Farm Life

As I drove along Route 17 doing errands this afternoon, I came across two very different views of life on the farm. None of those views were visible outside the car window. Route 17 in Paramus, New Jersey is mall heaven — Nordstrom's, Macy's, Saks, Century 21, Target, 500 different GAP stores. Sure, the old timers still talk about the celery farms that used to cover Paramus before the highway and the malls, but that was ages ago.

I ran into Barnes and Noble to see if I could unload some old textbooks and stopped to check out a nice display of new cookbooks. Cookbooks have morphed from books with recipes for cooking stuff into lifestyle books. You buy them because you like the person who makes the food, not because you really want to cook any of their food.

ThePioneerWomanCooksCB Prominent on display was The Pioneer Woman
cookbook. I've been reading about her book tour on her blog, so I was curious to see what the book was like. There were some very serviceable recipes for meatloaf and stuffed potato skins, but the book was mostly awesome pictures of her family and stories about how she met her husband. 

Her story is compelling. She rejects city life and builds a life on a farm with a dreamy man who wears chaps and not in an ironic way. After flipping through the pages for a few minutes, I was ready to homeschool and make meatloaf. No, really. I've been antsy to move further North for a while now. 

The nerdy clerk Barnes and Noble took one sniff at my outdated textbooks and refused to take them. Later, I did a drive-by at the town library. I left them outside the door in some shopping bags and ran away.

HollowingOutMiddle_01 Next on the chore list was some shopping for the Thanksgiving pies. On the way to the supermarket, I listened to Patrick Carr on NPR discuss his new book, Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America. It's a new sociology book about the emptying out of the farms. The young people are leaving in droves and in many towns, Carr said, it's just 70 year olds driving around 90 year olds. The plight of entire states like North Dakota and Montana was a big topic in my State and Local class. NPR doesn't have up the audio yet, but here's a video of him giving a talk elsewhere.

So, these very different stories have me very confused. I'm going to deal with this confusion by doing some intense shoe therapy at Nordstrom's this weekend.


32 thoughts on “Farm Life

  1. with a dreamy man who wears chaps and not in an ironic way.
    You mean she’s married to a Tom of Finland character? Weird.
    More importantly, though, I’m sad to see the denigration of cook books into lifestyle books. I blame TV. People want to watch cooking more than doing it. If you don’t watch TV you’ll want cook books that are about cooking, not lifestyle choices. For that I recommend the California culinary Academy books. They are very well done, have good recipes of all sorts, and can be found for less than a dollar most of the time on Amazon. If you want lifestyle stuff, too, look to Elizabeth David’s books, as the recipes will be better and the writing too. In general it seems a bad idea to me to trust the products of anyone who is more interested in being a celebrity than in producing their goods. David avoided that while most of today’s people do not, I think.

  2. It’s hard for me to romanticize farm life. My mother’s best friend lived on a farm in upstate NY. We spent many vacations there, but it was a difficult isolated life then. Maybe it’s different now that there’s broadband and satellite tv (we never watched tv at the farm–they couldn’t get a decent signal!). Whenever we read Trifles in my class, I have to explain party lines, which I knew from the farm (and that was the 70s/80s!).
    When I was in college, I read Janet Fitchen’s Poverty in Rural America. The lives she described were an awful lot like the lives of our friends. On the drive on Rte 79, I used to look at the houses and the rusty old cars and think about Fitchen doing her research there.

  3. I’m back hanging with the farmers this weekend. On one side of the family, I have city-dwelling aunt who thinks President Obama is O.K., but much too willing to compromise. On the other side, various cousins who think health care reform is going to bankrupt the U.S. or create socialism. Fortunately, it was a wedding and my rustic relatives are very hard to irk when they’ve been drinking.

