Portrait of a Midwestern Harvest

The culture of farming is hard to define and mark down into neat rows and checkboxes . So is defining who is and who isn’t a farmer. Today, the barriers to being officially identified as a farmer are low, but the roadblocks to making it work as a full-time career are as high as ever.

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Farming is a far more subtle business than most urban Americans give it credit for, and large-scale farmers (sometimes to a fault) aren’t necessarily given to explaining or justifying their methods.

This means that to appreciatively “read” the text and subtext of a Middle American harvest sometimes requires an almost anthropological, ethnographic mindset and methodology, even for a Midwest farmer’s son, like me, still living on the farm. Agriculture is a culture—after all—full of cultural subtlety, enduring folkways, and changing methods and mores. Like any culture it possesses its own sometimes Byzantine technologies, symbologies, and spiritualities.

Of all the small and subtle clues to farming’s radically changed landscape on display in this harvest season, perhaps the first and least obvious is the paucity of our numbers. Folks from the Coasts sometimes think of Midwesterners collectively as “a bunch of farmers,” or “salt of the earth types,” but in real terms our farmers grow fewer by the year. According to the latest Ag Census, only about 48,000 “principal operators” list farming as their primary occupation in my native Hawkeye State; if you crowded them all (at your peril of, course) into the University of Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium on a single Big Ten football Saturday, more than 30% of the seats would still remain empty. The average age of principal operators in my state (a whisker over 57 and aging) may surprise you, too, given the new (more youthful) face of small, sustainable, organic, specialized, and “boutique” agriculture.

Bear in mind that for many years the USDA has defined a farm “as any place that produced and sold, or normally would have sold, $1,000 or more of agricultural products during the Census year.” If you live in a city, and have a rooftop garden or patio planted densely with a valuable crop, you could be a farmer; even if you only sold $230 this year, due to weather, or insects, or, in theory, a “life event” that prevented you from realizing the full financial potential of your crop, you still may be a farmer on “points”, according to the USDA. Of course, here it’s important to note, according to Farm Policy Facts, that the 210,000 farmers nationally with sales of more than $250,000 produce 80 percent of the country’s food and fiber.

A farmer is a difficult thing to count because he or she doesn’t always cared to be counted, perhaps explaining why the USDA is so keen to include your operation in their once-every-five-years bean-counting. A visit to the Department’s website and you’ll be exhorted to “Make Sure Your Farm or Ranch Counts!” Large or small, the bureau notes, “your agricultural operation is important…. This includes retirement/lifestyle farms and ranches that grow a small amount of plants or crops or keep only a few animals, up to the largest of operations…. Landowners that only have income from government programs are also counted as farms.”

It’s a difficult profession to isolate and pin down, too, for the jack-of-all-trades virtuosity it requires. In this post, post-modern age, more and more, a farmer is as a farmer does. In Iowa, the heart of the Heartland by almost any measure, nearly 40 percent of those listed as farm operators report working more than 200 days each year off the farm. Finally, realize that of the 89,000 or so farms counted in my home state, nearly 20% total less than 100 acres by my reading of the latest Census of Agriculture.

I had begun this piece with the intention of offering a more impressionistic take on this, my favorite of all seasons, as it is for many rural people. I had wanted to write a dispatch touching on all the little things that have changed in farming since I was a teenager…for instance, the fact that we always seemed to put the corn head on our combine first; lately, in an era of early-maturing soybeans, that order of things seems reversed. Soybeans, as always, are worth quite a bit more per bushel than corn, and getting them harvested as soon as the leaves drop can mitigate damage ranging from pod shattering to mold to late-season soybean diseases.

I don’t claim, Lord knows, to be an agriculture expert; agriculture depends more than ever on technology, and, as in most professions, if you’re not out on the front lines armed with the latest and greatest, you’re a dinosaur. What I do know is that the large-scale farming happening all around us this harvest season deserves a much closer read than most non-rural Americans are willing to give it. I know, too, that because reading about necrotic soybeans and their sudden death syndromes is something less than a page-turner for many metropolitan Americans, most network TV stations and newspapers even in Iowa have long since dispensed with their ag-dedicated reporters and broadcasters.

Old-timers, ex-farmers, and born-on-the-farmers in these parts are wont to talk about these subtle yet transformative changes in agriculture; many privately squirrel away the artifactual evidence of when farming changed beyond their recognition. My father always said that when the average Iowan couldn’t tell you, within 25 cents, what the price of soybeans was on any given day (around $9.63 per bushel as of this writing), Iowa had ceased to be an agricultural state… and rue the day. Another farm-reared friend claims that moment happened when hay bales grew too large for a single man to lift.

Whatever your own private beliefs about contemporary agriculture, it’s worth remembering this harvest season that large-scale farmers and food-producers are not the insensate, unsubtle, imperceptive businessmen they’re often made out to be. I’ll bet, in fact, that they spend more time thinking about you, worrying over you, and puzzling over you—your inscrutable and sometimes volatile changes in taste and temperament—than you do about them.


Topics: Ag and Trade

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