The family farm is a thing of the past. Actually, the farm itself is a thing of the past. It is no longer part of an agriculture. It is now a production unit in a vast food factory that covers the land. There are a few lingering family farms, but even they have had to adapt to a farm economy that has shifted from the science and art of growing things to mining the soil. I have witnessed the transformation in terms of the way it has changed the landscape I travel through on an 18-mile commute I make often, sometimes daily, from Aberdeen to a work studio in Tacoma Park on the James River.
There are a number of routes I can take and I take them all. I like wandering the countryside. Once as a farm editor for a newspaper, I got paid to do it as I covered agricultural meetings, interviewed people for stories, and observed first-hand what was taking place in rural America. With my commutes to and from Tacoma Park, there Is the aspect of getting acquainted with the neighborhood, learning the people and the animals who populate land I travel through.
In recent years, I hardly ever see people or farm animals. The industrial rural landscape does not include them. And I see much less wildlife, except for deer dashing across the road between bean and corn fields. The wetlands are plowed over and filled in so I see no water fowl where there once were ponds. The rural landscape has changed. The pasture land on which cattle, sheep, and horses grazed has been converted to cropland for corn and beans, and a little hay. The only hogs near Tacoma Park are in an incorporated complex of confinement buildings that shield the animals from observation. Their presence is evident only in the powerful smell that emanates from the place on muggy days. (Once one of my Tacoma Park neighbors who invited some foreign exchange students for a Fourth-of-July wiener roast had to cancel and move the event to their home in town because the odor was so repulsive and overpowering.)
I got to observe and know animals who were denizens of the farms I passed. There were some herds of sheep, with lambs frisking about in the springtime. A number of farms had horses grazing in the fields when their human owners weren't taking them for rides. And there were many herds of cattle, that I got to know. On one farm, a huge herd was trucked into fields that grew corn and soybeans after the crops were harvested. They browsed the stubble all winter, when they weren't munching away on hay bales or feed supplements dispensed in old tractor tires hauled in with them. Then in the spring as planting time approached, they were hauled away to some pasture to calve and eat grass. Then a few years ago, the cattle did not show up for their winter occupation of those fields.
|Lsst year this field was grass pasture with cattle grazing on it. This spring it |
was plowed up and planted in soybeans. The cattle are gone.
On another farm, there was a field of grass pastureland that had a few trees under which a herd of Red Angus lolled about during the summer. The trees were cut down but last year the cattle were present. This spring the grass was plowed up and the field was planted with soybeans.
Now there are no sheep or cattle herds on the farms on my commuting routes. If that 18-mile stretch is an indicator of the trends farming is following, and statistics indicate that it is, it seems as if cattle are no longer a major component of the farm business. The beef plant in Aberdeen, which is starting up under new owners after it failed, may have some difficulty in finding cattle to process. A Tyson beef plant in Iowa was closed down because the managers said there was not an adequate supply of cattle to keep it going.
|The cattle pens on this farmstead were always teeming with cattle on feed.|
Early this year there were only a few. Now there are none.
The pioneers, most of whom were immigrants, fled the political and social oppression of the Old World that regarded them as serfs whose lives were dictated by the whims of the over class. On their American homesteads they found freedom from that oppression through the rewards of their own labor and the independence of self-sufficiency in which they were beholden to no one else. This quest for freedom and independence formed the basis for the general farm which provided all the necessities for life through the variety of crops, produce, and livestock raised on it. But that freedom and independence was paid for by constant, arduous work that involved the entire family. The children of those farms felt confined and oppressed by that work. An old quip expresses their perspective: nothing sends young men off the farm like working in the hay mow on a 90-degree day.
To manage a life that included something other than constant work, farmers gave up general farming and focused their efforts on specialties. In order to have lives that provided time for family activities, especially as children became acitive in school events, they gave up livestock. Most of the farmers in my family quit milking, but kept a cow to provide milk for the family. But soon it became a nuisance to care for a cow twice a day when buying milk was more convenient and economical. Farmers in my family continued to raise crops for feeding cattle and hogs. They adjusted their herds according to the markets and made their decisions by a daily perusal of the Drovers' Journal, a newspaper that tracked and analyzed the markets. However, when the International Livestock Yards in Chicago closed and ended competitive bidding by packers, farmers sold ttheir livestock to the packing plants nearest to them. Soon they began selling by contract, which locked in a price they received for their animals. This was a major step toward integrating farms into the corporate scheme of production.
The contracts also made it convenient to specialize in the raising of cattle or hogs or poultry and eliminated the task of studying maket trends. The focus on a few crops and a livestock speciality freed up time, but at the same time relinquished self-sufficiency and integrated farms into the corporate economy. Those farmers who continued more general operations with multiple crops and livestock found it necessary to gear their operations with food processors to market their products and receive a sufficient financial return. As farming became more closely enmeshed with the corporations who bought and used its products and supplied planting and harvesting materials and machines, farming became less and less operated for independence and self-sufficiency and more dependent on corporations to supply farming needs and sell farming output. The term family farm names a concept of the sentimental past, not the actual agribusiness of the present.
In looking for ways to ease the burden of labor required for full independence and self-sufficiency, farmers over the years conceded some independence for labor-saving convenience. But just as those earlier farmers feared that an electric line to their farmsteads would make them servants to the electric companies in paying for the service, the subservience of farmers to corporations who supplied their farming materials and were the market for their products became a fact. The farm crisis of the 1980s was a matter of the debt that farmers owed to corporations.
The South Dakota Dept. of Agriculture boasts on its website that 98% of South Dakota farms are family owned and South Dakota has approximately 5 beef cattle for every state resident. Those slogan claims cover over the trends affecting agriculture in the state. The integration of agricutture into factory cropping is evident in the decreasing number of farms in the state. In 1974, the state had 45,000 farms which averaged 1,011 acres. By 2014 the number was 31,700 farms averaging 1,366 acres. During that time period the state lost its ranking as one of the two largest sheep producing states, and a change in cropping from an emphasis on wheat to corn and soybean production gown largely for the making of bio-fuels. That change is reflected in my commute from Aberdeen to Tacoma Park through a landscape covered with corn and soybeans, all Roundup ready, and only rare sightings of livestock.
South Dakota is the eighth largest producer of beef cattle with a current population of 3,700,000 head. However, it participates in the overall trend for beef cattle. Beef prices are up, with cattle numbers dwindling. Beef producers fear that the high prices is sending consumers to lower priced alternatives. Agweb gives the prognosis:
America’s cow herd is the smallest (29 million) in 60 years, with a total cattle inventory of 87.7 million, which is also the lowest level since Harry Truman was president. Those short supplies produced roughly 24.4 billion pounds of beef in 2014, a 5.2 percent decline from 2013 and the smallest annual slaughter since 1994. Total steer and heifer slaughter in 2014 is projected to be the lowest since 1968.