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The View from my Farm

The View from my Farm, blog 3 03 10 21

The first thoughts I remember were on my parent’s farm near Hutchinson, Kansas. Dad was raised not far away. Mom and dad returned after his service in WWII. He raised poultry and wheat and, my understanding, was happy enough with business that he expanded his turkeys in 1953, with the hope of a big Thanksgiving payday. But his timing was terrible. The monetary recession of 1953-4 broke out and demand plunged. Mom says we ate a lot of turkey and took such a beating the bank took the farm.

Aside from the photo in a flock of turkeys with my head barely visible and playing under chicken coops, there were few memories. One is still painful. Leaving the only home I’d known, one my parents had built without much help, for the drive to California in the summer of 1954. Their old Chevy towed all the possessions behind in a U-Haul trailer. My brother, sister and I in the backseat.

My reason for this preamble is that my father and his father were farmers. Dad was born in 1920, when 37% of Americans still farmed. Another 31% worked in factories where 10 hr. days and six-day workweeks were typical. Fast-forward to 2015. Working Americans expect an easier workweek with sick leave, annual vacation and much more. No wonder USDA statistics show that a pathetic 0.7% of Americans now farm. Yes, much more’s changed during a hundred years. But, if you look at the statistics for other occupations – craftsmen, or clerical and service workers – percentages of the population doing that work hasn’t changed much over the century just passed. One major effect is that farms have got bigger, much bigger. When dad farmed in 1950, the average American farm was 205 acres. In 2020 the average is 440 acres. But averages still understate the change.

Census statistics also suggest a majority of farmers make less than $25,000 per year. Most of these people work jobs in town so they can keep the farm. Fewer, bigger farms over timehave radically changed food choices. Much of your food today comes from overseas. What does come from this country is from huge farms. Regardless, it’s usually traveled thousands of miles.

During the period 1975 – 2020, the amount of fruit found in US supermarkets from outside the U.S. increased from 23% to 50%. At the same time, overseas-grown vegetables increased from 5% to close to 40%. Another statistic provides emphasis. Only 105,453 American farms (5 percent) produced 75 percent of all sales in 2017. Small farms (less than $50,000 in sales), on the other hand, accounted for 76 percent of farms but only 3 percent of sales.

Let’s dump the statistics for a while. A friend’s family story will set up next weeks analysis of the impact of these macroscopic changes in food production and distribution on you and me. My friend’s direct relatives, a farming family, settled in Maryland before the revolution. Early Maryland settlers received ‘headrights’ as compensation for traveling from England. This usually was 50 acres of land. The family patriarch passed, and the older son of two typically inherited the land. A younger boy, moved west and bought property in Virginia. There he farmed until he died and his oldest son inherited the land. Another moved west to Kentucky to farm the traditional dry beans and wheat.

But the Kentucky land wasn’t as fertile. His yields declined year on year, until he borrowed money to plant a next year’s crop. The wheat and beans rotation failed, and the bank took the farm. He moved his family to Missouri, just being settled and land was affordable. Successful there, he acquired more land, which he passed on to two sons. But this left his daughter with no birthright. She married a hard-working young man in town. They hoped to save enough to buy farmland. But land prices rose faster than they could save. They decided to risk the wagon train to Oregon.

Young and strong, the couple survived the arduous journey. They bought 100 acres near a town that later became Eugene. The land was fertile and they thrived – my friend’s great grandparents.

Their son ended up losing the farm. He switched from the traditional dry beans to grow the more profitable sweet corn. Again, fertility failed in a time before the chemical fertilizers of today were available. His son, my friend’s father, ended up a carpenter and moved to California. The two of them – father and son – have built many homes that comfortably house Californians, but my friend, now retired, still maintains a healthy garden.

Moral: America started as a country of farmers. Farming flourished as the country grew westward. Even when my father was a boy, many of us farmed. We’ve been blessed with great food (see first blog). Industrialization has changed that. See in a week for more.

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