The American Farm

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The farmers I know aren’t much different from the farmers I knew when I was a child. They are better educated, they are more professional, they are more efficient, and of course they produce more food. They are still, most of them, hard-working, and individualistic, and down to earth. One elderly acquaintance, a wheat farmer in central Kansas, farms more than two thousand acres with the help of his two partner-sons. He’s built a new brick house, suburban and air conditioned, across the yard from the old white frame house he once occupied—it now serves as bunkhouse for the summer hired men; and massive white tanks for storing the pressure-liquefied fertilizing gas called anhydrous ammonia line his lane. He uses older combines because, he says, it takes several years to get to know all their chains and gears and lubrication points, to break them in as once he broke in horses. Two thousand acres is a monumental load of wheat—at, say, thirty-five bushels to the acre, that’s seventy thousand bushels to combine and truck and dry and store—and when it’s ripe it has to be combined out within two weeks, because rain won’t hold off longer than that, and rain will ruin the grain. Those two weeks are bone-grinding, eighteenhour days. My friend’s wife drives out to the field twice a day with a church supper of meats and salads and casseroles laid on in the capacious trunk of her Cadillac, and father and sons and hired help chow down in shifts. They truck the wheat in to a fivebinned, three-storied complex of storage buildings near the family house, test its moisture content, augur it into the bins, and dry it to quality. Then it is trucked on to town, or stored at home, depending on the fluctuations of the market. In the winter, man and wife take cruises, visit Japan, or fly around the world.

A farmer I met in southeastern Nebraska, a young man of thirty-two, works eight hundred acres on his own, with occasional help from his father. His land is scattered across the county, forty acres here, eighty acres there, and one man couldn’t farm it if tractors hadn’t been designed with higher road speeds. Our tractors at Drumm, in what we called “road gear,” could muster fifteen miles an hour on the straightaway; his roars by at twentyfive. He grows corn and soybeans; he works long days; he lives in an old farmhouse with his wife and two children; and despite his heavy investment in land and equipment, amounting to several hundred thousand dollars, he earned only six thousand dollars last year, and that only by not counting the value of his labor. He and his local bank are old friends; he’d like to farm more acres and increase his income, but even with heavy machinery to help him, it isn’t physically possible, and hired hands are scarce as hen’s teeth so close to Omaha.

A southern-Kansas farmer and rancher illustrates another extreme of modern farming. His father was so cash poor that he never in his life paid any income tax, and when the rancher started out on his own, he wasn’t, at first, much better off. He heard somewhere that New York florists craved a certain kind of New Mexican wood for “driftwood” arrangements, and for years, whenever he was short on cash, he would drive his pickup truck down to New Mexico, gather a load of the wood, haul it to Manhattan’s wholesale florist district, and sell it out of the back of his truck. In the meantime he was building a purebred breeding herd of white French Charolais cattle, the first of the profitable new breeds of exotic cattle to reach the United States in any numbers in the late 1960's. Then some Canadian ranchers began importing the Swiss Simmental, and the rancher went into Simmental trading on the side. At one time or another, in the early 1970’s, more than twenty-five thousand head of Simmental passed through his ranch, animals worth, in the inflated market of those best years in the history of American farming, anywhere from two to twenty-five thousand dollars apiece. Now the rancher owns twelve hundred acres of good Kansas prairie, and spends his spare time wildcatting for oil. He is perhaps more entrepreneur than farmer; the business of breeding cattle has been so notoriously unprofitable since 1975 that only the entrepreneurs have survived.

I could mention other changes in farming: embryo transplantation, which transfers embryos from a prize cow to lesser common cows, who bear the genetically superior calves as their own, enabling the prize cow to produce as many as forty or fifty calves a year; fields arranged by watersheds with a distinctly European look; hens confined in crowded cages, their eggs rolling on conveyor belts into automatic crating machines; the search for a featherlesschicken; the installation of irrigation systems, even in such relatively moist states as Missouri, to reduce the farmer’s dependence on the vagaries of the weather; cattle and hog feed lots confining as many as a hundred thousand head; the possibility, still distant, that recombinant DNA research will create varieties of wheat and corn genetically transformed into legumes, producing their own nitrogen in nodules on their roots. Optimists may call such changes miracles, romantics may call them heartless and degenerate; they are stages in the evolution of American farming, and they promise the humane possibility of feeding a populous world.