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, June 30, 2019

Family farms are just a memory.

I was farm editor for a daily newspaper in the early 1960s in a town that called itself "the farm equipment capitol of the world."  During that time, the big story was the potential demise of the family farm.  There were two contending theories about the future of farming circulating through colleges of agriculture and farm organizations.  One camp warned against the danger of integration for farming.  The other camp promoted integration.  

Farms were being integrated into the corporate food production system.  The mantra of the food integrationists was that farming was a business, not a way of life, and if you want to survive as a farmer, you'd damn well better treat farming like a business. These advocates were intent on replacing agriculture with agribusiness.  One of the loudest voices was Earl Butz, the dean of agriculture at Purdue who became Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture.  His advice to farmers was to  "get big or get out."

Butz is probably best remembered for his observation on why the GOP had a hard time getting the black vote:  “I’ll tell you what coloreds want. It’s three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit. That's all!”  Tonight Show host Johnny Carson got a lot of material from Butz's quips.  He called him Earl the Pearl.  Butz was eventually fired.

But Butz's vision of farming prevailed.  There are few working farms left that are not dependent upon a place in the corporate scheme of things for their survival.  

When banks began making loans to farmers a major source of their income, they promoted what they called "capital farming."  It involved maintaining a revolving loan account that provided the banks with a steady stream of interest and farmers with a never-ending debt.  The farm equipment industry cooperated by designing high-tech and high-cost equipment that required loans to obtain and maintain.  Farmers found themselves in a cost-price squeeze.  The cost of farming--of equipment, seeds and chemicals, land, etc.--was rising.  The price obtained for crops and livestock has been on a downward trend since World War II, so increased production could ostensibly make up for weak prices.  The farms got bigger, more specialized, and more dependent on high-tech equipment and bank loans to pay for it.  As consequence, agriculture has been fully integrated into the corporate scheme of production.

That change was accompanied by a cultural change in rural America.  Farm organizations and extension agents scolded those who thought of farming as a way of life.  They warned them that they would fail if they did not think of farming in business terms.  The emphasis coming from colleges of agriculture and farm organizations was no longer on crop and animal science, but on business management schemes.  To make farms manageable in a business sense, their operation was modeled on factory production.  

The fact of the matter is that farmers have always had to manage the financial aspect of the operations to stay in business.  The irony is that those who managed to stay out of debt were less vulnerable to financial failure than those who went big and accrued large debts to sustain their operations.

An aspect of the conversion to industrial farming is the switch from general farming to more specialized agriculture.  General farms were based on the idea of self-sufficiency.  All the food for a family was grown on the farm.  My dad was raised on a farm, but went to work for the Post Office.  However, my uncles on my mother's side operated three farms near the community where we lived. During my childhood the work on the farm was arduous and never-ending.  Those farm families milked cows, raised beef and pork, kept chickens for eggs and meat, rotated crops between corn, soybeans, oats, hay, and pasture land.  In addition, they had huge gardens from which produce as canned, later froze when freezers came on the market.  They planted outside rows of corn fields with potatoes.  Some years the prices for livestock and crops were low, but there was always a generous supply of food, and the farms survived the depression and World War II.  A basic aspect of   farm management was subsistence, and avoiding debt.  

Industrial farming is the rule now.  During the years I have traveled the 18 miles to my work studio on the James River, I have watched the land change from agriculture to industrial production.  Where I once passed by herds of cattle and sheep, there are only rows of corn and soybeans, and an occasional field of hay.  Where once I saw farmyards alive with children and teenagers gathered about cars, I now seen only an occasional person on a lawn tractor.  The conversion to industrial farming has changed the culture of the countryside.  Agriculture and the lifestyle it supported has been displaced by a lifestyle commensurate with corporate life.

As a farm editor, I saw the change coming.  During editorial meetings some of the editors brought up the question of maintaining a farm section when less than three percent of the subscribers were actively engaged in farming.  Many of the stories I wrote came out of discussions with county farm extension agents, but they were becoming fewer in number.  The Farm Bureau was making a noticeable emphasis in farming as a business rather than as a life.  When I left the newspaper, the farm section was eliminated and farm stories were carried as feature stories.  And as many of my colleagues in agricultural journalism changed jobs or retired, they weren't replaced.  

