One blessing of being back on the farm where I grew up is that I’m reminded often of the family members who lived, raised their families, and made their living on this place.
Two of those voices from the past came to mind as we were working on this issue focused on agriculture.
The first voice was my father’s. He and my Uncle Arnold farmed in partnership on what was then called Marttila Brothers Farm. My father was born in town during the years when the farm was rented to relatives because my grandfather’s health was too poor for farmwork. But the family moved back to the farm soon after, and my father never lived elsewhere—“except when I was in the service,” he’d add.
Soon after my husband and I moved back to the farm, my dad and I were discussing some topic about managing the land. By that point my uncle had died, and my father had retired; the land was rented to a neighbor. My father was not a forceful speaker usually, but the conviction in his voice stuck with me: “I want to have neighbors,” he said. He was saying, we have to make farming decisions in such a way that we don’t ruin our neighbors’ ability to make a living nearby.
I don’t think this is a very unusual point of view around here, though it does go against some common business principles that hold competition as an inherent good. And while I think it does show generosity of spirit, the neighbors aren’t the only ones who benefit when we consider their needs and wants.
In rural places like the Dakotas, we are acutely aware that we need our neighbors in a way that people in larger communities might take for granted—neighbors are the ones who may have the equipment we need to borrow to get the job done, or the teenager who can take care of our animals while we’re gone. Neighbors are also the ones who take a turn on the church council or township board, so we can rotate off of them once in a while. They help to hold up the community; we benefit when they are here, and we notice when they are gone.
The second “voice” came through some papers that we found after my uncle passed away. Unbeknownst to me, my uncle had been the secretary for the local chapter of the Farmers Union, and we ended up with a moldering briefcase full of aging paper—canceled checks, receipts, and a record book of minutes in my uncle’s small cursive writing. I recognized many names of neighbors, including some whose funerals I’ve attended in recent years.
My uncle didn’t have much for formal education; he had to drop out of school in the eighth grade when his help was needed on the farm. (He worked to educate himself through reading, all through his life.) And I wouldn’t consider him a very political person. But in his briefcase were position papers approved on the local level and passed up to the national organization. Here’s some wording from the 1967-68 Proposed Program and Policy Statement of South Dakota Farmers Union:
“We consider family-type farms to be the keystone around which our highly successful agriculture system has developed. We believe further that the interest and welfare of the Nation is inherent in the preservation of a family-farm pattern of agriculture. … It is not entirely coincidental that this Nation, in which family farming has thrived, is also the Nation in which democracy has enjoyed its greatest achievements.
“To direct agricultural policy away from the historic and traditional family farm concept toward greater centralization of productive resources into large corporation-type farms overlooks worthy economic and human values that must be protected. Our Nation’s best interest lies in the strengthening of a system of agriculture which protects the right of families to private ownership of land and which, throughout our history, has been an integral part of the rural business community as well as a stabilizing force in the Nation’s economy.”
It also provided a definition of a “family farm”: “an agricultural production unit which can be efficiently operated by a typical full-time operator family that furnishes most of its own labor.”
I share these voices from the past not to advocate for the positions they represent, though I do think they make points worth considering, but for other reasons: First, to show that this conversation about how we should farm is not new. It was common 48 years ago, and even further into our region’s history. Second, the conversation isn’t reserved only for “activists,” in the negative way that word is used today.
“How we should farm” was something that everyday folk talked about and debated—and, when they had convictions about these ideas, they advocated for those convictions in the way they thought best, keeping in mind that they were often talking to neighbors who might not agree but whose relationship they valued.
Today, our communities, both local and global, are still being affected—both positively and negatively—by how we farm. The conversation is still relevant. I don’t think it helps our communities to shy away from these conversations, even if they are difficult. I invite you to join the conversation both with your voice and your listening attention.