One of my favorite stories among the many that my husband, Paul, tells concerns the time his grandfather hired some local youths to help him drive three wagon-loads of corn to the railroad in Lebanon—pronounced Leb’nun in Missouruh—some thirty-five miles distant from his farm in Hartville. One of the boys, a lad we’ll call Lem, was possessed of a strong back, did a good day’s work, and had a certain eagerness about seeing something of the world beyond the edges ofWrightCounty, where he was born.
Now, this was before 1930 and those wagons were drawn by teams of horses, so Lebanon was a hard three-day drive from Hartville, a round trip of roughly a week. After the delivery was made, as Grandad and his hired hands drove back into town, a neighbor asked Lem how his trip had gone. Lem’s eyes lit up remembering his adventure. Pointing in the direction away from Lebanon, he said, “If the word’s as big thataway as it was in t’other, it’s a whole big place.”
Over the last few weeks, as Paul and I drove some of the blue highways on our long wander around and through the nation’s agricultural Midlands, I frequently felt the way I imagine Lem might have. That is, awed. The world is a great big place, and every time we venture beyond our neighborhood we understand more about how vast it is. But isn’t that why we travel?
A couple of times a year, we drive from Southern California up through state’s rich agricultural center to visit my kids in the north. We are always impressed by the richness and variety of California’s crops and the length and number of our growing seasons. But nothing prepared me for the scope of Midwestern farm production until I saw it for myself.
What the nation’s prairie lands lack in variety—and our lovely weather—is made up for in volume. Mile after mile, state after state without break from Amarillo to the Appalachians, we drove through fields of ripening wheat and corn, soybeans, feed grass and rice that stretched to the far horizon in every direction.
And cows. Beef cattle and dairy cows, by the bazillions, graze the fenced grasslands where buffalo used to roam. You want to talk about ripe—phewee!—take Highway 54 across the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles where cattle feed lots stretch for miles, filled with cows getting fat while they wait for their train ride to the butcher.
What you don’t see much of, though, is people because most of this is corporate farming. Except for the Amish communities where hand cultivation still occurs, the farms are huge, as is the equipment used to cultivate the land. One man driving a big John Deere with a fifteen-foot wide discbine can do the work of how many Lems? A lot.
There are many reasons why individuals have left farming and agribusiness has moved in; farming is tough work and no place for the faint of heart or courage. I’m reminded of the World War I era song that asked, “How ya’ gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” Maybe the answer is, you aren’t. What I do know after driving through one nearly-deserted farm town after another is that Lem didn’t just move to town. He kept going, and corporate farming moved in.
It was clear that the era of family farming, with some exceptions, has passed. Paul has said that in his grandfather’s era, a big family working a big farm might be able to support the college education of one of its kids. Now it takes three or four college-educated kids to support one farm. Or, as a friend said, “If I won the lottery I could farm until the money ran out.”
The passing of an era was never more apparent to us than when we visited some old friends who still live on the family farm, a century farm, meaning it has been in the family for at least one hundred years. Larry and Mary went away to college and worked in the city for a while afterward. But they came back While Larry and his two brothers worked the farm, the wives all worked in own; Mary taught high school until a few years ago.
This summer, as Mary and Larry celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, they announced that they have retired from the farming business. And there is no one in the next the next generation to take over.
Lem has moved away. That’s where the story begins, isn’t it? Where did everyone go? What are they doing? Who and what got lost along the way?