  4. I thought this was true, too, and then I found a census map. It’s true that the rural areas are frequently older than the national average. But the oldest county in America (in Florida, natch) is only 35% above 65. Now, that’s a lot, but we would not say that a county with a 35% African-American population is a “black county”.
    It’s not even universally true for rural areas. The rural regions of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and most of the South (except for a retiree pocket in Western NC/ Eastern TN) seem to be doing okay. Much of the Interior West is doing okay as well. The real trouble spot seems to be in the Midwest and Plains states: the Dakotas, Nebraska, Iowa, Northern Missouri, Western Minnesota, Kansas, Eastern Montana.

  5. I guess that’s one way to keep ’em down on the farm, Matt, but I doubt that it scales very well.
    Laura, you might also like Miles from Nowhere, by Dayton Duncan. He writes about counties where the population is less than two per square mile. Naturally, all of these counties (in the lower 48) are in the western half of the country. The easternmost, described by Duncan as “essentially the feudal domain of five huge ranches” is where Cheney memorably shot his friend in the face back in aught six. (Duncan adds a citation of Kenedy County as the one with the greatest income inequality in rural America and notes that all of the roads in an area larger than Rhode Island, except US Hwy 77 and seven miles of country road, are privately owned and maintained.)
    My grandparents were the one who left their families’ farms as fast as they could. Some of them stayed in the family, so I visited when I was a kid. Left me agreeing with Wendy.

  6. Doug, you’re from further east aren’t you? Why would the county maintain roads on someone else’s property except for those it had to because they are ways to driving across the property? Of course, there are plenty of places where 2 people a square mile is all the land will support. Where I’m from, the feds had to give away a section to each family in order to get settlers. Most of them who got marginal land left 30 years later when the Dustbowl hit.

  7. I’m really glad that there are people who like farming, and people who can make money at it, and that there is even some overlap between the two categories without turning the whole sector over to ADM. (There’s lots of jobs like that; three cheers for specialization!) But I’m at least equally glad that my grandparents’ options were wider than that, and that mine were wider still.
    I also hope that the book is better than its blurbs at Amazon, because some of them started up the retchometer. For example, “a brave and daunting examination of why the most talented, the most productive young people leave our small towns and what can be done to stop this exodus” Because life in a small town often sucks? And, nothing? Fetishizing and capitalizing “Heartland” doesn’t look like a good sign either.

  8. “The smell alone kills me.”
    I find cow smell and horse smell very homey, but I grew up with it. I agree that silage and pig farm smell vile, but I’m not used to it.
    “Of course, there are plenty of places where 2 people a square mile is all the land will support.”
    Indeed. There’s about half a mile between my parents’ mail box and my sister’s mail box, and nothing but pasture, stream, and woods in between, and that’s on a road with very heavy tourist traffic. 2 people per square mile sounds positively congested to me.

  9. my grandfather was very happy to leave his farm when the Depression hit.. the land was marginal and the living very hard indeed. Driving a bakery truck in town was a better life for all concerned.
    A friend has a hobby farm in SE Wy. More marginal farmland, still well-populated, but it’s a brutal life by everything I see and hear talking with the farmers.
    ‘The Pioneer Woman’ looks like a kind of farm pornography to me: the same kind of air-brushed eliding of reality. I doubt the designer kitchen in the cover photo was paid for with farming income..

  10. Like Laura, I’m actually a huge fan of Pioneer Woman. But her life seems a world apart from the sort of Iowa pig farmer life my relatives live. I don’t know a single Iowa farmer who keeps working horses, for example. The Drummonds clearly run a very large operation, and their lifestyle is undoubtedly assisted by inherited assets.
    I don’t consider PW “farm porn”, but I will confess that she plays into my desire to live a less unbrokenly urban life. I don’t want to move to the country, though — I just want to get a cabin up north, old-fashioned Minnesota style. And then somehow magically have the time and energy to get out to the country frequently, and keep up the property, blah blah blah.

