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MACKENZIE: Small farming is charming but famine is alarming
MacKenzie, Jeff
Jeff MacKenzie

If farming were to blow away in a midwestern dust storm — as happened in the 1930s, the unaffected farmers today — unlike then — would be hard put to take up the slack. The diaspora of displaced farm families who packed up everything into rickety old trucks and departed for the still functioning farmland of California — where their reception was often less than gracious — is illumined in tome and song. John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” and Sis Cunningham’s “How Can You Keep On Moving?” immortalized that time.

Back east many farms still functioned — those not repossessed due to lack of profitability, that is. For a host of reasons, the small family farm has passed into history.

Economics of scale:

The business school philosophy that has justified so much financially engineered misery in the American social fabric-not to mention the decline in quality of the end product.

The American economic system has always fostered innovation. Some of the early farming devices — the tractor, the cotton gin, the hay baler, the combine — are absolute genius in their utility and complexity. And many are still in use today. Only now a combine will cost upwards of $350,000, and a simple tractor in the $20,000 range. 

An excellent article on the true costs of farming in America is “The True Financial Cost of Modern Farming” by Jaclyn Krymowski published in Ag Daily’s October 2020 issue. 

My grandfather, who died in 1939, was, along with being the only doctor in his portion of the largest county in Virginia, a semi-successful small farmer. At its height he owned almost 300 acres that supported his wife and three children, a farm manager and his wife and three children and at any given time a hired hand or two. The latter did most of the heavy lifting while my grandparents hustled around the countryside treating wounds and pneumonia.

One year, according to Grandma, the farm made all of 36 cents.

Yet despite the dawn-to-dusk (and beyond, for midnight house calls) nature of life in those benighted times, life was rich.

Their farm — initially a dairy and garden crop operation — sold a wide variety of products and had as unique a collection of buildings for a farm as I’ve seen anywhere.

At today’s prices, they would cost millions.

There was the office, a one-story building with tall ceilings and lapped wood siding that my grandfather, Dr. Emerson, used as a mini-hospital.

There was the pumphouse, a hipped roof, stone affair with a tall metal tower and windmill which drew well water into the office and main house which, even then, had a flushable toilet and bath.

Next to it was the lighthouse, where batteries were stored. 

There was the smokehouse, a small wooden building with fireplace where Grandma created some of the best country hams anywhere.

Nearby was the woodshed, an open, tin-roofed structure  sheltering logs and kindling for the smokehouse and fireplaces in the main house.

Across a small dirt road that circled the farmhouse was the garage. It was a large square, white painted building with heavy oak floors that held one of the first cars in the county.

The land behind the main house sloped gently down to more level pastureland. 

At pasture’s edge a cluster of buildings: a stone stable where once two mules poked their heads out of round holes to be fed. A two-story feed barn where bales of hay were stored for the livestock. 

And across from the stables, a corn house built of huge, slatted logs, ubiquitous tin roof, and bins for the corn to dry.

Behind the corn house and later, next to the stables was a hog pen. These would relocate periodically, but always at a remote due to odor issues.

Another open shed nearby sheltered at various times, hay balers, tractors, and eventually Grandma’s 1941 Buick.

At the far edge of the pasture reposed the dairy barn; a long wood structure with stalls for 10 cows.

Next to this was the milk house. Metal siding and roof. Milk was stored for distribution to nearby communities.

A huge pasture beyond the dairy barn descended to a fishpond, where a dammed stream served as watering hole for the livestock and swimming hole for the kids.

Later, when cigarettes became a fad, tobacco barns were erected at the edge of large fields for curing what would become the largest cash crop into the ‘70s.

These 300 acres supported two families and a succession of renters who worked in the cotton mills of Danville and the furniture mills of Martinsville. The latter lived in small houses and cabins sprinkled about the property. All had outhouses. Three had running water and two required fetching water from a nearby spring.

The myriad farming operations: raising and canning fruits and vegetables, curing tobacco, smoking ham, milking,  collecting eggs and butchering frying sized pullets and preparing a yearly Brunswick Stew in a large oblong iron pot  in which beef, chicken, pork and a variety of vegetables were boiled over a slow wood fire, outdoors, for a day and a half. It was then consumed at a backyard gathering with the remainder canned for winter consumption. 

Even as her children left for the wide world — my uncle became a doctor in the Air Force, saw the world and settled in Florida, my aunt married a dentist and moved to Danville, my mother married a merchant marine and moved to New York — part of them was anchored in this farm. Grandma continued living there into her 90s until the virtual blindness of macular degeneration limited her activity and sparked a fairly rapid decline. After my grandfather died, she built an identity around operating the farm. It sustained her and many others through lean times.

What if we restructured our economy so that such small farming operations could prosper?

What if pandemic assistance and Chinese tariff money fed into thousands of small farms, helping to recreate a lifestyle of spiritual abundance based on discipline, hard work and connection to the land?

What if such farms were part of a land trust with ownership limited to small acreage, so that a single uber farmer could not buy up other plots, undercut prices on those who wouldn’t sell, and ultimately drive everyone off the land except themselves and a crew of hired hands?

What if a large segment of our population lived and prospered in such a rich, stable environment?

It’s all about value.

Do we value the rights of large operations to acquire all the property and then rent it out to others?

It seems this system, dedicated to and favoring “economies of scale,” nurtured and favored by banks, legal systems and the type of people who make deals on golf courses, is all about size success. The large frogs then get to eat the smaller ones; an economic system that favors — let’s face it — predators.

Farmers have traditionally had a tough row to hoe. Weather spikes, insect and bird decimation of crops, banks quick to loan and just as quick to repossess, over-leveraged equipment costs, seed monopolies, fertilizer costs.

If we keep as our central tenet that the people who feed us are worth preserving, then the benefits to all will be wondrous. 

They are, after all, the true American nobility.

The DESIGN CONSUMER: Jeff MacKenzie examines issues of design that citizen consumers use.