Monday, March 25, 2013

Farmers and Rural Life

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.



Anonymous said...

My neighbor, who was 92ish and still farming at the time, told me that the small farms died both with the "help" of government policies, but more so because the children wanted THINGS which only cash could buy, so they moved to cities for jobs. He commented that they never had cash, but they never lacked for food and necessities.


Jim Curley

JL said...

There are seemingly many advantages to the industrialization of our manufacturing and agriculture. We now see a plentitude of food and material goods that we have never seen before. At the same time, we have paid a great cost in a less tangible way. The soul of the agricultural community is rooted in those things that were shed with the industrial farming operation. Family has been replaced with the Front Office. Faith with Corporate Policies and Procedures. Stewardship with share prices.

It is no surprise that in a society as a whole that has lost its tie to the agricultural community has disconnected from the pastoral teachings of the Gospels.

We cannot recoil and lament the loss of the past. A sense of nostalgia can be healthy, but we cannot keep it from allowing us to look forward. Instead we see a great opportunity, albeit a very difficult one, to once again stake a claim for the Catholic Community. We are to answer Blessed Pope John Paul II’s call for “a clearly conceived, serious and well-organized effort to evangelize culture…” The culture was uprooted from the land and now is the time to sow the seeds in the soil figuratively, literally, and spiritually.

Casey Truelove said...

You can come to our house, starting June 15th :)

Anonymous said...

Of course contraception is the other big piece of the puzzle in the decline of these rural communities...

I've never been to your part of Kansas, but I imagine it pretty similar to here. The dumpy towns out here, the mostly empty Catholic Church, the many abandoned places both in town and in the country all break my heart.

Have a wonderful Easter!

Laura from a little house on the Colorado Prairie

Kevin Ford said...


My parent's generation seemed to not use contraception (as much) out here. Our town (13 houses) maintained a Catholic school until the late 90's. Many families out here had very large numbers of children. (I'm one of five and they wanted more.)However, most of the children grew up and moved away and now the number of youg people has declined greatly. I'd say my generation is possibly using contraception at a much higher rate, but not all of them. Infertility is also dramatically on the rise due to GMO's and our general health. I never judge a couple with one or two or no children.


dadwithnoisykids said...

I just stumbled on your blog. Very nice.

We are working on using more of our land to produce food because I sense that things are going to get really bad in the next few years. I predict my income will decline, my taxes will increase even more (my accountant just sent me my estimated tax for 2013), and the land we own is the only thing which could assist our family needs. We have started with chickens, and have a small garden plot, and are considering getting a milk cow. Twelve acres is not enough to support a family alone, but it can reduce some of our grocery expenses. God bless you and yours

Kevin Ford said...

To Dad with Noisy Kids,

We actually farm full time. Last year we made a living off of 2 acres of cultivated vegetables. 12 acres is way more land than you need to make a living. Not only could you grow all of your own food, you could grow food for several hudred families off of that amount of land. I agree that things might get bad, but growing food is the one thing that will remain necessary. It also protects us against food shortages and coming unrest


Our farm blog:

Valerie said...

Hi Kevin.

My name is Valerie and I just stumbled upon your blog via Suscipio. I love it!

My husband, children, and I currently live on 1-acre in a rural-type subdivision in a 1-stoplight town, but are looking to purchase a small acreage. Although I have no ties to the farming community, my husband is the grandson of an Iowa farmer. My children love to hear stories from their grandmother about her years growing up on the farm. Unfortunately, she was one of those who "fled" the farm for the big city lights of Des Moines. Her brother (my husband's uncle) did take over the family farm, but none of his children did and it has since been sold.

In addition, I wanted to add that I appreciate your comments in regard to family-size. My husband and I are one of those couples that traipses into church with only 3 children, but have 5 little saints in heaven. Only those closest to us know I always wonder what the big families in the pews around us are thinking...I guess I shouldn't assume that they are thinking the worst about us as you have proven. (I always wondered if my husband's subfertility diagnosis had anything to do with the summers he spent detasseling corn in central Iowa. One never knows.)

Looking forward to your future posts and digging around in your archives.

Valerie (eastern Kansas)

Emma said...

I also stumbled onto this site from a link on NCR. My husband and I are newlyweds just starting out. We were drawn to a rural lifestyle in Northern Ca. where we purchased 5 acres in a small high desert community of mostly ranches. What started out as an escape from traffic and crime is becoming a life style. He has a home music studio and I have goats and chickens. We keep a small vegetable garden for personal consumption, sell eggs and milk at local farmers markets and during fire season I rent goats out for fire suppression and weed control. You're correct that we probably will never accumulate great material wealth, but there are so many who spend an inordinate amount of their income just to spend a weekend or so under the stars and viewing the sunsets and wildlife that we get to be blessed to enjoy every day and night. When God's Gifts are showered upon you, man made things pale in comparison! I also agree with the poster who said 12 acres is enough. One area I've been wanting to explore is microgreens and hydroponics. There's a growing market in many restaurants for specialty greens, but marketing is an obstacle. Our small town has a community center that holds dinners once a month and you can't help but get to know your neighbors if you reach out. We're blessed that our parish does have a school attached to it. If not, home schooling would be our choice. I see a number of twenty somethings coming home .

Matt said...

This may be rather off-topic, but here goes!
My relatives owned farm land until about 100 years ago on the East coast. Gardening has always been something done in my family. However, I can't say that I'd ever want to be a farmer necessarily. I like my job in the engineering department of a large cell phone carrier...but...the interesting thing is that about half of my co-workers in my office and I are avid gardeners. We share excess produce from our gardens and sometimes seedlings. It's almost as easy to have a conversation about soil quality and how our tomatoes are doing as it is to talk about the latest network projects we have going on. But, I'm not really either a back-to-the-land type or a complete technophile. I'm a trained musician and amateur composer. Were I alive hundreds of years ago, I may well have been employed as a singer/composer/organist at a church, but I can't help when I was born nor but wonder how high culture types would fit in a revived Catholic agrarian community in our day and age. That said, I have turned over my whole front yard on my postage-stamp lot (0.03 acres) to grow vegetables and want to be able to supply the weekly pizza fundraiser at our parish this summer with enough tomatoes and basil. My wife and I have also subscribed to a CSA farm in our area for the first time this year too. So, we'll see what path the Lord leads us down.

dadwithnoisykids said...

Thank for your reply, Kevin. Right now a lot of our 12 acres is broken up by trenches, foxholes, and other battlements constructed by our children. I shall slowly convert it into gardens and some pasture land, but I still have little children who are blessed to have land to explore.

God bless you and yours

Anonymous said...

My husband and I have been following your blog/journey for about a year now. We are interested in learning more... Will continue reading.....enjoying older post and hope to see more future ones!

God Bless your family

Brandi Thomas