  11. 1. I tend to agree with Matt here; while you can find a lot of fine recipes off the cooking shows, I believe they have mostly realized that there is a lot more money in selling a lifestyle, than just cooking advice, and it has had in inverse effect on the quality of their food. (Emeril’s stuff, may I say, is atrocious.)
    2. I second Doug’s recommendation of Dayton Duncan’s Miles from Nowhere. It’s a wonderful bit of rural/travel journalism.
    3. Unlike Doug and Jen, I like farms, and think everyone else should too.
    Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

  12. My parents left farms, in another land, so the story and world they left is different. The village my father is from gets six hours of electricity a day, now, from 6PM-12PM. And yet, my dad still believes in the small town, and bemoans the exodus of people who leave (because they have nothing to do, and also need to leave to go to school).
    His solution has been to try to develop a technical training school in the village, so that the kids can stay a bit longer (and not be tempted by the bright lights and sins of the big cities). In his dreams, he hopes the technical training can then bring small scale production (think, call centers or electronics manufacturing) back to the small town, maintaining its viability. It’s the Gandhian dream, but the high-tech version. Instead of spinning, they provide tech support to the 1st world.
    The fact is that we don’t need the number of farmers we did in the old days (and, even if we did, the increase in survival rates among those born on the farm) means there *has* to be an exodus. The question is whether some aspect of the rural/small town/village life can survive. I don’t think life in a small town has to suck, and I think they play a important role in society (i.e. a place where everybody knows your name, for both good and ill). I think some of the wretchedness (isolation, for example) and education can be enormously changed by technology and that there’s something worth saving. But, not by staying in the dark ages.

  13. And yet, my dad still believes in the small town
    I went to school with a guy who won’t raise his family in Lincoln because of its big city ways. Ten years ago, I thought it was funny. Now, I’m thinking he may be right. Not about Lincoln specifically (which is as plain as its reputation), but about the constant stress of the city that, to someone raised in a very small town, stems from moving in a world where nearly everybody is a stranger and I don’t know anybody’s mother.

  14. I love farms, and I love most of the scents of farms (not hog waste — silage doesn’t bother me) but my relatives are out in western Minnesota, and my dissertation is about the settlement of those emptying-out parts of the country, and I don’t see anything reversing the trends. This is not a land that will ever support small-scale farms raising niche crops for suburban markets. The population density is dictated by ever-increasing super-farms, and the number of non-farm jobs depends to a remarkable extent on government expenditures (I know of few farm families on the plains that don’t include a school-teacher wife or a husband doing seasonal plowing for the county). There’s no viable economy for young people out there, and no particular reason why one would emerge.
    Given the scale of wheat farming, it’s difficult to see how North Dakota ever supports a dense layer of small towns again — but when you look at how and why towns were established in that area in the first place (primarily to allow for easy access by wagon-driving farmers to rail lines, with the tangential benefits of selling things to those farmers when they came to town), it’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken as long as it has for those towns to dwindle. After all, the first notable bulwark against rural emptying-out was massive federal expenditure in small towns during the 1930s.
    The car the first engine of small-town disintegration on the plains.

  15. Jody,
    I made my first visit to Iowa a year or so ago, and I found the population structure very puzzling. Every few miles, there’d be yet another very small town, all just about the same size. It’s like a big net. Back home in rural far-Western Washington, the layout is completely different–it’s more like a chain of towns of various sizes along Highway 101.

  16. Amy, what you are probably seeing is the small towns strung out to support the railroad. These are usually every 8 or 10 miles as that was how far a steam engine could get without needing more water. The town was put there since the train would be stopping anyway and, as Jody notes, you could only go so far on a wagon if you had to do it once a week.
    I’m less suprised then Jody that the towns are hanging on. Since the infrastructure and houses are already there, you can live in a town that has lost its stores and schools if the house is cheap enough. Of course, once the school is gone, nobody is building a new anything in the town and it will eventualy go away.

  17. “Amy, what you are probably seeing is the small towns strung out to support the railroad.”
    I think we have something similar here in our part of Texas, except the distances are somewhat bigger.
    On a related note, I-35 roughly follows the old Chisholm Trail cattle drive route.

