Selling the farm

Earlier this week, in a bit of panic about being employed once I return to the States in July, I was cruising around the web.  I ended up on High Country News, ostensibly to check out their classifieds for a job (or maybe a ranch in the San Luis Valley).  Instead of finding job postings, though, I found a fantastically wrenching article about selling the family farm, Julene Bair’s Out in the Cold.

Though I encourage you to read the whole thing, here are some choice bits:

Several inches of month-old snow sheathed the fields, and there’d been a fresh dusting the night before. Ground blizzards swirled across the interstate. I dialed in my hometown radio station. The man who’d owned it for as long as I could remember listed the closings caused by ice and near-zero March cold: livestock auctions, a senior get-together, even I-70. Had I left my home in Longmont, Colo., 10 minutes later, I would not have gotten through.

“But once again, folks,” continued the voice from my childhood, “if you’re looking for some good farm equipment, drive on out to the Harold Bair farm sale. We had a call from the manager out there and the roads are not bad.”

There I was in one of the most anonymous places on earth, inside a car driving down the interstate, and I’d been accosted by the public announcement of an intimate betrayal. My betrayal, of my father. I imagined him bolting upright in his grave. If strangers traveling to places like New York and Chicago had heard that announcement, surely he had too.


When I complained that we were irrigating unsustainably out of the Ogallala Aquifer, the fast-depleting groundwater reserves underlying our High Plains, he told me that the cost of farming would empty out the country long before we ran out of water.

He was right about the costs. The country was emptying. But the water in the Ogallala and the topsoil were more threatened, not less, as farms grew larger. The huge family corporation that had bought our farm specialized in irrigated corn, a thirsty crop and a heavy feeder.

The corporation farmed one hundred sections in three states. That’s 100 square miles. Each farm they’d subsumed had once been a little ecosystem, approaching completeness within itself. When I was a child, our sheep had grazed our pastures in the summer. In the winter, they’d eaten ensilage made from my father’s sorghum crops. We fed all our livestock our own grain, grew almost all our own meat and vegetables, collected eggs from our own henhouse. Rosebud, the Holstein cow my brothers milked each morning and evening, had kept us in milk, butter and cream. Then came the “green revolution.”


Ever since I left our farm, at age eighteen, my home there has been abstract. I never would have moved back. Still, in signing that line, I ran a blade under myself, severing access to my identity as adroitly as the new owners’ plows severed the roots beneath the remaining buffalo grass.

Selling the farm, no matter how many times I rethink it, no matter how unavoidable or rational, will always be the worst decision I made in my entire life.

Spring in Iowa

Spring in Iowa

I thought for a long time about what I wanted to say.  While I found the article poignant and personally resonant, I realize that this type of wistful nostalgia is a luxury.  It is, I suspect, the province of farmer’s daughters, as the farmers I know are much too practical for this type of expansive reflection.  And it is, I know, a phenomenon of the developed world, where the general population has enough distance from the land to want to return, in an abstract way, to the good old days, and where most children learn about farms only through board books and nursery rhymes.

So I find myself thinking about where I am, and where I am from.  And I’m still not sure what I want to say.

I am from a world familiar to Julene Bair’s Kansas, where the number of farms and farmers continue to decrease even as food production increases, where wealth is measured in shiny tractors and sections of land, and where it is not uncommon for the distance to the nearest neighbor’s house to be measured in miles.  As a teenager driving to school in the fall, I would often encounter more combines than cars.

I grew up with dirt between my toes and spent so much time outside in the summer that I would get “brown as a little Indian.”  (I also grew up without much adherence to political correctness.)  The best toy to take to the city pool, on the rare occasion that we went, was an intertube from a tractor tire.  During harvest, we would eat supper in the field, sitting in the back of the old Chevy truck with the combine still running in the background. A whiff of oil and diesel fuel, even in Africa, reminds me of my father and his filthy overalls.

Even half a world away, I still wear the indelible imprint of my farm childhood.  But I wonder, too, about the extraordinarily high rates of Parkinson’s disease among farmers (likely from pesticide exposure), what sort of chemicals we ingested (and continue to ingest) through the well water, pesticide-resistant weeds, and the effects of two-year rotations and tillage on long-term soil fertility.

And yet, the same technologies and innovations that allowed my family to stay on the land despite changes (and concentration) in the agricultural market – bigger tractors, GMOs, petroleum-based fertilizers and chemicals – are the ones that may lead to its disappearance.  The subsidies that paid, in part, for my college tuition are the same subsidies that make industrial livestock production financially viable, including the hog houses that threaten to smother our whole township and pollute our water supply.

And so I’m not sure how to feel about the farm, and I’m not sure that what I miss is something that ever existed in the first place. I’m also not sure that it matters. Despite her fondness for the land and her deep misgivings about Kansas irrigation practices, Julene Bair sold her farm to a corporation. I don’t know if she had a choice.

My nostalgia for Iowa is further complicated by the place I currently call home. I am a world away from industrialization and mechanization.  In Malawi, an ox-cart is a luxury that only about 10 percent of farmers can afford.  Their tools of the trade include short handled-hoes and panga knives (similar to a corn knife, or a very dull machete).  Agriculture here is predominantly organic, not because of consumer demand but because of the prohibitively high cost of petroleum-based inputs.  I can count on one hand the number of tractors I have seen in this country, and I’m here during prime planting time.

