Saturday, October 13, 2007

Farming in the Shade

When I chose the name for this blog, it was partly a play on the name of our farm--Shady Side Farm. It was also partly a statement on the decline of farming in America--that somehow a cloud has passed over the sun, and we work on while worrying what is to come.

I just finished reading a novel by Wendell Berry. In his Jayber Crow, he traces the lifetime of a small town barber in Kentucky. In the excerpt I've included here, the barber speaks of the state of farming in his small town probably somewhere around the 1970s. I found much that spoke to me:

And the farmers, some of them at least, were worrying. They knew that farming was in decline, losing diversity, losing self-sufficiency, losing production capacity. A sort of communal self-confidence, which must always have existed, had begun to die away.

You could hear it in the talk. Elton Penn, say, would come in on a Saturday night for a haircut, and then another good farmer, Nathan Coulter maybe or Luther Swain, would come in, and then others. Prices and costs would be quoted, news exchanged, comments made, questions asked. It would be a conversation that I could pretty well have written down word for word before it took place. They would talk quietly, humorously, anxiously about what was happening to them. They were feeling their way through facts they could not help but know toward a hopeful prediction they could never make. “If things keep on this way,” they were asking, “what is going to become of us?”

Well, they already suspected what I now know. They were going to die, most of them, without being replaced…But they weren’t worrying just about themselves. They were worrying about the fate of their life, what they had lived by and for, their work, their place. They ventured even to worry about the fate of eaters (who were not worried about the fate of farmers). I’ve heard it a thousand times: “I don’t know what people are finally going to do for something to eat.”

And one night Elton grinned, I remember, and said, “I’ve wished sometimes that the sons of ******* would starve. And now I’m getting afraid they actually will.”

The others laughed, knowing what he meant. They are dead now, most of them. Most of them kept on farming until they died. They kept on because they had no choice, or because that was what they had always done and was the way they knew themselves, or because they liked it. Or for all of those reasons. And as long as they farmed they worried about farming and what was to become of it. This worry was maybe the main theme of conversation in my shop for a long time. The older men and some of the younger ones returned to it as if dutifully. But it wasn’t a duty. It was just a continuation of the pondering and the wondering and the fear and the great sorrow that had been in each of their minds as they went about their often lonely work.

I don’t think that such thoughts had ever been in the minds of farming people before. Before, no matter how hard they worked or how little they earned, farmers had always had at least the assurance that they were doing the necessary work of the world, and that before them others (most likely their own parents and grandparents) had done the same work, which still others (most likely their own children and grandchildren) would do when they were gone. In this enduring lineage had been a kind of dignity, the dignity at least of knowing that the work you are doing must be done and that it does not begin and end with yourself. Now the conversation in my shop was burdened with the knowledge that their work might come to an end. A good many of them already knew to a certainty that they did not know who would be next to farm their farms, or if their farms would be farmed at all. All of them knew that neither farming nor the place would continue long as they were. The dignity of continuity had been taken away. Both past and future were disappearing from them, the past because nobody would remember it, the future because nobody could imagine it. What they knew was passing from the world. Before long it would not be known. They were the last of their kind.

--Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow


  1. Wow. I don't know what to say. Reading this excerpt and knowing it captures many of your own thoughts was very moving. I wish I knew the answer, but there are no easy answers. I know that I admire and respect the life and work of your family. I know that I'm thankful you started this blog in order to share it with the rest of us! All of us owe a great deal to farmers - both present and past. But farming today sure is different than it was a hundred years ago.

    I'm praying for your encouragement.

  2. Farming today is different than it was twenty years ago. :( Touching post, Lona. You know, the sum total of who I am today was hugely influenced by the farming bust in Illinois in the 80s - my formative years, high school and college. I guess I never got to fight (my family doesn't farm) and that's why I'm trying to make up for it now...

  3. Money. It is too bad, but it is necessary. When consumers balk at $4 a gallon milk (it would easily be higher in my oppinion) and see no problem with spending $2 on a small bottle of water, something is wrong. It is a lot of work raising animals and many people just break even. Unfortunately, most things do not cost what it took to produce them (agriculturally, I mean). For example, it costs about $75 to $90, minimum, a year to care for a ewe. That ewe will produce about 10 lbs of wool. The market has wool between 0 and $4 a pound. How do you make money? Small producers can sell directly to the craft market, but it is not enough $$ to support the farmer. It is a sad state. We love our animals, we see them as much more than just a commodity, and yet, many of us must abandon them because the cost of them sucks us dry.


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