeks, on and off, with the Brophys and found a family that succeeds by drawing on both tradition and some remarkably contemporary solutions.

Yuma County is flat as a griddle here. Its soil is sandy, its climate semi-arid. Drought and 100-degree heat can scorch the crops, heavy rains and hail batter them. After the harvest last fall, dust storms swept away some of the precious topsoil from the almost treeless land. The odds today against farm families are formidable—they have dwindled from 29 percent of the U.S. population in 1920 to only 2.8 percent. Yet in spite of this irreversible trend, Jim and Dorothy Brophy have lived off the difficult land of Yuma County for 33 years. “It becomes part of you,” says Jim, 53. “You learn it by heart, the weak spots, the water holes, where to watch your machinery. The only time you think about its value is when you have to borrow against it.”

Adversity of a different kind has forced the Brophys to assess the value of their family ties. They are still recovering from the shock of their eldest child, Theresa, 32, announcing over coffee in the kitchen that her husband of nearly five years had left her and their three children. That was in January 1980. The husband was Jim’s farmhand for a year, and the young family had lived a mile down the road. “The rising divorce rate is a great threat to us,” says Jim, who notes that his brother Desmond, father of six, is also divorced. “We’ve felt confused and desperate. We’re still at a loss. Nothing in our formal training teaches us how to cope with divorce—except with patience, love and being available. Sometimes just our presence gives Theresa strength.”

Her younger brothers and sisters have rallied around Theresa, who has moved to a house in Yuma. “Brophys will help one another in a crisis,” she says of the financial and emotional support she has received. “I’ve shared a little of my divorce problem with them, but only a little. I don’t think I could share a lot. That’s part of being a Brophy.”

Theresa’s parents had to learn how to share problems with each other when their own marriage faltered seven years ago. “Jim and I were talking but not really visiting,” Dorothy, 51, recalls. “There was a barrier, all right,” he acknowledges. “I couldn’t figure out why we were hurting each other.” Adds Dorothy, whose prodigious cooking and housework both nourish and sustain the family: “I felt as though I was being taken for granted.”

In 1975 they began to attend Catholic church-sponsored marital counseling. At first they saw only a priest, then attended weekend-long encounter groups with other couples in nearby Greeley, Colo. They returned for refresher sessions in the next two years. “It reminded us of our commitment to each other and how we have to work at it,” Jim explains. “We go to a doctor for our health, but we expect love to take care of itself. Families shouldn’t be afraid to show their love. Everybody’s busy, but couples have got to set aside regular time for each other.”

It is not easy. The farm demands much of the Brophy family. Sons Chuck, 28, and Marty, 24, are Jim’s farmhands, and they share a house trailer out back dubbed “the Boar’s Nest.” Daughter Nora Kay, 27, lives six miles away with her farmer husband and their two children, and the families often lend each other a hand at haying and hog raising. Maureen, 19, a sophomore at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kans., helped pay her tuition last year with wages earned on the farm. High school senior Joni, 17, pitches in with chores like cultivating and weeding the beans. “Each of us gains strength from the other,” their father observes. “Strong, happy families can cope with anything.”

Thus the entire family has rallied around the eldest Brophy son, Rick, 31, who has been a victim of crippling rheumatoid arthritis since infancy. In 1958 Dorothy and Jim even made a pilgrimage to the Vatican on his behalf, “looking for a miracle,” they admit. An invalid for many years in his youth, Rick has had to learn to walk six times after illness or injury. He now works as a novelty-supply salesman, living at home and serving as the family collector of news about agriculture, business and local politics. “In a large family you can’t help but love and be loved,” his sister Joni says. “I remember how all us kids would pull Rick in this little red wagon. It had a special seat for him, and we’d hike down the road.”

Agriculture is not a 9-to-5 enterprise, and for the Brophys, farm and family sometimes conflict. Dorothy recalls one painful example in 1968. “It was Rick’s high school graduation night, and for the first time in eight years he was well enough to walk up and get his diploma. But Jim had to leave immediately after the ceremony to go to Wichita to close a loan.” Says Jim remorsefully, “The federal land bank interest rate was going up the next day. I had to drive all night to close because I couldn’t afford the extra $500 a year in payments.”

The vagaries of a boom-to-bust agricultural economy make life difficult for the Brophys. The 1975 Soviet agreement to purchase six to eight million tons of American grain a year was a windfall for Jim, but he overextended himself by borrowing for a new combine, truck, tractor and mobile home. Every year since, buffeted by uneven harvests and volatile crop prices, he has refinanced his debt, increasing the principal to nearly $500,000. It means $144 a day in interest alone. In a good year like 1978, Brophy may earn upwards of $45,000, but the following year it was only $27,000.

Last year, upset by what he regards as government policies favoring agribusiness conglomerates at the expense of family farmers, Jim decided to speak out publicly. He traveled to Los Angeles and delivered a brief but moving appeal for help at a session of the White House Conference on the Family. We must “create an atmosphere for families to make a living and train their children by example,” Jim said then. “The merits of being able to work together, parents and children, cannot be overemphasized.” Today he adds, “The system is self-destructive for small farmers. Kids can work next to their parents in a small restaurant, motel or grocery, but the odds are against us. If you go into business for yourself, you have to start on such a scale that it’s almost impossible.”

