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.