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The American Farm

July 2024
16min read

Still Family, Still the Wonder of the World

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.

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.

But without increased productivity, farm expansion would have been disastrous. In this case, productivity can be taken literally: the farmer farmed more acres, but he also found ways to get more production from every acre he farmed. Herbicides largely replaced mechanical cultivation, and that kept down labor costs, but because herbicides reduced weed competition, they also increased yield. The same was true of pesticides. In neither case was the farmer simple-mindedly enamored of chemicals, a tool of the diabolical oil interests. He was trying to get the job done and still make a living. Fertilizer increased productivity more directly by increasing yield, and between 1950 and 1972, fertilizer use in the United States expanded by 276 per cent.

Increased agricultural productivity has taken many forms, not all of them petrochemical. Hybridization has been among the most important. As far back as the 1930's, American agricultural scientists were aware that crossbreeding two distantly related strains of animal or plant resulted in a phenomenon they called heterosis and farmers called hybrid vigor. Distant crosses suppressed undesirable genetic récessives; hybrids were stronger than their parents, grew faster, were more resistant to disease. Hybridization alone can add 10 to 15 per cent to the growth rate of cattle. Properly fertilized and cultivated, hybrid corn can yield one hundred bushels or more to the acre compared to its parents’ thirty-five or fifty. Hybrid corn and hybrid soybeans now dominate the corn belt, and after years of difficult research, hybrid wheat today begins to come on line. The cattle industry, traditionally the most conservative sector of agriculture, resisted hybridization until the late 1960's. Then a few entrepreneurs began importing the semen of “exotic” European breeds of cattle—animals themselves were barred because of the relentless U.S. quarantine of animals from countries that harbored hoof-and-mouth disease—and breeding up purebred exotics for crossing with Heref ords and Aberdeen Angus, the most populous American breeds. The Charolais came from France, the Chianina from Italy, the Simmental from Switzerland. All the exotics were large dual-purpose breeds the Europeans had developed for milk and work as well as for beef, and they added growth and feed-conversion efficiency and sheer size-longer rib-eyes, as the exotic breeders like to say—to domestic breeds short on milk and stunted by years of breeding small. A purebred Hereford calf may weigh sixty pounds at birth; a Hereford-Simmental calf is likely to weigh ninety or ninety-five. Other factors being equal, the Hereford calf won’t ever catch up. Eventually hybrid crosses will dominate the cattle industry as they already dominate the grain, poultry, and swine industries.

All these changes have altered the look of farming, though the difference may not be obvious from the road. Diversified farming, the kind of farming we practiced at Drumm, is a thing of the past. A wheat farmer in eastern Kansas grows two crops, wheat and soybeans, planting the soybeans after he harvests his wheat in June. He buys his meat and milk and eggs and vegetables at the supermarket, as you and I do, and probably lives in an airconditioned house (tractors and combines also come with air conditioning, as well as with heaters, eight-track stereos, and two-way or CB radios). In western Kansas, where the rainfall is sparse enough to require fallowing the wheat fields in alternate years to allow the underground water to build up, he may have converted from wheat farming to growing irrigated soybeans by drilling a well and investing in a center-pivot irrigation system. You can see such fields while flying west to California, great circles of green on the brown buffalo plains, and won’t see them again this side of the Middle East, the only other place where they have so far been installed.

An Iowa farmer may plant corn and soybeans, but he almost certainly runs no cattle or hogs. Farming today is specialized. Its technology requires it; the farmer’s heavy investment in machinery requires it; maximum productivity requires it; fixed costs and narrow profits require it. Where corn grows best, corn is grown; where wheat grows best (or rather, where nothing else survives without irrigation), wheat is grown. There are a few counties in Iowa devoted almost exclusively to popcorn, which is why, in grain country, with no animals to confine, so many of the fences are down.

The raising of animals has changed even more dramatically than the cultivation of grains. Here the change is evident and radical: more slowly in some industries, more rapidly in others, all the animals are being moved indoors for all or part of their life cycles. The production of broilers, which is to say the production of young chickens destined for the frying pan, has become a factory operation. With automated air-exchange systems, automated water supplies, automated food supplies, and automated waste disposal, one man now raises seventy-five thousand birds from delivery at one day of age to slaughter at eight weeks. I raised broilers indoors at Drumm for a 4-H project; even with antibiotic feed it took me nine weeks to get them to weight in 1954. A poultry “farmer” no longer needs a farm. He needs a building, a feed mixer or a loading dock, a sewage aeration system and adjacent lagoon, and crucially, a back-up power supply. If his operation is large enough, he also needs a slaughterhouse.

