From 1996 until 2004 my husband Zack and I lived in Kansas where I pastored the only church in a farming community of 250 people. During wheat harvest when he got home from his regular job, he drove grain truck for a local farmer. In the evening I would join the crew in the field for supper. When the day’s work went well, there were stories and laughter around the circle of folding chairs. Even when a grain truck broke down or the combine ground to a halt, the humor was still apparent.
After we ate I rode with Zack on the remaining trips to the local grain elevator. The last trip was always my favorite. The night sky would be filled with stars while on the ground fireflies lit up the roadsides. Those evenings are still some of my favorite memories of that time.
In our eight years there we also learned that farming is tough, especially for those trying to make it on smaller pieces of land. But then, farming has never been easy and it seems that still holds true.
Sometimes at picnics and potluck suppers, we heard family memories of who went broke during the Depression; how some recovered and some never did. There were elegies for the young farmers who struggled to carry the heavy debt-load for equipment, but finally gave up. I nearly wept at the story of an 87-year-old man who farmed the same ground as his grandfather until medical expenses from his wife’s cancer took his land.
We aren’t commercial farmers, but grow produce mostly just for ourselves, friends and food banks. We were never very big, just sold vegetables, fruit and a few lambs to a small group of customers.
I don’t know much about the difficulties of our local full-time farmers. New vineyards appear regularly so grape farming seems profitable, but I also read the grape industry news in local papers. With unpredictable temperatures, a recurring drought, the rising prices on equipment and the increased wildfires, they seem as vulnerable to the same pressures as any other farmer.
Just a few weeks ago I read about the skyrocketing suicide rate of farmers, especially those who have fought to hold on to family ground that is no longer large enough to make a living in the current economy. The author also mentioned how the average farmer’s age is steadily rising because young farmers find it so hard to get a start; inheriting a large farm is no longer very common.
My concern began a long time ago right here in Cloverdale. In the latter 1980s at the Cloverdale Ram Sale I heard two men talking. One of them said he was tired of living from sheep sale to sheep sale and went to his agriculture extension agent for advice. The agent laughed and said, “The only advice I have is get big or get out,” while he pointed to the words on a poster.
After hearing that, I had to ask myself was this the beginning of the end for independent family farms and farmers? Well, here we are all these years later and there are still some out there, but they grow fewer all the time. I believe that if the day comes when industrial farming produces all the food we eat, as we lose farmers to death or economic defeat, we will all be poorer for it and so will our communities, wherever we may live.
Pamela Tinnin writes from her ranch on Pine Mountain. She can be reached at email@example.com.