  18. “Given the scale of wheat farming, it’s difficult to see how North Dakota ever supports a dense layer of small towns again”
    Only if people want to live in small towns. Some do, at least in theory. The history in older civilizations (the reason for the small villages) is different than in North Dakota, and might motivate the desire to save them differently, as well. In older civilizations, some of those towns that will evaporate in the modern age have been there for 1000+ years. The temple in the town my Dad is trying to support with a technical institute is over a 1000 years old. The houses are over 300.
    It’s hard for me to see the population and de-population of the American prairie/desert/whatever as anything much more than a temporary blip, in that context. But, even two thousand year old towns have to bow to the economic realities. I think it’s possible that we have reached a “post-modern” technological stage where small scale dispersed living might be possible again, producing not food on small farms, but intellectual property and other technological goods. But, the question is, do people really want to live in a small town, or is it only a fantasy in the minds of people who have left?
    Has anyone else read the “The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm”? It’s a children’s book about saving the African village (and its way of life, with all its drawbacks) by walling it behind an impenetrable gate. People choose one or the other, and then stay in the stone age or the modern age.

  19. So, what do we do with this space? Is it farmable? Should wind farms be installed? Should it be turned back into “wilderness”? Is there a plan?
    Yes, it is farmable. The land we are talking about here won’t be turned into wilderness as it worth too much money. Assuming they didn’t mortgage it in the 70s or 80s, there are plenty of people driving a twenty-year-old F-150, wearing coveralls, and holding assets of well over a million. And farmland only looks empty if you don’t know what you are looking for. If you pay attention to the roads, irrigation systems, other equipment, you’ll quickly notice that all of that ‘space’ is covered in capital-intensive improvements replacing labor.
    As for what ‘we’ will do, this land is all owned by somebody and most of it by individual farmers holding several hundred to a few thousand acres. What they are going to do is continue to farm it, just in larger chunks.

  20. “…holding assets of well over a million”
    …being very conservative. The last time one of my relatives (first cousin twice removed) sold a medium spread to a nature conservancy place, he got somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million. And he was exactly the sort of person MH describes.

  21. “sold a medium spread to a nature conservancy place, he got somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million. ”
    But, this wasn’t the farming value of the property — it was the cost to take it out of the development chain, no? the conservationist paid a premium on farmland to prevent it from being used for development (i.e. building ticky-tacky houses, or I guess, these days, mcmansions). I’m guessing farmland in Iowa and North Dakota isn’t worth as much as farmland in Western Washington.

  22. BJ, good corn land has rarely been worth less than $1,000 per acre in my lifetime. Right now, even some of the marginal stuff is worth that and the prime land is worth several thousand per acre. Most farmers growing corn would have at least a section (640 acres). If they bought at the right time and were careful, they are millionaires.

  23. You’re right that there wasn’t a whole lot of farming going on there (my cousin had an agreement with my dad and grandpa to allow them to pasture cattle there when their herds were bigger–we used to truck them back and forth periodically), but there was also little development potential. It’s way, way out there. The land is meadow, stream and wood, so it has a lot of wildlife potential. Mostly, I guess, they needed to offer a number big enough to get his attention. He also had the right to live on the land until his death, which he did. He didn’t have any kids.

  24. You can’t calculate farm assets without calculating farm debts. The admittedly-small subset of farmers I know may be sitting on some reasonably valuable land, but they owe a fortune to the banks, too (and that’s WITH the 30-year old tractors and the decrepit barns). Several have declared bankruptcy twice. Commodity price fluctuations make farm life … interesting.

  25. “The admittedly-small subset of farmers I know may be sitting on some reasonably valuable land, but they owe a fortune to the banks, too (and that’s WITH the 30-year old tractors and the decrepit barns).”
    My dad told me that the precursor to the big farm failures of the 80s was the conventional wisdom saying that farmers needed to get big or get out. Getting big meant big loans for big equipment. I’m hazy on the chronology, but at some point this trend intersected with double digit interest rates. Combine with the commodity price fluctuations Jody mentions, and disaster looms.

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