The other night an older farmer (He no longer farms but leases it out to another) stopped by for a conversation. He had some interesting things to say about the communities in our area, and why they, like so many others, have shriveled so badly over the past forty years. He made the comment that in a conversation with a local minister in one of the towns that has suffered the most from population loss he gained a valuable insight. The minister, having spent many decades in our area, mentioned that the people from his town suffered greatly from guilt. What he meant was that the people felt terrible guilt that they had not been able to build up a robust livelihood on the land when their parents and grandparents had. They had almost all witnessed their children abandon the rural life and flee to the cities. The pride that once was so clear in all these rural communities was gone...and so were many of the people.
I can say that I never really intended to become a farmer either. If my father had taken on the family farm before I was born then it is likely I never would have become a farmer. My grandfather owned 400 acres of sandy ground on which he raised cattle, pigs, corn, and wheat. They raised a garden and butchered all their own meat. Most of the food for the family was produced within walking distance of their farmhouse. However, that is no longer the reality on farms, and had my father taken over the farm then it probably wouldn't have remained the reality there either. During the 1970's farmers were encouraged to get big or get out. My grandfather was at the end of an era of family-sized diversified farms. My father would have had to cut the diversification and grow to a much larger mono-culture type farm in order to keep up with the times. Had I witnessed this it is likely I would have eschewed farming and found a life far away in the city. However, God's goodness brought me to the land in a different way. It was interesting to hear the farmer I was speaking with accuse the "Big" farmers in our area of destroying the communities. He said it was no wonder there are no families left out here anymore. Now they farm the same amount of land that would have supported fifty or one-hundred families only half a decade ago.
I am currently working my way through Will Allen's book: "The Good Food Revolution." It is a great read, but I was caught by a quote of his this evening. He writes: "If we are to make farming a profession that young people want to enter, we need to create new models for growing and distributing food that are emotionally satisfying. We have to be guided by the principle that small is beautiful." p. 185 To put this in context, Will had been writing about the fact that one hundred years ago farmers were the profession least likely to commit suicide. Now they commit suicide at a rate twice the national average. They are near the very top. The reality of modern farming is that it is very difficult to make a living no matter what kind of farming you are doing: organic, conventional, meat, grains, vegetables, etc. However, often times farmers no longer have any joy in what they do. They are creating food for people's tables. They are making a profit for a commodity "product." Sounds exciting doesn't it. A friend of mine who works on farm equipment told me that one of the main complaints they get from the big farmers is that they can't stay awake in the tractor cab. Steering is often now GPS controlled. Man has become the slave of the machine-centered system. It is a whole to slave class or sharecropping class where only the commodity players like Monsanto or Arthur Daniels Midland really make any money. There has to be a better way.
I dream of our little community on the plains having enough families to start a small Catholic Academy. I hope for a day when we can go for visits on Sundays to other like-minded Catholic's homes. I pray for a day when many farmers would be located on a section of land earning bread by the sweat of their brow. It's hard to have sweat on the brow in an air-conditioned cab. I know my grandpa's tractors certainly had nothing of the sort. I hope for an agricultural culture again to thrive in rural places. I don't know what it will take to get to that point, but it's worth hoping for.