Four weeks ago I asked readers to offer observations about changes in farm culture over the past generation. Twenty-six people around the world, but mostly in the Midwest, had a lot to say.
Here are some of their observations. There isn’t enough space for all the reflections, so I combined redundant observations. I made a few comments also.
“We used to have neighbors…now we have competitors,” said a Missouri farmer. “We don’t get together with neighbors anymore,” said a middle-aged Iowa farm woman.
“It (farming) is a business now and not the way of life I thought it would be when I married a farmer,” said another person without identifying her location or age. “We’re struggling to make it work and aren’t as sure as we were when we started.”
“I miss not having neighbors to talk to,” said an older Iowa farm gentleman. “Now all the ground surrounding me is farmed by one or two operators who hire out the spraying and fertilizer application, and sometimes the ground preparation, planting, and harvesting too. We wave to each other if we pass across the fence, nothing more.”
“Farms were smaller years ago, but you can’t make a go of it on a small farm anymore,” was another common theme. Small dairy and swine production farms are mostly gone, farmers in the Netherlands, Canada, Florida and Ohio lamented.
So are the small flocks of chickens that older family members grew up with, except for the small flocks some families, often organic producers, maintain and who generally capture a premium for their free-range chicken eggs. Indeed, two people, both under 40 years of age and organic producers, said there were almost no organic farmers a generation ago.
These respondents impressed on me that farming organically is a recent development and is creating a culture of its own in which like-minded producers share ideas and socialize together.
“Fences are gone,” commented several persons in Illinois, Missouri and Iowa. Fewer people nowadays maintain beef herds, dairy cows, or raise swine in pastures and farm fields that have been harvested.
Farmers who produce only crops often eliminate fences to convert another couple feet of land to cropping, a Minnesota farmer said. He added that some crop farmers “want to gain every bit of land they can to boost their yields.”
A Missouri farmer and an Iowa farmer complained they lose a portion of the first one or two rows of corn in a field to deer and that they didn’t lose as much corn when deer numbers were smaller and when there were fences.
Cattle producers in Iowa and Missouri said they like to graze their cows on harvested fields that have fences and may utilize cover crops that are planted as forage after the main crops are removed. But only a few are building new fences to run livestock on permanent pastures.
“Conveniences have changed everything,” said several farmers in Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri. A capable older Missouri farmer wrote nostalgically that when lights came on in his barn 66 years ago, he could milk cows any time of the day or night thereafter.
Life inside the farmhouse changed even more, with access to radio—and later television, a refrigerator, and additional electrical conveniences. Another Missouri gentleman said his grandchildren are facile with computers, smart phones and are obtaining good jobs, but he wishes at least one grandchild would farm.
Rural kids are no longer discriminated against by people living in cities and towns, said a couple respondents who noted it was important to be accepted by peers who weren’t farm children when they were growing up. Farm children in rural communities these days, they said, proudly drive tractors to school on a designated day and reap admiration from nonfarm peers who would like to operate the large machines.
Conclusions. Many, especially older persons, wish for bygone times when they interacted regularly with neighbors. My experience is that neighboring farmers, regardless of their methods, will help anyone when needed, such as when tragedy strikes.
Based on the feedback I received, some of the major changes in farm culture over the past generation are that most farmers today manage ever larger operations that emphasize either crop or livestock production. They are skilled and competitive businesspersons who look at farming as an economic enterprise more than as a way of life.
A smaller group of respondents, who are younger, often farm organically and are inclined to maintain diverse operations with both crops and livestock. They also are skillful managers. They look at food production as a way of life and like to affiliate with producers who share their approaches to farming.
Despite different approaches to farming by various operators, all farm people have more commonalities than differences. There is something about farming that binds us all together.
Thanks to everyone who offered comments.