The American Farm


We cut the hay in the fields and shocked it to dry, covering the shocks with handmade caps of canvas sewn by the housekeeper who also mended our clothes. When the shocks had cured, we spread them out by hand, with pitchforks. Two Percherons, dull, enormous animals, pulled our hay wagon to the barn in 1949, and some among us learned the intricacies of traces. At the barn an old mare backed up to lower a tined haylift into the carefully loaded wagon stack and then strained forward to raise a portion of the stack into the barn. In good years, when there was too much hay for the loft, we stacked it outside. Sometimes it succumbed to spontaneous combustion, smoldering away for weeks until it burned itself out, leaving behind hidden holes of the finest white ash.

Our cows were tuberculin tested; we drank their milk raw, skimming off the cream for butter which we churned. In spring and summer, when the cows freshened, we made cottage cheese or separated the excess milk in a hand separator and sold the cream in town and fed the blue John to the hogs. The hogs wandered the north pasture snuffling under the pasture trees until someone called them, sou-eeeeing in a high, penetrating falsetto, to assemble them for a slop of garbage and table scraps. Every now and then they cornered a puppy or unearthed a mole and ate those, too.

We fertilized our fields with chicken and cow manure collected in metal buckets and stored in a spreader or plowed under a green manure of sweet clover, red clover, or lespedeza, nitrogenous legumes. We knew little of chemicals. We plowed deep and disked and harrowed, mechanically cultivated the corn and the sorghum to hold down weeds. Our fields were modern for the early 1950’s, with contoured terraces to slow erosion and well-placed farm ponds. We acquired an International Harvester tractor, rubber wheeled, when Drumm’s superintendent was finally and authoritatively convinced that tractors didn’t destructively compact the soil, and in that we were behind the times: the tractor replaced the horse in American agriculture during World War II, when all the farm hands went to war.

With the tractor came more mechanical equipment: a corn picker (before my time the corn had been picked by hand); a baler the tractor could pull that made orange-crate-sized, twine-tied bales and dumped them on the ground; a disk that could be mounted on the tractor and that the flick of a lever lifted dramatically into the air; a hammer mill, a deafening machine run by the tractor’s power take-off, that ground our corn; a garden tractor that plowed in a day what I had plowed in a week with a horse-drawn plow shouting “gee” and “haw” at the ends of rows, the reins around my neck. Eventually we applied commercial fertilizer to our fields, and eventually we bred our dairy cows by artificial insemination. Changes were coming even to boypowered Drumm. I left for college then, about the time someone discovered that soybeans were a mighty crop, worth something more than plowing under to fertilize the corn. I remember farming as romantic, and to a former city boy it was, but it was also hard, hot work.

The Drumm Institute is surrounded by suburbs now, and not much farming gets done there any more, but farming has changed everywhere in America. It has changed in response to economic necessity. That “most successful program of agricultural development” that Heady refers to has been a program, a long-standing government policy, of government-supported overproduction. Overproduction has meant that supply has frequently exceeded demand, and the results of that imbalance have been cheap food for American consumers and marginal profits for farmers. In 1971, before inflation boosted the figure, Americans spent only an average 15.7 per cent of their disposable income for food. Compare the U.S.S.R. at 30.0 per cent, Europe at 26.0 per cent, the developing countries at 65.0 per cent. Somehow, in the public mind, however, the cheap food never reaches the supermarket, and farmers are forever defending themselves against charges of profiteering. Retail food prices are high because the cost of processing raw farm products is high, not because the farmers of America are getting rich. They aren’t: profits from farming over the long haul have averaged no more than three or four percent, which is why corporate farming hasn’t dominated agriculture in the United States except in certain specialized industries such as citrus fruits and broiler and egg production.

Low and frequently nonexistent profits and the rising cost of labor demanded increased efficiency and increased productivity of American farmers. With the help of intense scientific research-a legacy of the land-grant college system established after the Civil War-they delivered both. The number of farms has declined; their average size has gone up. The United States had 6,400,000 farms in 1920. By the mid- 1970’s only 2,800,000 were left. Between 1959 and 1974 the average acreage per farm increased from 288 to 385, and the most successful farms were far larger; today, in the Midwestern corn belt, one man, alone with his machinery, may farm 600 to 800 acres.

A million workers left the farm for the city between 1950 and 1955. Machinery took their place. To get maximum return for his machinery investment, a farmer had to farm more land. In the mid-1960's the average investment per farm in land and equipment was $55,300. By the mid-1970's that investment had swollen to $148,600. Few could afford to enter farming—if you have $150,000 to invest, why invest it in sixteen-hour days for a profit of four per cent?-which is why so many profitable farms today are operated by fathers and sons.