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Farming By Numbers

by CHRIS FRASIER

Not long ago, yet another farmer left my eastern Colorado community. Over three generations his family had accumulated a patchwork of fields that stretched for several miles. After his children moved away he put the land up for sale.

As the auctioneer tapped a gavel to open the bidding, one local farmer opened a laptop computer on top of an oil drum and tinkered with a spreadsheet. He had done his homework, analyzing each field’s slope, soil type and history. He only bid while the prices fit his projections. When the auction closed, he clicked a button and annoyed his neighbors by boasting he,d bought 44 percent of the acres offered.

This farmer represents a trend that continues to cull creative young people from agriculture. The most business-minded, established farmers buy out their retiring neighbors, cut out opportunities for new blood, and so shrink and gray their own rural communities.

At the same time that rural America loses some of its most talented youth, it has also lost much of the public’s trust. Americans don,t fear famine, for they imagine — though incorrectly — that the food supply is endless. They fear that food is no longer safe to eat. They worry about pesticides or genetically modified crops, or other unknowns that might contaminate what they eat.

There is a connection between this erosion of trust and the loss of youth. Young people leave rural communities as farming’s scale grows too large and mechanized to include them. This scale depends on ever-increasing technology, some of it labor-saving in the old-fashioned sense, but some of it in forms that consumers distrust, such as genetic engineering. Farming may be more efficient than ever, but it has lost much of its humanity.

Farms could use more poets, and fewer MBAs. When young farmers return home with college degrees, they,re more often schooled in business than in the arts. The most creative kids are the least inclined to farm. They,d rather leave the field work to siblings fonder of machinery or numbers. Then they take jobs in the city, where creativity is more marketable than in the commodity business.

This no-nonsense approach has weeded the most creative young people from an entire rural generation. Without them, farming slips into a pattern of cold, calculated efficiency. The creative are our natural storytellers, and agriculture needs to tell its creation story.

Agriculture is creativity at its most raw. Newborn calves squirm on clean meadows as mama cows lick them to their feet. Milk streams white and frothy out of pink udders. Wheat stalks bend their ripe heads toward the soil. Nothing else — not medicine, nor any other technical field — can generate new life. Only sun, soil, air and water can do that.

But a growing number of farmers, so preoccupied with inputs and outputs and spreadsheets, no longer tell these stories, or even know how.

So it’s no wonder that consumers have lost touch with their food’s creation. They,ve come to imagine farms as factories where food rolls from assembly lines. While faceless industrial markets certainly give that impression, people need to know that their meal was grown in clean soil, beneath skies clearer than those of any city.

But until we start encouraging rural America’s most creative young minds to return to the land, the human side of agriculture will continue to lie buried beneath heaps of commodities.

CHRIS FRASIER ranches with his family near Limon, Colo. He is a member of the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

 

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