Family farming has changed but remains the foundation of the nation – Agweek
The old school bus route, which was traced from memory on a warm spring day when snow geese were feeding in the wet fields, traveled back 60 years.
The riders were almost all farm children. The boys – most of whom were confident they would follow in their father’s footsteps – spent most of the time sitting around talking about tractors and cattle instead of preparing for a second-hour history test.
The town kids never fully understood our fixation, which at least proved that we knew what was important. We wanted to let loose a bit, which at recess included playing Mumblety-Peg and/or marbles.
Dad wouldn’t have liked it at all if he had known that I had borrowed his penknife which was on the dresser with its tobacco plug and wallet. The fancy cat’s eye marbles were my brothers, but they would be returned if there were more wins than losses.
We bus drivers came from diverse farms at a time when 25 cows, a few sows and laying hens were almost enough to support families quite comfortably. Oh, there were always complaints about low prices, how city dwellers had become too dependent on cheap food, and that if financial things didn’t improve, there would be no more family farms.
It is an old man’s habit to point out to passengers that so-and-so has brought up half a dozen children on this farm or that; how this one lost an arm when he got caught in the chains of a picker; how someone else’s eldest son didn’t come back alive from Vietnam.
The farmer who lived in the small, now-abandoned brick house farmed 160 acres with a John Deere B, another was among the first to own a self-propelled combine that gobbled up rows of corn faster than any tractor.
There are no more dairy herds on the bus route.
The problem was that dairy farmers in the 1960s were not making enough profit to adequately reinvest in new equipment or facilities. Financial experts at the time warned that the lack of adequate financial rewards left Minnesota’s dairy industry vulnerable to decline. This would have disastrous consequences not only for producers, but also for equipment suppliers and general stores that sold milker inflations, buckets, filters, shovels and forks.
The dairy industry reached its peak when small cooperative creameries produced cheese and butter and provided jobs for can haulers and others.
In the early 1970s, our neighbors to the north decided to significantly improve their dairy farm. Their premium Guernsey herd was milked in two barns on the farm. Cleaning gutters in two barns, transporting machinery from one barn to another, and feeding was labor intensive.
They were among the first to build a free-stall barn with a slatted floor and a milking parlour. The couple were by no means young, but said the financial risk, which was great, was worth it.
The dairy farm – so advanced for the time – is now empty, as are the Harvestores who promised to produce the best quality haylage possible. The Big Blue Silos and the farmers who bought them fell on hard times in the 1980s when the financial depression hit.
Agriculture has been reborn thanks, in part, to the realization that larger farms can coexist with niche producers who have found opportunities with organic, goat, sheep and vegetable products.
Thomas Jefferson said at the founding of the nation that the foundation of all democracy is in independent farmers. The United States has been fortunate to maintain its family farming system through thick and thin.
Oh, it looks very different from what we might have imagined riding that school bus. It was a wonderful time, where winning a few marbles and playing mumble in the soft grass was more than enough for us.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.