Monday, October 08, 2007


When I was a kid, my dad was a part-time antique dealer, so I ended up at a lot of auctions, including farm auctions. They were part treasure hunt, part social event and part occupation and I very much like going to auctions to this day. Funny that I never spent a lot of time thinking about who the sellers were.

Another thing I did as a kid was go to my aunt and uncle's dairy farm out in the Driftless (roughly 42°38'38.72"N, 89°53'36.99"W for you cartographic geeks.) I got to spend a week or two there each of a couple three consecutive summers, went along quite a few times with my dad when he'd go bowhunting on my uncle's land and of course spent a few Christmases and 4ths there too. I even did an overnight ride to the farm in the summer of 2005. It was a place that gave me an appreciation for what rural life, and family farming in particular, were about.

Well, the two crossed paths last Saturday.

The farm was originally settled in the late 19th century by my uncle's family, and he and his sister inherited it when their parents died in the 1990s. Both my uncle and my aunt (my dad's sister) worked the farm from the time they were married in 1968 until they stopped milking back in the late 90's. My uncle's knees and heart wouldn't tolerate the long hours and the stooping any more. They kept beef cattle and rented out land until a couple of months ago when my uncle's sister, as allowed by a provision in their parents' will, prompted them to either buy her share or sell. They couldn't afford to buy her half.

Their children—my cousins—all have regular jobs and live in urban areas, and none of them were much interested in taking over the farming operation or buying the place. This is not an indictment of my cousins. I think all of them have been able to read, as well or better than most of us, the writing on the wall with regard to what's happened to the family farm as an institution. To inherit one is to commit slow-motion financial suicide. The joke among small-time farmers goes like this:

Q: "How long do you plan to keep farming?"
A: "Oh, I suppose, until the money runs out."

I could comment on how or why this has been allowed to happen, but I think Wendell Berry has done it better in his books The Unsettling of America and What Are People For?, both of which I recommend. I could also comment on how we should be aware of where our food comes from, but there are also lots of localists and foodies, especially around here, that could do so more eloquently.

What was most interesting for me was seeing the auction process from the seller's side. All day I found myself hoping for higher prices instead of more bargains. All day I wondered where all the work, all the knowledge, all time and all the worry that went into that family farm were off to as it's implements were paid for and loaded onto conveyances headed in all different directions. I wonder, sometimes, how we've allowed the tradition and practice of something so basic as growing food to be so easily handed over to entropy.

The number of Americans engaged in the occupation of farming is at about 2 percent of our total population, and continues to decline. We continue to allow agriculture to be taken over by smaller and smaller numbers of larger and larger operations, whereupon it becomes agribusiness. Those large operations are dependant on fossil fuel inputs and a vast fossil-fuel-powered transportation network, all of which is very sensitive to fluctuations in fossil fuel prices. Maybe I'm just in a sour mood, but the trend in prices at the grocery store suggest that we may be headed in a direction we will sooner or later regret.

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