The lost farm in a corner of childhood

AT the turn of the century, almost half of all Americans earned their living as farmers. Today that figure has dropped to 4 percent. Apart from the obvious practical consequences, this means that 46 percent fewer children will experience firsthand what it means to grow food -- that most original of occupations.

To the overwhelming majority of children in cities and suburbs, a farm is a stage set on ``Sesame Street'' or ``Mister Rogers'' -- a kind of video museum piece.

What does a child lose by seeing a farm only on a screen, minus all odors, all textures, all earthiness? It is hard to say. But those of us who had a farm -- a real farm -- in a corner of our childhood can say this: Nothing is less suited to abstraction than a farm -- and then, of course, we feel compelled to go on and savor once again exactly how it was.

Every month or two during my childhood, my family and I visited an uncle and aunt who farmed 160 acres in southern Wisconsin. I hadn't yet read Aesop's fable of ``The City Mouse and the Country Mouse,'' but even then I had the city mouse's reservations about rural life. The smells in the barn, the dust from the gravel driveway, the strip of flypaper in the back entryway -- all were alien to the urban sensibilities of a 10-year-old child.

There were pleasant aspects, of course -- kittens in the hayloft, the river winding through a stand of oaks behind the cornfield, the sweet, strange fragrance of new-mown hay, and a friendly collie named Shep. I listened with interest to supper-table conversations about planting and harvesting, rain or the lack of it, and weekly trips to the farmers' market in Milwaukee. I was intrigued by my uncle's overalls and mud-encrusted boots, his suntanned face, and his huge, weathered hands. And I admired the grace and gentle humor my aunt -- his sister -- displayed as she gathered eggs, milked cows, and tended the garden.

But despite the affection I felt for this hardworking pair, I was, like the city mouse, always glad to get home to my own neighborhood -- to sidewalks and paved driveways, to nearby stores, to the bus stop on the corner that gave me access to friends and schools and libraries.

At the same time, I sensed that they would never leave their farm for better money or an easier life somewhere else. On the few occasions when they drove the 70 miles to our house for Sunday dinner, they seemed mildly ill at ease. Perhaps it was the confinement of a small city lot. Perhaps it was a sense of formality that went with wearing their ``good'' clothes -- a crisp white shirt and tie for my uncle, a blue dress, earrings, and lipstick for my aunt. Or perhaps it was the need to watch the clock to get home in time for milking. (Dairy cows, after all, don't observe the Sabbath.) But whatever the reason, they always seemed glad to be heading back to the land their German immigrant father had farmed before them.

This sense of continuity ended in the mid-1960s, when my aunt and uncle sold the farm and retired to a bungalow in town. Agriculture was still relatively stable then, and they were spared the anguish, a decade or two later, of watching farm after farm -- including their own neatly painted white house and gently rolling acreage -- turn into rural ghost towns.

Nor would they ever know that by the early 1990s nearly half of Wisconsin's 41,000 dairy farmers might be forced out of business because of low prices, overproduction, and a genetically altered bovine growth hormone, which could increase milk supplies by 20 to 40 percent.

As America's agrarian society has shifted to a manufacturing and service economy, scattered farms around the country have become vacation sites for urban and suburban families -- rural petting zoos, as it were, treated almostas cultural oddities or endangered species.

It would be as dangerous to romanticize farming as it is to sentimentalize anything else. This is a business, after all, subject to some of the same market forces and inevitable shifts that forced a generation of blacksmiths and buggy-whip makers to make midlife career changes.

But this spring, as farmers begin raising another herd of livestock and coaxing another season's crops out of the soil, it may be appropriate to consider whether they nourish the rest of us in more ways than just the obvious.

Harvard psychologist Robert Coles and others have speculated about what values are rooted in living on the land and fail to transplant when country folk become city people.

Do inorganic things like money, for instance, become more important as the measure of worth? Does some loyalty, some strength, loosen in the family? These questions cannot be easily answered. They are only beginning to be addressed.

But there is a hunger that can be felt as palpably as the hunger for good food. And so this summer, out of a craving we can't quite identify, we city mice will once again set new records, flocking with our city mice children to national parks and zoos -- trying to sample some fertile immediacy that has been lost in our day-to-day lives.

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