Spring in Malawi

Spring in Malawi

Though the terms of land ownership here are somewhat opaque to me, very little land is sold on the open market.  Most land stays in families, as agriculture remains the primary economic activity here.   And land pressure is increasing, not decreasing; already-small farms are getting smaller.  Malawi has one of the highest population densities in sub-Saharan Africa, and a population growth rate of 2.4%.  If carrying capacity has not yet been reached, it certainly will be in the next generation.

Agriculture accounts for 37.8% of Malawi’s GDP.  This reflects both a lack of development in other economic  sectors, and the predominance of agriculture in all of Malawi’s activities.  (By way of comparison, agriculture accounts for 1.2 % of the United States’ GDP.)  But if people can get a job off the farm here, they will.  Even at the agricultural college, I’ve encountered very few students who want to be farmers when they graduate.  Instead, they’ll work in agriculture-related industries or perhaps something completely different, but they will not be the ones in the fields stooped over their short-handled hoes. Of course, I can’t blame them. I have no desire to spend the rest of my life walking beans, either (though current technology has eradicated that necessity in the US, more or less).

An oft-heard goal in agriculture development work is to “improve small farmer efficiency and market linkages.” I’m not sure what this means; I suspect it can mean whatever the donor agency wants it to. But in cases I’ve observed, it means promoting more market-oriented production, to bring more income into a household and, hopefully, to get a few more people off the land. That’s right, I said off the land. Though I think some funders (and Malawians) are loathe to admit it, there is simply not enough land for such a high proportion of Malawians to continue to be subsistence farmers. I am becoming increasingly convinced that the country will not develop until there is some sort of exodus from agriculture into other industries, which are not, of course, at all well-developed.

In short, I think Malawi needs fewer farmers, larger farms, and yes, perhaps some of the technologies that farmers in the US enjoy. (NB: I support appropriate technology transfer, the key word being “appropriate.” Who decides what is appropriate? Theoretically, the farmers, though donor agencies and agribusiness have their hands in the pot as well.) Considering that only a small percentage of farmers use improved hybrid seeds over traditional, much lower-yielding varieties, I think there are huge food security gains that could be made with even minimal new technology.  The smallest farmers, however, do not have the cash flows to allow them to access these (not particularly new) innovations.

The irony of this argument does not escape me. Do I really support the same development practices in Malawi that have virtually eliminated small farmers in the US? Still, part of me wonders if there really is a conflict here. After all, the policy contexts of the two countries are very different. I would argue that the US subsidy system has just as much to do with the disappearance of the small farmer as technology does. And I wonder how Malawians would feel about this scheme, and how they will feel in 20 years, when there will either be a lot of hungry people or some economic development outside of the agricultural sector. Will those who are now students, who will go on to jobs outside of agriculture, still think fondly of their family’s land? Or will they merely be happy to have escaped a lifetime of work on the blunt end of the hoe?

Through the joys of internet communication, I recently caught up with a former kid from “the neighborhood” (if you can deem a sparsely populated rural landscape as such), who now lives in Colorado.  “I do often find myself wishing I could smell turned dirt and crushed cornstalks instead of pine trees,” he wrote.  But things are going well for him, and he mentioned no plans to return. I wonder if we are only nostalgic because we have the luxury of being elsewhere, recalling home through rose-colored glasses. We miss it because we have no obligation, beyond our own guilt, to return.

I spent a long time thinking about this post, and I’m still not sure that it holds together or that it says what I want it to say. But I will cast it out to you, internet readers, for commentary.

Malawi, or Iowa?  You be the judge.

Malawi, or Iowa? You be the judge.


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2 Responses to “Selling the farm”

  1. Karen Says:

    I vote Malawi.

  2. Julene Bair Says:

    Amy, I appreciate your thoughtful, intelligent remarks about my essay and your comparisons between Malawi farming and the industrial methods you know intimately, from your Iowa past. You raise issues that have been troubling me also: nostalgia vs. reality and my having sold to a corporation.

    I would be farming organically in Kansas if I could have found community there, I tell myself. Living in that remote part of Kansas, I lacked social interaction with like-minded people, and this proved stultifying for me. Besides, I also tell myself, my passion is writing. I wouldn’t have had time to do both jobs. So I’ve chosen to communicate my beliefs about farming through my writing.

    Those beliefs are similar to yours. We are polluting and/or wasting our soil, air, water, wildlife, and health. The government underwrites this by supporting unsustainable methods. Who doesn’t know this, though? How can we change things here and improve things there, where farmers lack the resources to do anything but break their own backs trying to eek a living from the soil?

    We can get active politically, lobbying our government at all levels, from local to national. We can wage court battles over the environment. We can grow some of our own food and buy local. As writers, we can encourage others to do these things. The energy for that work, I believe, comes from such emotions as nostalgia, this longing for an idealized past.

    As Christmas rolls in, I’m thinking nostalgically, all to no avail other than my own misery. Like many this time of year, I wish that my family behaved as they “should,” according to a false and sentimental image of family life. But out of that type of pain also grows the urge to connect with others in a real way, to give to others in need. Out of my and others’ land sickness may grow a similar urge, to grow and eat wholesome food in a wholesome way.

    I don’t mean to sound like I have the answers. I don’t. I only know that the dialogue is important.

    Thanks for your reflections.


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