Unlearning the narrative of Minnesota’s rural heritage

In the past 40 years, the United States lost more than a million farmers and ranchers. Many of our farmers are aging. Today, only nine percent of family farm income comes from farming, and more and more of our farmers are looking elsewhere for their primary source of income. ~~ Tom Vilsack 

Though I didn’t grow up on a family farm my life was enriched by weeklong stays and Sunday dinners with relatives who tilled the legacy acres. As a kid, I marveled at how the family worked as a collaborative – if occasionally reluctant – team. Rising before dawn the members of the team managed to cope with the weather, rotating crops, fluctuating markets, neighbors’ disasters, Koolaid deliveries to field workers, egg picking and the insatiable appetites of the threshing crew – not to mention the fragile finances of the operation.

In spite of the fact that I knew or cared nothing about agricultural or political forces – much less global economics – I did realize that it was not an easy lifestyle – early mornings, a non-negotiable milking routine, pumping water, de-tasseling in the summer heat, all with one ear cocked to Maynard Speece. Still, from my limited perspective as a city kid it seemed that my cousins enjoyed significant benefits – corn on the cob, real fried chicken, vast space for running free, tractor rides and a haymow with endless possibilities.

Somewhere in the back of my aging head the utopian dream lived on. Though I regretted country school and rural library closings and lamented the death of main streets, nostalgia blinded me to deep reality. I didn’t see that foreclosures, auctions, collapsed barns and outhouses were but symptoms of a fundamental – and intentional – reordering of society.

Reality insinuated its ugly head into my dream world when I inherited the “food and ag beat” at OpenTheGovernment.org, the DC-based advocacy group where I recently did a stint as outreach coordinator. That was when I learned that the USDA doesn’t even collect rural statistics at a level that would reflect a small family-owned farm. While working inside the Beltway I saw the power wielded by the well-heeled agribusiness lobbyists who strut and sip on K Street.

At the same time, I observed the indefatigable work of those who speak for small, minority, women and immigrant farmers and for land stewardship and the imperative of sustainability.

In this open government advocacy role I had the good fortune to meet the visionary folks at the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy, the Minnesota-based think-tank that monitors national and global policy. IATP opened my eyes to the interconnectedness of the forces of trade and agriculture, ongoing now as global trade deals are negotiated behind a veil of secrecy.

And yet, reality struck like a bolt of lightening just last week when I realized that there was just one farmer representing the Democratic Farmer Labor Party at the recent Democratic National Convention. (http://www.startribune.com/meet-the-onemer-in-the-dfl-delegation-to-the-democratic-nationalconvention/388273921/)

My knee-jerk thought was that the metro politicos – more likely to be “labor” than “farmer” representatives, had simply outnumbered rural delegates – to which there may be some truth. The fact that Debra Hogenson, family farmer from Nobles County was standing alone to represent the interests of rural Minnesotans within the Democratic-Farmer Labor Party blew any fallacies still stagnating in my mind.

Who does have a voice in the political arena? Who is calling the political shots? Why? Who is reaping the financial rewards of land ownership and food production?

The deep reality of rural Minnesota circa 2016 dawned — the mega-farms that don’t just “dot the landscape” but control and benefit from the land. I began to perceive what lies behind the mansions, the driverless tractors, the ubiquitous GPS systems, the PETA proofed hatcheries that light up the night.

A cryptic quote from rural sociologist Linda Loboa came to mind: “Land makes power. And power often doesn’t want change.” T

As I considered the Big Picture, the implications surfaced. I read the Rural Blog with new understanding:

The farms that once generated wealth for entire communities are now creating a new class of super-farmers who rely on machinery and don’t hire many new farmhands…the big farmers’ wealth is usually not highly visible, except to those who know who owns the land, the oldest class divide in rural America….Much money probably goes into intangible investments, no tangible goods that testify to wealth. But money continues to buy power….”

Correspondent Patrik Jonsson, writing in The Christian Science Monitor Jonsson underscores that “as this wealth accumulates, it is being spread to fewer and fewer people. The midsize to very large operations represent less than 8 percent of the 2.1 million farm households in the U.S., most of which rely on income outside agriculture for their livelihood.”

Jonsson goes on to quote Jonathan Bryant, a history Professor at Georgia Southern University: “A typical (large) farmer is not going to admit that they’re making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, in part because nowadays…those who have traditionally performed jobs on the farm are left out of any sort of share in the wealth that’s being produced.”

Quoting Iowa State rural sociologist David Peter, Jonsson adds: “It’s not just concentration of wealth, but it’s also what happens at the bottom. The upshot (of this concentration of wealth at the top) is that the trend of the withering middle class has occurred in rural areas much further and quicker than in urban and metro communities in general.”

Clearly it falls to those of us who depend on a robust supply of nutritious food – not to mention a healthy economy –to care mightily about the fragile chain that links urban consumers with the sources of food,

As consumers we boast of our wise decisions about what’s immediate — food safety, GMO’s, pesticides, additives, what’s on the school lunch menu.

And yet we are not as quick to open our minds to the Big Picture – the economic and agricultural policies and administrative forces that determine reality. As individuals and as a society we face the awesome challenge to wake up – to take time to learn even a bit about the complexities of the rural economy, land ownership, the influence of agribusiness, humane treatment of animals, sustainability, the role of federal government, the welfare of farm workers upon whom the entire system depends.

We must make the effort to be more aware that the voices of all Minnesotans are heard in the political arena. DNC delegate Debra Hogenson can’t do it alone.


One response to “Unlearning the narrative of Minnesota’s rural heritage

  1. Mary–Many thanks for this thoughtful column on a subject that we should all be more aware of… This is an important subject and you opened our eyes to the reality of it. Carol


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