The Great Loss of American Agricultural Communities

Post image for The Great Loss of American Agricultural Communities

by brenda on January 17, 2013

photo credit: Adam Arthur

I just finished reading Wendell Berry’s fiction novel Hannah Coulter. (Warning, there will be spoilers in this post). It was the first piece of fiction that I’ve read (other than books to my children) since I graduated with a degree in Literature more than 11 years ago. I cannot believe it has been so long!  My New Year’s Resolution this year is to read literature and become a “Book Person” again. I’m ok with it–it is in me, and I cannot deny who I am. I’m pretty excited about it, to tell you the truth.

Let me tell you what this “Book Person” learned and thought and felt about Hannah Coulter and about “Real Life” and American agriculture:

  • There was a time when people took pride in their farm house and their land. They built it up–gates, fences, storage, watering systems, etc.,–knowing that it was going to be passed to future generations. There was a history there. Grandpa So and So planted that oak tree over there. Or Grandma So and So started that patch of daffodils. There was a connection that people had to the land and to past generations that nobody has anymore. There was a connection to the neighbors that nobody has anymore, either. Everyone worked together, helped each other, and knew each other’s children and grandchildren and history, too.
  • World War II came and destroyed the lives of so many (including 150,000 people in an agricultural community in Okinawa). Tractors came, and most of the farmers bought them. Women went to work and became heads of their households while the men were away. When the men came back, they weren’t needed anymore. Their wives were running the household. The tractors, with minimal effort, could work the land. A lot of the men left their farms and went away to work.
  • The children of these World War II vets (and others around that time period) lost the love that their parents and grandparents had for farming. They were the first generation to entirely abandon the farm and the agricultural communities around them. Hannah faces this in the book, with her son Caleb. He’d never been much of a student, and he loved the farm. She and her husband Nathan thought for sure that Caleb would take over the farm someday. They wanted him to go to college anyways, and then to come home and run the farm. As an old widow on her farm, she thinks about the things that Caleb must have heard in college:

“And I know, I can almost hear, the voices that were speaking to him, voices of people he had learned to respect, and they were saying ‘Caleb, you’re too bright to be a farmer.’ They were saying ‘Caleb, there’s no future for you in farming.’ They were saying ‘Caleb, why should you be a farmer yourself when you can do so much for farmers? You can be a help to your people.’ These were the voices of farm-raised people who were saying, ‘Caleb, why go home and work your tush off for what you’ll earn? Things are going to get worse for farmers.’ And they were true prophets. The farmers were at the bottom of the heap. And there were fewer of them, farming worse and earning less every year. How could you argue with those voices? How could you look straight at your boy and argue that he ought to spend his life at the hardest work, worrying about the money and the weather?” Hannah Coulter page 128-129 (tush is my version of the word :) ).

  • They were the heirs of the farms, but they didn’t care about farming. To make things equal among siblings (since none of them would be farming, anyways), their parents divided the land so many ways that it was no longer usable farm land. Some (many) who inherited these farms of old saw the land with dollar signs in their eyes, instead of seeing the history and the future possibility of the land. They subdivided the land and built more houses. More houses and less food.
  • Or, big farms (“Big Ag”) bought up the farms and started producing mono crops–acres and acres and acres and acres of one single thing, growing in straight rows, planted by heavy machinery, never giving the land time to rest between crops, using the land until it has nothing left to give…
  • The children of the war didn’t care that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents’ land–the land that made them who they were–was being turned into a neighborhood or a mono-crop. They were busy making money and earning their way to “a Better Life.” I wonder if they’ve found it yet? Did they find the better life?
  • Their children, and their children’s children have continued on, with no connection to the land, living “a Better Life,” they think, than their relatives of long ago.
  • “A Better Life” means, to the majority of the people in our country, a life of less physical labor. A sedentary life, where we do little and yet make a lot of money. A life in which our children can have whatever they want–big Christmases, video games, and theme park vacations. A life in which we can drive what we like, wear what we like, eat what we like–that is the “Better Life” that everyone’s talking about.
  • This “Better Life” has brought us:
  • higher rates of obesity
  • more of a need for anti-depressents and anti-anxiety meds
  • families who don’t eat together
  • mortgages that require moms to work long days and hire other people to raise their children
  • daddies who are always traveling
  • higher crime rates because we’re creating RAD kids (Reactive Attachment Disorder) out of kids who were never adopted–it’s just that their parents are too busy to create attachments to their children
  • processed, packaged, “easy” food that is making everyone sicker
  • neighborhoods with houses that are ten feet away from each other (or less!) and yet the people remain strangers to each other
  • people who live and die in debt because they’re always searching for the “next best thing” to make them happy…I believe that they’ll never be truly happy when they are so separated from the land that gives them life…

This is the “Better Life”??? No thank you!

