As a boy, some forty years ago (this was written in 1986), I could walk to Upper Sandusky (Ohio), five miles from our farm, and never leave the land of my maternal kinfolks except for one small stretch. Rall family land. Good only for raising Ralls and Canadian thistles, people once said - a statement Uncle Carl loved to repeat bemusedly after his farm became the envy of any farmer with an eye to profit. There were sixteen Rall farms, if I remember, fourteen of them contiguous, averaging about 120 acres each in size. They had been divided up out of the acreage amassed by Great-grandfather and his four sons in an earlier era of big farming fever. I could walk, hunt, swim, fish, or play over that whole domain with my cousins and never fear a NO TRESPASSING sign, something I took for granted until many years later in Philadelphia, where I learned only the very rich could afford such a luxury. On those farms, about seventy-five of us, the fourth generation, were raised. We, our parents, and grandparents formed the society I knew. We played, worked, schooled and churched together, and though there were ceaseless jealousies among us and a certain narrow-minded disdain for people who lived differently - or even farmed differently - it was a securer life than most of us can hand our grandchildren today. And in the sense that ignorance can truly be bliss, a happier one. The self-reliant traditions by which the Ralls lived and farmed were more closely akin to the nineteenth century than to the twentieth century. The Depression meant little to most of them - the farms either paid for or the notes carried comfortably by "Pop". Everything else we needed, the farms provided. And then there was always softball and Uncle Carl's fiddle.
The striking difference between that time and now is that today on the farm we anticipate change, are even surprised sometimes when its is not as cataclysmic as we feared it would be. But back then, no one suspected that in the twenty years between 1930 and 1950 the old Rall way of life would undergo more change than it has in the preceding one hundred years. Pistons would replace horses, electronics would replace thought. That earlier innocence brought tranquility to our lives, turned our focus inward. In the assurance of stability, false as it was, the Ralls generated an amazing cornucopia on their little farms.
What I remember is farmsteads absolutely burgeoning with the thrum and cadence of life. Not only a passel of children underfoot, but a barnyard crammed with cows, horses, pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, cats, dogs, bees. From the woodland and the fields came the meadowlark symphonies, bluebird poetry, owl nocturnes, and the thrill of the hunt - pheasant, rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, opossum, skunk, groundhog. There were orchards groaning with fruit, truck patches laden with potatoes and strawberries, kitchen gardens overflowing with vegetables, smokehouses full of meat, fish in the creek and the horse-watering tank, pigeons in the hayloft. Every nook and cranny of the farm pulsated with life. Not only did this life press us with an eternal round of chores, but it also provided a kind of circus atmosphere of entertainment. On top of it all, peculiar (perhaps) to Rall farms (the other characteristics were part of most farms then) was a propensity for singing. Above the cackles, mooing and squeals of the barnyard, a visitor might be startled to hear a bellow of human song, or a more feminine lilt from the kitchen. I often wonder now; if our lives were as drab and endlessly toilsome as the sociologists would have a modern world believe of farm life, why were my parents always singing?
The singing began to stop when the hucksters followed the plush prosperity after WW II to the farm, selling farmers a life like their "urban counterparts" supposedly led. (A farmer no more has an urban counterpart than a doctor has a crane operator counterpart.) As farmers expanded their acreage in the promise of living like urban counterparts, their young people left the farms and the land to become urban counterparts. Great-grandfather Rall begot four sons who farmed. Of their offspring, sixteen took to the land. These sixteen begot seventy-five children, but by 1975 only eight were farming Rall land. Three of the farms were sold out of the family, a travesty of the old Rall philosophy. One farmstead was abandoned, and several rented out. When the livestock were sold, the barns stood empty or were used to store expensive machinery needed scarcely a month out of the year. Groves and orchards were cut down to make way for more cash grain, the plow licking closer each year to the dooryard in a piteous vain effort to wring a few more dollars worth of grain from the land. (And this all according to USDA doctrine that rung through the land at this time and since). Who needed orchards and gardens, anyway, when Kroger was there, already serving the urban counterparts? And then Uncle Carl, like my mother a few years earlier, fell out of his empty haymow, broke his neck and died.
By 1975 the transition seemed complete. My father walked an empty, desolate barnyard, listening for the long-ago songs of life. He heard only a loose sheet of tin roofing, curled over, scratching itself distractedly in the wind. He cried.
He cried because he no longer had the energy to keep the barn full of life himself. He cried because none of his children were willing to fill it full of life again. He cried because he could not die here on the farm amidst life, as his forebears had been able to do, but might soon, too soon, have to shuffle off to the county home like his urban counterparts.
I find it interesting that the "fingerprints" of official USDA farm policy is all over the decline of these Rall (and so many other) family farms.
- agricultural "change" was supposedly a "good thing" to be embraced, but in the end the primary change for millions of farm families was the change of moving off the farm into the suburbs and the cities.
- the "get big or get out" policy that the USDA has spouted for decades encourages farmers to go into debt for buying land and expensive machinery, work longer hours in fields farther and farther away from home and put a higher value on their neighbors land than on their neighbor.
- cultural under-tows were/are like powerful oceanic tides drawing the next generation away from their home farms so they can have "more opportunities" (being interpreted. . . make more money). And of course, implied in the "more opportunities" is notion of "more important things to do".
- the "farming-as-a-business" mentality the USDA pushes sucked the life and the joy (singing) right out of these family farms. When you do something because you love it the joy and the singing are there. When you do something because because it's your "business" the monetary rewards soon loose their luster and the daily grind is just that.
The good news is that out of the ashes of the farm crisis that the USDA helped to create is rising a new kind of farming. That is why you are hearing about things like "organic, all-natural, pasture-raised, chemical-free this and that.
Farmers are beginning to realize anew that growing healthy land, healthy animals and healthy farms is more rewarding than just doing "whatever" to increase their bottom line. Another good sign is the number of young people who are looking to get into farming. And often these folks are not even from farm families or backgrounds. The bad part about that is that they have absolutely no experience so the learning curve is extremely steep for them. The good part about this is they have fewer preconceived notions about "how" to farm and are willing to break out of the conventional mold and try things that are not the status quo.
Many blessings to you my friends. Stay well and warm! !