Jim hopes the Brophy name will endure in Yuma County, but the circumstances are partly beyond his control. He is determined that his own land will pass to his sons. “I don’t expect the boys to buy the farm,” he explains. “They’ll inherit it from us.” But the two older daughters, Theresa and Nora Kay, are already living away. (Nora Kay and her husband, Terry, received start-up help on their corn-and-hog farm from Terry’s grandfather.) Of the two younger daughters, Maureen is seeing another way of life 450 miles away in college. Might that experience—or marriage—lure her away? “I don’t like the thought of being separated from the family,” she replies. Joni wants to begin college, perhaps Notre Dame, next fall, and, while acknowledging the temptations of city life, also insists, “I’m a farm girl at heart.”

Chuck and Marty have a strong, if sometimes silent, relationship with their father. Their winter crop is beef cattle, some 131 head bought in October and fattened on Brophy corn for sale this September. One afternoon last fall the men branded and doctored the herd. Chuck, Marty and Jim collaborated so easily that not more than five words were spoken in 2½ hours. “As the boss, I’m mainly into management,” Jim cracks. It is not true, of course. He works outside every day.

The inevitable consequence of such daylong proximity is occasional tension, especially between the brothers. Chuck’s ties to the farm are least firm: After a lackadaisical year at college, he worked as an electrician in Yuma and a warehouse packer in Fort Collins, 150 miles away, before returning home. “My brother sometimes only has fun on the weekends,” Chuck says. “I like to mix it.” The more serious Marty complains, “The work load isn’t evened out. I think I do a little extra. Besides, me and Chuck just don’t get along too well. I’m thinking about moving in town, which should take some pressure off. It’s tough when we get mad at each other and then have to eat dinner in the same place.” Their father, says Marty, is hesitant to deal with the rivalry, which began years ago in high school.

As American family life changes, the Brophys understand their vulnerability. Farm families are traditionally large: Jim grew up one of 12 children; Dorothy was the second youngest of eight. Both sets of grandparents have died, but there still is a supportive network of 16 aunts and uncles and 24 cousins in the Yuma area. Besides the seven sons and daughters who survived, Dorothy had two miscarriages and a stillbirth. “But our kids won’t have so many children because they’re marrying later,” notes Dorothy. Jim adds, “By the time I was Chuck’s age, I was the father of five.” Now he jokes that he’s unable “to marry the boys off because they have it too good here.”

The Brophys have no illusions about the pressures their family will continue to face. “When Dorothy and I were growing up, we never worried about how well we were going to do,” Jim explains. “Now we worry. I want my sons to make a living from farming without having to buy more and more land to survive.”

They also fret over social changes affecting everyone. Modern, highly mobile families are “losing their closeness,” Jim believes. “They’re not home-centered. We leave our kids with babysitters too much.” Adds Dorothy, “My favorite times are snowstorms when nobody can get away and we’re all home together popping corn.” The Brophys are also concerned about the decline in what Jim calls “good, old-fashioned parental authority. Some parents give their kids material things,” he notes, “but not love and guidance.” Dorothy agrees that “kids want discipline and look to their parents for that and respect it.” As for divorce, “Parents have to teach children to keep commitments when they’re young,” says Jim, “then maybe the kids will keep commitments when they’re grown up.”

Both are opposed to sexual permissiveness and unmarried cohabitation. “One of our favorite bumper stickers is ‘We Believe in Marriage,’ ” says Dorothy. “We don’t believe in this living together business.” But if Joni were to move in with a man at college, Jim concedes, “I’d never give formal approval but I’d not disown her either. We’d be opposed, but they have to live their own lives.”

Why has their own family worked so well? “We’re a lot closer to our kids than most parents,” ventures Dorothy. “Maybe that’s because we’re a farm family.” Jim sees a connection to the land. “I love this house and I love this soil,” he says. “There’s an aroma to it you can’t talk about. The end of a perfect day is to see the dust drift off into the air and feel the humidity build up.” Their son Chuck also sees his parents’ happiness in terms of their work: “Before, it was necessity rather than love that was holding them together. They had to pull together to make it work. But lately it’s love.”

Last Thanksgiving the entire Brophy clan gathered to celebrate a harvest that helped offset a lean 1979. The night before, Dorothy, Maureen and Joni had baked the pies—two pumpkin, a pecan and a cherry—and put the turkey in the oven at 1 a.m. The next morning at 8 a.m. the ham was prepared. At noon the women busied themselves with last-minute preparations while the men had a drink. Near the big table was a small one set for the grandchildren.

At the call to dinner all the friends and family gathered except Dorothy, who was finishing up in the kitchen. When everybody linked hands for prayer, she scurried in and completed the circle. Jim began with special thanks for “the bountiful harvest we just made.” Then the prayer went around the table, with each of the Brophys adding a reason for being grateful. Dorothy: “Our family.” Chuck: “This feast and our fellowship.” Maureen: “Being together.” Joni: “Such a neat family, to be able to joke around and love each other.” Nora Kay: “My brothers and sisters.” Marty: “The farm and family.” Theresa: “Today.” Rick: “Tomorrows.”