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Continuity and The Farmer

What will we become when the family farm is no more?

Picture a dairy farmer. What comes to mind? Maybe he’s wearing overalls, a worn John Deere baseball cap, manure-stained boots and a stem between his teeth. You might have a good idea of the landscape, lush green dotted by black-and-white rectangles (“They’re so BIG” is a common comment when people first see cows up close). You might shake a calloused hand and exchange light-hearted pleasantries.  You will probably see more smiling than you would expect from someone worn by decades of 60 hour weeks toiling under sun and sleet.

You might be impressed, a little underwhelmed, and probably dead wrong about what’s going on inside his (or her) head and heart.

The family farm is dying, and with it the family farmer. Long a staple of our country’s landscape, symbolic of everything wholesome, hard-working, and trustworthy, the small-time farming operation won’t be around in 50 years (at least not making a profit). Large, professionally run factory farms with thousands of acres and animals are the more efficient and sustainable replacements for the small, family-operated dairies still dotting the countryside from New York to Idaho. I don’t mean to demonize business-style farms, nor make this a swan song for the family farm, but I do want to consider what this means for our society.

The effects of generations raised without any real connection to their land, their history, their physical world, are obvious to many. The peak of our comfort-based society has created a chasm between producer and consumer.  Specialization and hyper-specific job fields have aided in divorcing what used to be a fluid interconnectedness between family and work, friends and co-workers, fathers and sons, nature and master. Nobody knows where their products come from any more, and very few really care.

There have been reactions to this discontinuity, of course: grass-fed beef is in vogue, as is the whole farmers’ market/locally raised/I-know-the-name-of-the-cow-that-we’re-eating-so-it’s-cool thing. And that’s not a bad start.  But it is only skimming the surface of a connection between land and body.

This has to do with more than the fact that all of our food and clothing come from farms. The reason Chicago exists is because of its prime location as a shipping center for the Great Plains grain and beef production. That’s why it’s a city. Did the United States of America just wake up and become a world superpower? Or did it wisely steward an amazing array of natural resources in developing the world’s most efficient and economical agricultural system?  Do we think about these things?

And yet we have this image of slightly-smarter-than-rocks men who know nothing but how to squeeze teats and get abused by the middle man. WOOFing doesn’t solve that. Rooftop gardens won’t produce for an entire county, let alone a country. Organic farming will be out like acid-wash jeans before you know it. There is a profound disconnect between everything and everyone that makes our lives possible and where it actually comes from, which also disconnects successive generations from the ones preceding them.

It is not surprising to find thousands of twenty-somethings flocking to half-decayed urban centers to live in artificial worlds, subsisting off synthetic music and the next killer app. What else do they have to live for?  What are they connected to? Certainly not the land, not a physical place to care for and tend. Certainly not their parents, who have spent their entire lives trying to create a place where their kids don’t have to care for or tend anything. Certainly not their future, since no one has given them any reason to care about it or tend it, anything to work towards, anything to pass on. I’m starting to think that people go to the movies to see the world blow up because they are actually waiting for that to happen. At least it would alleviate their boredom.

Why talk about farmers amid all of this? Well, remember that farmer you misunderstood a few minutes ago? I know him pretty well – he’s my dad. He doesn’t experience this discontinuity, he never has, and he never will. He has always known a way of living connected to and integrated with the land. He knows of physically creating and stewarding something that is his own, maintaining it, passing it on to the next generation in the hope that someway, somehow, he’s made it a little better for the those who come after you.

I hope you can all meet him, or someone like him, some day. I’ve not only learned from him, but his way of life has formed me, shaped me to be someone who longs for a place and community to nurture, to steward, to pass on.

Thanks to my dad, the farmer, I know where I come from, that someone is coming after, and that I will do my best to be ready.

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