The Vanishing Farmer

`HOW you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?'' So went a hit song of 1919, addressing the restlessness of American soldiers returning home after World War I.

Farmers thought they had troubles then! In fact, before World War I farmers constituted the largest single group of citizens in the United States, and the number of American farms continued to grow for almost 20 more years, peaking at 6.8 million in 1935.

Last week the Census Bureau counted only 1.925 million farms, the fewest since 1850, the year Millard Fillmore became president. Eighty years ago roughly every other working American was a farmer. Today the proportion is more like 1 out of 20.

Farming in the 1990s is more accurately described as agribusiness, and agribusiness is doing very well, thank you.

A record corn crop of 10 billion bushels is being projected for the 1994 harvest. Cotton has made a surprising comeback in the Southeast. ``Productivity'' is a favored term, and productivity was never higher.

But farming is - or was once - more than the sum total of crops, more than the bottom line. Farming is a culture.

At a time when ``family values'' have become the country's cry from the heart, the farming family stands as a model, surviving by the virtue of cooperation - sharing in the labor and the fruits alike.

And labor is the operative word - where else did the American work ethic find its first roots? The very nature of a farmer's life made imperative the practice of neighborliness and an unassuming simplicity of style - two other values yearned for today.

How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm, plowing those furrows, when the Information Superhighway stretches before them, full of high-tech gimmicks and consumer glitz? Under these circumstances, can old-fashioned virtues formed in daily living be restored by rhetorical exhortations from politicians and TV talk-show hosts, with a little country music on the side?

A good way to start would be to acknowledge that character as well as food was produced in fair abundance on the vanishing farm.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.