  • Living in an agricultural community, I see the result of what Hannah saw changing after the war. In our town, I don’t see many farmers. I see a town where people live because it’s cheaper, because it’s way out in the country. In the grocery store, I mostly see people who look depressed, have lived hard lives, and who buy a lot of alcohol. I wonder if they’re so depressed, because they live so close to the land–they know the life that they could have, but farms have changed in America, and there is so little money in farming these days…
  • We long for the farming of old. It would have been wonderful to have begun to farm land that was once farmed by our ancestors. To garden where my Great, Great Grandmother gardened. Instead, we moved to land without fences, without any known history to us, and without much knowledge about how to care for it. Everything we’ve learned, we’ve learned from books or talking to people. If we’d grown up out here, we’d “just know” these things that we have to invest our time into learning. We couldn’t just move in and start farming. Had it been passed down to us from a previous generation, we could have. But a mortgage on a farm now days is expensive–depending on the area, a couple would need, easily, at least $500,000 or more in cash to purchase decent land and all of the fencing, equipment and animals that they need to start a farm, these days. You don’t want to start a farm with debt, if you’re planning to run the farm and make an income on it. Still, these days, that’s impossible. Who has $500,000 in their back pocket (and also wants to quit their obviously high-paying job and move out to the country to be a farmer?). People are not farming because land is only affordable to people with a decent income–and typically, those people have to keep their job to keep their farm. They have the weekends and the evenings to farm, and that’s it.
  • Nobody “needs” to farm anymore. We can all work jobs that have nothing to do with the food that we consume, and then we can go to the grocery store, where there is always a myriad of food and food-like products. Are we nourished? Not many of us. But at least we’re satisfied, right? People aren’t farming, because people are lazy. The “Better Life” includes a life of less work, so who wants to work a farm, when they can buy everything they need at the supermarket? I loved this quote from the book:

“I don’t think there is an argument for being a farmer. There are only two reasons to farm: because you have to, and because you love to. The ones who choose to farm choose for love. Necessity ends the argument, and so does love.” Hannah Coulter page 129

  • We farm “on the side” with hopes of “full time farming” in our minds. My husband has to work a full time job to pay the mortgage on our farm. We spend so much on the mortgage and the bills that there’s not a lot left over to invest in new farm equipment. The dream is there–to get him home, to farm, but until then, he works a day job. This time of year, he leaves in the dark and returns in the dark. He farms in the dark, early hours of the morning, and on Saturdays. This is the life of a man who wants to become a farmer, these days. If you want a farm, chances are, nobody is going to give you one–so save up your cash–a lot of cash, or, work while you farm and hope that maybe, someday, you’ll actually be able to quit your job and farm.
  • We don’t have any neighbors around us who farm. There are older couples who maybe, at one time, farmed. They now live on property and do little with it. Or there are younger families, who have divided off part of the land and built a newer home. They aren’t farming, either. There isn’t anyone around us, like the people in “the membership” that Hannah Coulter talked about, who will come help us bale our hay, and whom we can help raise a barn. It just isn’t like that anymore. If we want help, we’ll need to hire somebody. Again, just another way that farming is so expensive these days.

It’s sad. I don’t know how to end this. There’s no appropriate way to end this. We’ve lost something great, and I don’t know how we will get it back anytime in the near future. It’s just gone. We, on our little 30 acre farm, are trying to re-create what “once was,” but it won’t be the same. The community isn’t around us. The knowledge that everyone grew up with, at one time, is gone. I wonder if the folks who were born after the war, and their children see this loss and recognize their part in it? Had they made different choices, my generation–my children’s generation wouldn’t be so disconnected from the land. I really believe that a disconnect from the land equals, also, a disconnect from people, a disconnect from health, and a disconnect from the value of life.


What are your thoughts? Do you have any suggestions in how to move forward, to try to re-build what we’ve lost?

