Earlier this week I returned from a visit to the family farm. My visits are always a good reminder of my roots. This time around, all five siblings gathered to celebrate my mother’s 85th birthday. The celebration was a big hit – my tiara-adorned mom glowed with all the attention and well wishes. While our time together was brief, it was fun to see everyone again.
I’m probably one of the last generations to remember the traditional family farms that dotted the Wisconsin landscape just decades ago. Today my brother and his wife are just a handful of passionate family farmers keeping the tradition alive. They take great pride in their farm, which was built by my great-grandparents in 1856.
Within a few hours of “relaxing” in the farm house, I was reminded of the enormous economic, social, and cultural changes that have occurred in rural America. The neighboring family farms have disappeared. In their place are mega-farms, sometimes run by families but essentially, operating as corporations. Even the quiet country road in front of the homestead has turned into a super-highway of giant tractors racing by with their heavy equipment kicking up dust, pulverizing the roads, and polluting the air and sound. And lucky us, it was manure-spreading season so we were treated to loads of liquid manure traveling by the house every few minutes. I wish I were exaggerating!
I left the farm life 35 years ago and have since lived in New York, California, Arizona, Georgia, and finally, Virginia. I’ve lived in large and small cities and while I enjoy being outdoors in the wilds of nature, I don’t miss the farm life. It’s A LOT of hard work and farming is so dependent on the whims of nature and fluctuations in the market. But as I watch my young brother and his enterprising wife raise two children on the family farm, I am reminded of the lifestyle that has disappeared from most urban life.
From the very young to the very old, everyone contributes on a family farm. I remember my elderly grandfather standing at the side of the wagon as we unloaded bales of hay, pushing them back into the elevator if they got waylaid on their way up to the mow. And it doesn’t seem that long ago when I spent chilly Sunday mornings in the barn, shaking straw for the cows to lie on while polka music rang out of the radio. As I watch my 3-year old nephew and 4-year old niece jump on the trampoline, I know they will be contributors to the family business as they get older. What a contrast to the way most children are raised today, where every need is met and few chores await. The farm kids learn self-reliance and responsibility at a young age.
When my parents married, they moved into the upstairs portion of the farm house, while my grandparents lived downstairs. But once children were in the picture, my grandparents bought a house trailer and plopped it down fifty feet from the farm house. There they resided throughout my entire childhood. As kids, we worked and played alongside grandpa and grandma. Things haven’t changed that much on our family farm. While my brother and sister-in-law are in the barn milking cows, the kids are with grandma in the farm house, playing with our old toy castle. In this world, the kids grow up with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Farming, by its nature, is an outdoor activity. Each season brought with it field work – picking up rocks from the fields, planting corn, baling hay, combining oats. Bringing the cows home from their pasture at milking time is an everyday outdoor excursion. And from a very young age, children are engaged in nature. For instance, my niece and nephew spent afternoons napping in the cab of the tractor, strapped into their car seats when they were younger. I’m confident the farm kids will be good stewards of the land and will cherish nature throughout their lives.
While I paint a very rosy picture of growing up on the family farm, it’s definitely not for everyone. As a kid – and to be honest, even as an adult – I felt like a misfit. I wanted to escape the sheltered farm life BADLY and explore the world around me. As I grew older, I rebelled against some of the traditional values, especially the ultra-conservative patriarchal church to which my family belonged. I wanted to see and experience more than could be offered in rural America. And that’s one of the reasons why the family farm is disappearing. Many of my farm friends grew up, went to college, and moved away to build exciting new careers. Life beyond the farm just proved too enticing for many of us!
I try to support my local family farmers at every opportunity. I’ve read the stories of massive mistreatment of animals, and often workers, on the mega-farms. Locally, I subscribe to Seasonal Roots, which delivers fresh produce and meats to my front door every Thursday. During the growing season, I can trek into town to buy local produce and goods at the farmer’s market. And since a number of family farmers practice sustainable and organic agriculture, I lean toward purchasing organic products. Sure, some of the items are pricey, but my health and the support of small family farms are worth it.