Down on the Farm

Driving through the midwest, in northern Ohio and Indiana, I observed, and thought about the idea of, the farmstead. Growing up, I always had an affection for the somewhat isolated farms that dot the landscape. They appeared to be one-family small towns or manmade islands floating in a solid sea of germinating seeds. They were quaint, throwbacks to the homesteaders of pioneering stock, independent nations and emblems of self-sufficiency that represented a more direct connection to the land that we all inhabit and most of us never experience.

And, then, there were their design elements, the patterns of furrowed and sowed rows of agriculture, the variety of colors of the soil and the texture of the growing foods. An arrangement of lines and angles and shades of greens or browns, crisscrossing 100- to 200-acre tracts with a cluster of buildings at their center or placed at a transecting road’s edge. From airplanes, farms are incredibly beautiful designs on the landscape, continuous quilts covering the flat terrain and the hills and valleys. Like the Nazca Lines, the designs invite the sky dwellers down to earth with verdant color.

But the real purpose of farms is life-giving nourishment. Food. Originally, farms were oases of self-sustainment, the only way to survive in the wilderness that was much of America. And once you increased the acreage to a certain size, the purpose of a farm changed to one of production – a surplus creating a demand in the marketplace – and the farm became a manufacturer of food for the cities. As cities burgeoned and farms stepped up production, a kind of balance was reached in which farmland that encircled the urban centers was supported by the areas of no farmland, and vice versa, as cities were left off the hook for generating agricultural foodstuffs. A kind of yin-yang of urban to rural ratio. But all that changed, and now there is an imbalance.

After reading Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I am struck by how the meaning of a farm has changed for me. Where I once saw sustenance, now I see just industry. Industrialized farming has taken over real hands-in-the-dirt farming. Monoculture has replaced diversity. Farms resemble machinery now rather than homesteads. My affection for them has waned in proportion to their own disconnection with the earth. Their multiplex silos with numerous chutes look like tentacles, or perhaps some giant upside down milking machine, sucking the life out of farming and the land. Everything is enclosed, secretive, overwrought, sterile, maybe even scary – an encased, entombed facility that appears to have no connection to the land, human hands, sunlight or air. The farm has become a factory, its appearance, once charming, is indistinct from a steel mill or a quarry. It is hard to imagine that people live in these complexes still. And, based on the ones I just viewed, they are all alike, as uniform as any American mall, all the individuality removed, as in a lobotomy.

What has happened to us? What kind of world have we created – one in which we are removed from reality and left with fake manufactured food (new and improved)? Why are our farms not farms anymore but rather plants (an irony in the term itself)? What is it in our country, the supposed land of independence, that we allow these losses of control to occur, that we let anyone and everyone determine our fate, just for the profit of a few and a huge loss for the rest of us? What kind of place are we creating: a place of no place? A faux place. A placeless place.

Farms used to represent a real placeness, something that was often hard to replicate in an urban setting and certainly not in the suburban clusters that are replacing them at a rapid rate. Farming on the grand, multicorporate scale obviously doesn’t have that quality anymore. Think about what could have more placeness than Auntie Em’s farm? Remember, there’s no place like it.

1 Comment

Filed under Nature/Nurture

One response to “Down on the Farm

  1. As a midwestern farmer who lives on a modern farm, it truly saddens me that you are intimidated by what you see when you drive through the country. I do not see what you do. I see families using modern technology to help them do what used to be back-breaking, inefficient work.

    I encourage you to pull into one of these farms on your next drive through the country side. You are not going to find a “factory.” You are going to find a family working to make a living. Farms have modernized simply because it has become impossible to employ people willing to work. Farmers and food production have adapted to consumer demand for affordable, abundant, and safe food… not the other way around.

    Consumers prefer to enjoy their lives, and where their food comes from is an afterthought. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it does open the door for misinformation.

    I am a modern farmer, I get my hands in the dirt everyday, and am sporting a pretty dark farmer’s tan right about now. I drink water from the same well as our cattle do, and my windows are open to the fresh country air whenever it’s not too humid. I have three young children whom I would be entirely proud of if they were to grow up and live a rural life. There is an abundance of opportunity out here in the food production world. I am proud of what I do and where I come from. I am not going to do anything to jeopardize the future of my family’s farm.

    When I look out my window, I can see neighbor’s farms, neighbors who share the same perspective as myself. People who are full of pride for American agriculture. People who remember the way farming used to be, and are today employing technologies they could have only dreamed of as children. People who will bolt out of bed in the middle of the night to tend to a calving cow or a neighbor’s barn fire. The farmers and their values are still on the land… their farms just look different.

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