Pin It

  • Micheleplayfair

    So true!! I live in Australia and we have a grocery store duopoly here that has done a lot to put the nail in the coffin of many farms. First they put other smaller grocers out of business so that farmers become dependent on them as their lone customer. Then they start to put the pressure on – for example late last year they decided that milk should be “cheap” and therefore stopped paying dairy farmers a decent price for their milk. The dairy farmers had no choice but to accept as by this point there was nobody else to buy it. We had floods last summer and drought and bushfires this year so it’s a hard life at the best of times. I grew up “in the bush” with a lot of kids from large farms, may of whom didn’t take over the farm when they left school as expected. Fortunately there is a growing number of discerning customers who are buying organic products, helping make some farmers switch to that as an alternative… but for some it is too late, their soil (or their bank account!!) may now be so poor that they can’t make the switch.

  • Sabrina

    It is not only a loss of family farms and a way of life, but a loss of community. Even though I do not live in a rural area I find that connecting with people is increasingly difficult. Instead of meeting a friend for coffee, we text. Instead of kids getting together to play, they play a video game on line at the same time. Even using a telephone is a rare occasion, sending an email is much more common. So we don’t even hear each others voices anymore! Yet, at the same time we are hungry for human contact and interaction. My personal resolve is to be the friend that calls on the phone to set up a coffee date instead of texting, to set up play dates for my kids where technology is not a part of the equation, to intentionally look into a friend’s eyes and ask “really, how are you?” We must not agree with our culture of isolation through technology! We do need each other and we must not forget that!

  • Emily P in DC

    I don’t have a solution to the overall, huge problem with what’s happened to our farm communities, but I’m happy to have the chance to put my food dollars in the hands of small, sustainable farmers who are working to fight the loss and keep us nourished as well. There are individuals, couples, families fighting against the changes in small ways and we have to do what we can to support them!

    Also, my father is one of those kids who grew up on a farm, but he and all of his siblings left the farm and parceled off the land when their parents died. Then, as he got more disgruntled with his corporate job (in the food industry, no less), he decided to go back to the land (not the same land) and raise grass-fed cattle. He’s still learning, but he is happy and working so hard and I am thankful that my son will have the chance to see the land at work as it should be, even if we live in a different state. There is hope out there, you just have to look for it!

  • Loretta St John

    Hi Brenda! I just came upon your blog today. I’m gobbling up all of the posts! This one in particular speaks to me. (Actually, a lot of them do.) I’ve been feeling much of what you wrote in your post for a long time. It’s so nice to connect with people of like minds and passions. I don’t know what the answers are, but I do feel that people are becoming increasingly aware of what we’ve lost and isn’t that usually the first step to turning anything around? I think so. I have faith that we can and will get back to a better time. Thank you so much for your posts. I’m enjoying them!

  • Alison

    Great post Brenda. I just shared it on FB. The loss of family farms is threatening to destroy our country in many ways. I’m glad there are people like you and your husband who are willing to take the risk and “plow” ahead.

  • Raising Crops and Babies

    We are fortunate to live in an ag area. That said, I only knew a few young farm wives like myself. And I was tired of that! So I started an Ag Wives Club. The only stipulation is that they must be in an agriculture field (of any kind) currently (there are a lot of dreamers, which is GREAT, but it’s so nice to commiserate/encourage those in the trenches with you). That said, there are a number of “homesteaders” in the group which is wonderful too. So it’s not limited to if you are technically a farmwife. We’ve been able to make bulk orders of meat chickens, feed, etc and get better prices and we learn a lot from each other.

    We meet every other month at each other’s houses and pick a topic to discuss prior (and usually one woman leads the discussion). It’s a new club and so we’ve covered: meat chickens, hogs, and food preservation. The next meeting will be listening to Joel Salatin’s cd about teaching our kids to love to work (it’s a great lecture) with a discussion afterward. We lead off the group by talking about what is currently going on on our farms/homesteads (and there are tangents).

    It’s not just for young farmwives by the way… it seems that that is just how it’s been the last 3 meetings.

    I know you said you don’t know of anyone in your area, but I’d encourage you to place an ad in a paper or something like that about any ag. wife interested in starting a meeting. You might be surprised! And libraries/restaurants are great meeting places if you prefer not to open your home.
    -I just asked friends to invite any friends they have who’d fit the bill and so it’s grown from 6 to 15 so far (without placing ads in our local paper). Not too shabby. :)

Previous post:

Next post: