Had forgotten about springtime in the midwest. Everything is just so…green.
I’ve been home in rural Indiana the last few days helping clean up some family property. Well, that and brushing up on my nail-gun and roofing skills by finishing off some aluminum siding on our back porch.
It’s amazing how much stuff can collect, and how many little projects there are, on several properties between two generations – one generation on a farm and the next being a family of 10. I can’t say we got everything completed, but we made a substantial dent in the important things.
In digging through the stuff, I’m constantly amazed how much farming and technology in general have moved in two generations. My grandparents grew up when electricity finally got out to rural areas, farm machinery did 6-10 rows at a time, milking was done by hand, the phone was a party-line and was prone to throw sparks into the room if the line got hit during a lightning storm. But now, gone are most of the old wooden barns – or they’re simply falling over. The ones that are still in great shape are rarely actually used for farming – but are converted to display pieces or even lived in. Those that get razed are replaced with large aluminum/steel machine sheds every bit as big as the old. Farmers no longer have smatterings of everything: a little land, a few cows/sheep/pigs/chickens, and a home patch. Now, land farmers have huge machinery and miles long uninterrupted fields. Animal farmers specialize in hundreds to thousands of only one kind of animal. Things are much more efficient and surprisingly cleaner. Unfortunately, this also means fewer people are needed to maintain the same amount of land. Simple economics dictates that small farmers and farms can’t do much more than subsist with $2-4/bushel corn/bean prices. Fence rows that needed to be cleared yearly and delineated property simply disappear in deference to larger and larger open areas. Either you’re getting bigger, or you’re soon to be moving. The small family farm, despite the efforts of Farm Aid and the various attempts to save the lifestyle, have become victims of technology more than anything else. You just don’t need as many people to farm the same land anymore.
Still, there were all kinds of little farm implements, tools, and techniques that are simply being lost to time and technology. Already there are some tools I used with my grandfather that nobody knew what were but me. And there were all sorts of things you find you can’t make heads nor tails of. The techniques of using these tools or what they were even used are quickly being lost. Amazing to pick up something that was a key piece of equipment 50 years ago, and now nobody even knows what it is.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not nostalgic for these days to come back. They were rough and dangerous. People lost lives and limbs in pretty horrible ways back then – and still do to a degree today. Farm equipment was deadly – I lost an uncle to a tractor roll-over, a neighbor lost most of an arm, and my own father narrowly averted death with a PTO shaft. Not to mention farming with horses. So it always gets my craw a bit when folks around the city here want to go ‘back to farming the way they did before’. I don’t think they appreciate how hard and downright inefficient farming in those older ways was. Regardless of the pesticides/chemicals/organic issues – it was bloody hard work and a yearly gamble to grow a field of crops and see it from planting to harvest. The penalties of failure were not bailed out – you simply lived very lean and poor for a year or two to make up the bad years. Harvest festivals that celebrated a good harvest encapsulated an entire year of planning, guessing, planting, cultivating, and harvesting. I think that’s where I get a lot of my own attitudes of playing things safe financially and using the good times to prepare and set up cushions for the times when you knew they’d be bad.
I guess it came down to this in the end – to remember what you came from in order to really savor the wonderful things we have now – and to take full advantage of those opportunities that were created to their fullest extent.