South Dakota Top Blogs

News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The end of farming

A  lush landscape, barren of people.

A musing in Dakotafire, a magazine that tries to institute a rural revival, contains an article that probes why fewer people call themselves farmers.  It says that it is not just because there are fewer farmers, and notes that many prefer to call themselves “'ag producers,' or say they 'run a farm business'."  It does cite a few people engaged in agribusiness who insist on calling themselves farmers.  

What the article does not explore is whether the choice in terms  reflects a change in what people who work on the land are actually doing.  It does not venture into the transformation from agriculture to agribusiness and that those who call themselves producers or businessmen are not farmers.  They are people who utilize the land as a production unit as part of corporate enterprise, not as an independent and sustainable element in a competitive market system.  

My own knowledge of farming comes from the fact that all my ancestors immigrated to America to become farmers.  My father was raised on a farm, although he became a letter carrier as a young man.  My mother had seven brothers, four of whom farmed, one of whom was a mechanic who repaired farm equipment, one of whom was a fuel dealer who served farms, and the last who was a machine shop foreman at an arsenal  Two of the  farmers were also machine shop foremen at the Farmall plant.  That is how they bought their farms. As a child who grew up during the depression and World War II,  I remember how the self-sufficiency of the farms provided for our extended family.  One of the farms was where my grandmother lived with two of her bachelor sons.  It was where the family gathered on most Sundays and was referred to as "out home."  While recovering from a year in bed from rheumatic fever, I spent summers on that farm where I gradually took on some of the work. I learned to drive on that farm operating a Farmall H tractor.  Later, when my uncles got older, reduced some of their farming activity, while I was a college student, I drove out to their farm twice a day to feed the livestock for them when they took a vacation.  

The farms were general farms.  That is, they grew in multiple sources of food.  The crops were rotated between corn, hay, oats, soybeans, along with plantings of potatoes, usually a row or two alongside a cornfield,  and they all contained fields devoted to permanent pasture.  The farms also contained large gardens, and my bachelor uncles had a vineyard and some apple, pear, and peach trees.   The livestock raised were pigs, cattle--both for milk and beef--and chickens--for meat and eggs.  Farming was a 24/7 enterprise.  The entire extended family participated in the  harvesting and preserving of the food.  It was an arduous way of life, but the self-sufficiency buffered the family during tough times.  

This background, along with a number of years working for International Harvester Co. led to a job as farm editor for the Moline Dispatch, a job I regard as the best one I have held in terms of pleasant and interesting work.  However, my coverage of the changing farm scene made clear that self-sufficient family farms were on the decline.  Farming as my family did was so demanding and arduous that children raised on farms wanted another kind of life or to practice agriculture in a way that left room in their lives for something other than constant labor.  And as my uncles became established, they reduced their operations.  Milking was the most demanding task, and farmers were willing to let dairies take over that aspect.  Then chickens and the daily gathering of eggs was let go.  Raising beef and pork, however, was too lucrative to abandon, and farmers gave up the feeding of livestock more slowly.  However, the trend was toward concentrating farming operations on one speciality, and professors of agriculture began to warn against horizontal and vertical integration, meaning that farms would no longer be self-sufficient units but would be tied into a corporate system by contract or corporate ownership.  

That is what has happened to agriculture.  The consolidation of farms into huge production units run on a factory  basis has eliminated family farms and many small communities over the past half century.  It has also changed the rural landscape in ecological ways.  My uncles won recognitions for their conservation farming.   They rotated crops to maintain the fertility and health of the soil, they maintained and created waterways and water containment features, rather than plow over them.   They were wary of using pesticides, and did so with much thought and caution.  But their farming was labor intensive and it took tenacious management skills to produce multiple crops and raise livestock that met the demands of a competitive market.  Those diverse operations, however, brought a factor of economic stability that single-cropping operations do not have.  Low prices for one commodity were generally offset by profits in others.  

As I drive through the countryside, particularly in the Dakotas, I am always struck by how it has changed since those years I was a farm editor.  I can recall driving through the country when doing stories, and particularly in late afternoons or evenings, and passing by family homesteads, which dotted the land with some frequency.  You could always tell what farms had children because they were out in the yards playing or saddling up horses or grooming 4-H cattle or sheep.  If there were teenagers, they were generally gathered around a car in the yard as they chatted and made arrangements for school activities.  I remember how busy my cousins were as they did their home work and coordinated their extra-curricular activities with their friends.  As farm editor, I became acquainted with many of these young people and marveled at the productive and purposeful lives they lived.  

Now when I pass homesteads,  I seldom see anyone, let alone children, in the yards.  Occasionally, I see people mowing their yards on lawn tractors, and often see swing sets and other playground equipment in yards, but I never see children using it.  Since I have lived in South Dakota, I have watched small towns totally disappear as schools closed and main streets were boarded up.  Some places, such as Ordway and Wetonka, have completely disappeared.  In places like Columbia, you can't fuel a car if needed or buy a bottle of water.  

This  barren landscape is the result of consolidating and industrializing.  It is not the landscape of the agriculture once envisioned by Thomas Jefferson as the foundation for a free, self-determining people comprising a new democracy.  His vision was of farms as culture which sustained life and provided healthy and productive ways for people to live.  It is now the landscape of an industrial enterprise, of huge tracts tended by machines and chemicals, owned by and supporting fewer and fewer people.   As my last farmer-uncle put it before he died,  the land is being returned to the barons.   It is no longer a resource on which a democratic society can be sustained.

There was a time when farmers and agricultural scientists concerned themselves with incorporating technological advances in farming with the purpose of supporting human culture on the land.  But the corporate powers have eliminated the human values as part of what could grow on the land.  

People do not call themselves farmers, because they aren't.  As a Wikipedia author puts it, 
"However, in the not so distant past a farmer was a person who promotes or improves the growth of (a plant, crop, etc.) by labor and attention, land or crops or raises animals (as livestock or fish)."  Today, they are machine operators and chemical applicators engaged in the business of making money, not worker-managers engaged in the intertwining of natural and human culture for the production of food and, as Bill Gates puts it, a verdant, productive life for humans.  Business practice, not agriculture, is the driving force.  And so, they are not farmers; they are ag producers and they run farm businesses.  They are not engaging the land in ways upon which human communities are built and sustained.  And few are willing to face the consequences of that fact.   

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I started farming on my own in the early 80's on the family farm where I was raised. Back then I was a "farmer". I was part of the farm culture you describe that is rapidly fading away. Since my operation did not grow in size, I find it is more profitable to have most, if not all of my physical farming custom done today. I cannot justify the expense of the BIG equipment, huge grain bins & grain dryers, or the giant machine sheds (where a red barn used to stand) to house the BIG equipment. When you talk about the changing landscape, I think of our rural church that closed several years ago (not enough people around to attend anymore). But the once visible & familiar "Church steeple" sadly is now dwarfed by giant 100,000 bushel grain bins. My son won't be farming, though he lives on "the home place". We used to call it "the farm". I still make the management decisions on my farm ground, but I am now more of a "gentleman farmer", which means there is one less "farmer".

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States