The Invisible Farmer

WHAT turn-of-the-century census taker, counting his way through rural America at a time when 35 percent of Americans lived on farms, could have imagined a future in which the farm population would be so diminished that the government would stop counting farmers?

Yet the Census Bureau has decided to do just that. Less than two percent of Americans - 4.6 million people - now reside on farms. A growing number of agricultural workers no longer live on the land they work, the bureau explains, and farm residency no longer serves as a reliable indicator of a person's involvement in farming.

From now on, instead of producing a separate tally of farmers called ``Residents of Farm and Rural Areas,'' the bureau will package statistical and demographic information about farming in a report called ``Farm Entrepreneurial Population.''

Eras end with startling frequency these days. Times change, and the past does not always serve the present well. Even so, the traditional farm census report should not disappear without some public acknowledgment of the continuing and essential contribution farmers make.

Over the years, as their numbers have diminished, farmers have become increasingly invisible. For the most part, they make news only when extremes of weather parch their crops or flood their fields. Their only other predictable claim to fame occurs every four years, when sophisticated politicians, presidential hopefuls all, trade suits and wingtips for jeans and boots as they tramp through Iowa cornfields in search of photo ops and votes.

Otherwise, farmers remain largely out of sight, regarded with respect but general indifference by those who think that ``real'' jobs exist only in cities and that ``real'' life depends upon their proximity to takeout pizza parlors, all-night convenience stores, and multiplex cinemas. The closest these urbanites come to any real-life connection with rich soil and cycles of planting and harvest is through weekend farmers' markets and dewy produce stacked high in supermarket bins.

Those dwindling few who have known, firsthand, a farm in their past understand that though farmers may disappear from the census, farms will never disappear from the land. As for those sophisticated, urban postmoderns with eyes only for the information superhighway, at mealtime even they will be compelled to respect that other straight line - a well-plowed furrow.

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