At the same time, my relatives on the farms were eliminating aspects of farming.  Milking twice a day was a limiting activity, so the milk cows were sold off--except for one that an aunt insisted be kept to supply  her cooking needs.  It was easier and cheaper to buy eggs at the supermarket, so the chicken flocks went.  The same was true with the garden produce, so the gardens were turned into lawns or cropland.  Livestock operations were also curtailed.  The children on those farms had pursued college and off-farm careers, so the farms were purchased by neighbors in the process of "getting big."  

This process had changed the nature and the culture of farming and the geography of farmland. That change is shown in the declining number of farms  in our state and locality.   Between 2012 and 2017, South Dakota lost 2,000 farms.  Here is a county listing for northeast South Dakota:

              Number of farms in northeast South Dakota

County name
Brown County
Campbell County
Day County
Edmunds County
Faulk County
Marshall County
McPherson County
Potter County
Spink County
Walworth County
South Dakota

So, on my commute to my place on the James River, I not only do not see families bustling around in the farm yards, I no longer see livestock or pasture land.  Where once I saw fields of wheat, flax, alfalfa, clover, sun flowers, and grazing livestock, I now see endless rows of corn and soybeans.   But I also see a system of agriculture that is no longer self-sufficient.  Those rows of mono-cultured crops are bonds that tie the land to banks, huge corporations, town supermarkets, crop insurers, and the land is managed by people in board rooms in the Trump Towers of the world.  The agriculture that once gave immigrants and workers a way to climb out of poverty and oppression and put many people, such as  my cousins through college, is not even a possibility.  In the corporate scheme of things, there is no place for independence and self-sufficiency.  

There are farmers who tried to take advantage of the advances of science and technology by incorporating them into their farming operations, but farm consolidation and business rules have eliminated that option.  Farming no longer offers an opportunity to build a life for a family.  It is a business, which demands that you get big or get out.

If you want the experience of a family farm, you'll have to buy a Terry Redlin painting.


Debbo said...

I grew up on a family farm in central SD, went to Miller High School. There was an exception to the rule about maintaining limited indebtedness. Huge debt with one local bank worked. The bank could not foreclose without folding. Our neighbors who owed several million dollars were safe because the bank had to continue to carry their debt to protect itself. That family now owns several thousand acres among the many children.

"There are few working farms left that are not dependent upon a place in the corporate scheme of things for their survival." I live in Minnesota now, within 40 miles of the metro. The surviving family farms I see are specialty farms, nearly always organic. They raise vegetables, often cheeses and meats, perhaps wool from sheep, alpacas, etc. I think that's the only space left for family farms. It requires proximity to a sizable metro area for adequate market access. I imagine there are a few around Sioux Falls.

larry kurtz said...

The crony capitalism that keeps South Dakota the 8th worst state for the working class is destroying lands promised to native peoples by treaty and my home town of Elkton is struggling to find enough housing for migrant workers often living in squalor. When my dad visited us in Spearditch he was able to see how most of the fertile land in Lawrence County was incrementally being covered with concrete and housing for white people. He wept as shelter belts were being cleared for center-pivot irrigation and fossil water was being pumped from fragile aquifers for the industrial agriculture now killing his once-beloved Brookings County. South Dakota is a perpetual welfare state, a permanent disaster area and a chemical toilet by design. Until Democrats seize power nothing will ever change.

Panhead47 said...

I enjoyed this article because it basically describes my experience growing up in South Dakota. Not sure what paper Mr. Newquist worked for but I'm sure I have read it as my home was in Beadle County. I attended Hitchcock High School. As a child, we went to Hitchcock on Wednesday nites. This was night all the stores would remain open later. The itinerant barber set up shop in the back of Leota's Cafe and they show movies outdoors on the side of the Bennett Hatchery building. All of this changed once Richard Nixon was elected President and he appointed Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture. Early in the period, I was in the US Navy spending my summers in waters off Viet Nam. I returned to a different farming "landscape" and tried to shoehorn back in with little help from the government. The drought of the mid-70's sent me packing and as the article says about the wage-paying jobs, I found it my interest to move west to Washington state. Thanks for a great article. I found it by googling "Earl the Pearl Butz" because that is what I have called him ever since the Carson show.

David Newquist said...

I was farm editor for the Moline Daily Dispatch in Illinois. Consolidation was underway, but most farms were family operations.

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States