On my office wall hangs a page from the Journal Herald in Dayton Ohio, a photo feature story about harvest time that I produced thirty years ago – and, today, a reminder of how agriculture has changed.
The piece featured one of our printers who owned a small farm on the rolling land about an hour southeast of the city. It was romantic, using Ecclesiastes to describe the turning of life and the seasons for a part time farmer, his father, and the neighbors who helped harvest the corn and soybeans and take them to the elevator.
It was just before the 1980s farm crisis, a few years after President Nixon’s agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, irresponsibly had urged American farmers to plow fencerow to fencerow to bolster production and fill the global markets with corn and soybeans. It was a time of “get bigger or get out,” many farmers going deeply into debt to finance land and machinery purchases. My friend’s farm survived because he had good income from his job. He readily admitted that he farmed because he loved it, not because it made him money.
The romance of farming was actually probably long gone by the 1970s. Then came the horrid 1980s, when the Farm Belt reeled into a depression with high interest rates and low prices. Now, farming, while clearly still a family enterprise for many, is even more of a big business with large sums of money tied up in land, equipment, fertilizer, herbicides and genetically modified seed. At the same time, farming practices and the sheer scale of operations raise questions about sustainability and environmental damage.