Domestic animals were seldom treated as pets on the old family farms, since sooner or later they would be killed and eaten; increasingly today they are being treated as biochemical factories, fed scientifically balanced diets mixed with vitamins and antibiotics, confined in monitored housing to direct all their energy to growth, killed younger, and packaged in close proximity to the farm. The packing houses in Kansas City and Omaha and Chicago have all but closed down. There are cattlemen in Kansas who net only run breeding herds but fatten the calves in enormous feed lots, slaughter them, and ship from their ranches the sorted, graded, retail cuts of meat that the cattle industry calls “boxed beef.” Why, after all, ship waste on expensive lines of transportation?

Devotees of organic food and others abhor these high-pressure efficiencies and, because of pesticides and the injection of hormones, fear for human health, and those of’us who remember home-grown vegetables and meat notice the decline of flavor, not to say of taste. So much criticism has been leveled against the practices of modern farming that it seems fair to present here the opposite side of the argument. Many such practices are indirectly the result of government policy designed to hold down the cost of food, policy that has been remarkably successful in the United States: chicken may be bland, but it’s also the best bargain in town, and to ask for a return to the twelve-week, yard-scratching, worm-fattened chicken of yesteryear is at least romantic. Fresh tomatoes in January are an indulgence (at Drumm, though in summer we were piled and barricaded and fortified with tomatoes, we ate them canned from September to July); they have to be shipped from Florida and Mexico and California; the juicy beefsteaks I buy in the Missouri summers from river-bottom truck farms can’t be shipped practically; and so one pays for winter tomatoes in the coin of taste: they have the disagreeable, fibrous texture of balsa wood. Eggs are often tasteless, beef too soft (but much leaner than it used to be, as is pork), milk and butter as good or better than they once were-but you know the litany. American consumers might be better served by a twotiered agricultural economy, one that supplied high-priced, organic, old-fashioned vegetables and meats to those who are willing to pay the difference and mass-produced foods to those who can’t or won’t. Something like that seems to be happening to the market, at least in large cities: Kansas City, where I live, has more than one organic supermarket, and gourmet frozen foods in nearly every store. To paraphrase the slogan of the A & P (“Price and Pride”), it’s a question of price versus pride. What it isn’t is a conspiracy to deprive the American people of nutritious food. It’s a pocketbook issue, for the farmer as well as for the consumer, and one notes that half the beef slaughtered in the United States now goes to hamburger, and a major portion of the chicken to chicken pies and the boxes and buckets of the Colonel and his imitators.

I saw the future of what my vocational-agriculture instructor called “animal husbandry” at the Farmland Industries Demonstration Farm south of Leavenworth, Kansas. There, not only laying hens but also hogs and dairy cattle are confined indoors, and beef cattle in sheltered concrete lots. The confinement of dairy cattle intrigued me, because herding the cows in from pasture was one of my duties at Drumm. Farmland’s research animals, big raw-boned Guernseys, never leave the barn and its attached open-air lot. A manager feeds them hay and a diet of grain and protein pellets; their energy goes to milk production, not to grazing, and they produce more milk than ordinary cows. At a spotless milking station, the milk flows through glass tubing into a stainless-steel cooler, later to be pumped untouched into a refrigerated truck for delivery to the dairy. There was nothing surreal about the dairy barn; it even boasted the obligatory cat, black with white paws.

Hog production at Farmland is even more automated. Sows farrow indoors in pens too narrow to allow them to turn around, which helps prevent them from stepping on their pigs. At weaning, the pigs go into a special building where they feed ad lib on a diet of protein pellets. The floor of their pen is assembled from metal slats; below the floor aerated water flows through a wide trough, liquefying and oxygenating their manure; beyond the building is a sewage lagoon. Sewage disposal is a major expense of livestock production today. At Drumm we walked the pasture watching where we set down our feet, a habit I still haven’t shaken.

Barrows—castrated males-go to another building, similarly arranged, for fattening. Gilts—female pigs—go to indoor pens for eventual breeding. The boar lives there too, in a pen of his own, his presence and his odors stimulating the gilts to sexual maturity. The gilts are sorted by size to reduce dominance battles. They are fed fully, but only once a day; their hunger, and subsequent activity, gives them squealing exercise. They eat not in a common trough, as has been the usual lot of swine, butin individual stalls, to assure that each gets her full ration of feed. They are bred by artificial insemination, but not with frozen semen. Boar semen, I am told, doesn’t freeze very well.

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.

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