The American Farm

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The fences have come down all across Missouri. Fields in Iowa are no longer necessarily rectangular; within their Jeffersonian boundaries, many follow the lay of the land. In flat western Kansas they are often circular to accommodate the center-pivot self-propelled pipes that irrigate them. Where cotton reigned in the South, cattle now are fed, and soybeans, which once were spurned as useless everywhere in rural America or were plowed under for green manure, darken the fields of summer. Corn, wheat, cattle, and hogs change shape and variety, go hybrid with vigor; lamb is scarce as lobster; poultry are hardly farmed any more-one might say they are factoried.

In the nearly two decades since I marked the beginning of adolescence by moving from Kansas City streets to a Missouri farm, American farming has changed radically and permanently. It has not been swallowed by corporations, has not become “agribusiness,” not yet-the overwhelming majority of profitable farms today are father-son operations, father-son partnerships, or family corporations-but it has become lean and specialized, capital-intensive and cost-effective, the work of fewer men and women than ever before, the work of systems increasingly scientific and of massive machines. And proudly, without exaggeration, the wonder of the .world, a blessing we need not blush to count. “Over the past 200 years,” wrote Earl O. Heady, Curtiss Distinguished Professor at Iowa State University, in a special food and agriculture edition of Scientific American in 1976, “the U.S. has had the best, the most logical and the most successful program of agricultural development anywhere in the world.”

The farm where I moved when I was twelve, 360 rich acres outside Independence, Missouri, was also a boys’ home. A pioneercattleman and banker named Andrew Drumm, who drove hogs across the Central Valley of California to feed the miners of the Gold Rush and who ranched his way to wealth in the Cherokee Strip, established it in his will. He meant for boys who needed a home to work their way through school and he intended those boys to know intimately the sources of the food and fiber that sustained their civilization. The Drumm Institute for Boys was a thriving, diversified farm when I arrived there in the summer of 1949. With forty boys to preserve from mischievous leisure, it was also deliberately labor-intensive, and therefore persistent with practices already becoming antique. Our chickens never left the chicken house, for example, and that was technology avant-garde in 1949; but we milked our cows by hand, having so many hands available, and with oak-handled, copperplated hoes we hoed our field crops as few farmers any longer could afford to do. So Drumm’s practices were modern, but its technology was not, and I take it now as a model, somewhat enlarged, for the old family farm, a model against which to compare the high technologies of today.

We grew our food. All of it-or almost all of it. Polly’s Pop came infrequently from an Independence bottler for 4-H meetings or harvest celebrations, white bread from a commercial bakery once a week to alleviate the crumbly boredom of johnnycake. But rhubarb we grew, asparagus, leaf lettuce, and scallions; radishes, carrots, peas, green beans and lima beans; potatoes, enough potatoes to fill a storm cellar and feed us through the winter twice a day; head lettuce for summer salads and cabbage for sauerkraut, which we salted down in hogsheads; cucumbers, sweet corn, field corn if the sweet corn ran out; strawberries, ten acres of strawberries, forty boys on their hands and knees picking those strawberry fields forever; tomatoes, bushels and bushels of tomatoes, tomatoes for dinner and supper every day in July and early August and tomatoes canned on a twenty-boy assembly line into hundreds of steaming jars; squash, pumpkins, grapes for jelly and for after-hours pressings of juice that we imagined unaided would turn into wine. The twenty-acre garden had been for fifty years a feed lot; the vegetables thrived.

We pruned and harvested an orchard of apples and peaches, competing with shimmering scarabs and drunken wasps. We collected black walnuts from the pasture trees and stomped off their hulls on crisp autumn mornings while we waited to be assigned our chores, and on winter nights down in the boot room we cracked them and picked out their meats. We raised Milking Shorthorns and Guernseys for dairy cattle and Shorthorns for beef; Leghorn chickens for eggs so long as they were laying and for Sunday dinner after that; Duroc-Jersey and Poland China hogs, their bacon and hams hung up in a limestone smokehouse built before the Civil War. We raised sheep, but not for eating: Midwesterners have the old cattleman’s prejudice against lamb. We butchered the animals ourselves and hung them up to cool and cut them into steaks and roasts and chops, rendered their tallow for boot dressing and their fat for lard, a steer every month, a dozen hogs and several hundred chickens every quarter. They were purebred animals, compact and blocky, and they won us blue ribbons at 4-H and county fairs.

To feed them we grew corn and alfalfa and oats and mowed thick pastures of bluegrass, lespedeza, red clover, timothy. Sorghum tall as corn we bundled in the fields and hauled in to chop for silage, blowing it up a pipe into silos where it fermented until I wondered that the cows weren’t drunk; in deep winter, shoveled down the silo ladder, it steamed up the barn.