by Henry Lane Hull
Driving along the highways and byways of the lower Northern Neck one readily can observe the precision with which our farmers tend to their fields. Among the forefront of those perfectionists is Steve Conley, who lives on his family farm at Remo, a satellite enclave of the metropolis of Wicomico Church.
Steve has a close affinity with the land, the soil and the crops that he produces. He has followed in the tradition of his father, J.P., and earlier forebears, who husbanded the land for generations.
J.P. has passed the day-to-day operation of the farming activities to Steve, and semi-retired. In school, a few years ago, Steve indulged in painting. Above the mantel in the Conley homestead is one of his earlier works, which demonstrates a certain panache, but one that he has not exercised for quite a while. Last summer that lull came to an end.
I have counted approximately 13 agricultural dependencies on the Conley farm, ranging from small grain storage buildings, to tractor bays, to two large barns. When the corn is down, the vista is that of a typical American farm, similar to those stylistically depicted a century and a half ago by Currier and Ives. The older of the two barns is sheaved in metal siding, and that has become the focal point of Steve’s return to the world of art.
On the side facing the hub of Remo, last summer, when not working at his farming activities, Steve undertook to paint a large American flag with each star and stripe in perfect alignment and symmetry. The project came about slowly, but then with a sudden burst, it was finished, thereby evoking a sense of patriotism on those who pass along Remo Road. The colors are vibrant, and the large size of the painting makes the flag impossible not to see.
This undertaking by Steve is reminiscent of the “See Rock City” signs painted on barns across the South in the middle of the last century. Rock City is an attraction on Lookout Mountain outside Chattanooga, Tenn., that dispatched agents throughout the South, offering to paint farmers’ roofs in return for being allowed to superimpose the operation’s message and logo. In painting the flag, Steve is not sponsoring a business, but rather promoting America.
Steve’s knowledge of farming is encyclopedic. He can discourse on all aspects of the crops he grows, the fertilizers he uses, and the different means of planting he follows. He knows the soil and how to make it productive. Domestically, he and his parents plant a large vegetable garden that every year is bounteous in its level of productivity.
Each evening after supper Steve reads until bedtime, covering nearly every seed and tractor catalog in print, as well as whatever he can find on gardening supplies. His work in the fields and in the home garden shows the results of his study.
For the garden, Steve does not purchase plants or seedlings; he grows them from seed, starting in late winter, getting a leg up before seedlings are available commercially. The Conleys are always among the first to have ripe tomatoes each season and their sweet corn is renowned throughout the area.
Some years ago my Good Wife clipped a rose from a bush that I had planted and gave it in a small vase to Steve’s mother, Hazel. After the bloom had passed, Steve planted the stem in the flowerbed on the west side of the house and it took off, maturing into a prime specimen, far outdistancing its parent plant in our yard. When Mother Nature handed out green thumbs, the Conleys received an overdose.
Today is Steve’s birthday, which he most likely is spending on one of his tractors, whether working on it in the shop or driving it through his fields. In either case the Northern Neck is a better place for all of his efforts, be they agricultural, horticultural or artistic.
Happy Birthday, Steve! On to the next mural!