Daily Archives: March 4, 2013

Community Rooted in Agriculture

My part-time work at Heritage Hall Museum reminds me at every turn of the history of this rural community, and its agricultural roots. The larger Freeman community was established mostly by Germans from Russia, who arrived here in the 1870s, now 140 years ago. They were an agrarian people, with a long history of living on the land, coming here as faith communities of Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic and Mennonite faith.

Southeast South

Dakota was virgin prairie when these pioneers arrived here, only recently opened for white settlement after the 1858 treaty of the Yankton Sioux with the United States. There was no infrastructure—no roads or towns or commercial settlements. The railroad was not built until 1879 leading to the incorporation of Freeman in 1893. Life was incredibly harsh and hard in those early years. In his memoir of Mennonite immigration to the Great Plains, Emil Waltner in Banished for Faith recalls the blizzard of 1888 (recently highlighted in the January 9 Courier), an 1889 prairie fire, the 1878 West Vermillion flood in which nearly the whole Jacob Gering family perished, and the grasshopper plague of 1875 that decimated the first crop the pioneers had planted (pp. 196-202).

The early pioneers preferred land near a creek or river, with easy access to water. My own great-grandfather, Christian Kaufman, claimed a homestead on Turkey Ridge Creek a mile east of the “church road.” But the West Vermillion flood demonstrated the dangers as well as the opportunities of settling near the streams of southeast South Dakota. It was often only through bitter and painful experience that these pioneers learned to cope with what was then a harsh and erratic climate. But these pioneers were resilient and resourceful people, as the eventual establishment of the Freeman community attests.

Undoubtedly, it was the agrarian heritage of the pioneers that enabled them to establish a community in this place. These people knew how to make do. They knew or were willing to learn what was required for them to become self-sufficient in living on the land they had homesteaded. In the end, the community they established was largely self-sustaining. They gave more

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than they took from the land, while also trading for the things not readily available to them in this climate and geographical setting.

At the same time, the local ecology also dictated the formation of the community. The agriculture they

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established in this unique natural setting shaped the culture of their community. Agriculture describes the practices, arts, and sciences involved in cultivating the soil, producing crops and raising livestock, and preparing and marketing these products. In its root, agriculture literally means “cultivation of the field.” Culture, meanwhile, describes the “customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits” of a particular group or community. In the case of the Freeman community, the culture of the community was shaped by its agriculture.

The question I have is how agriculture still shapes the culture of this community. My own bias is that the life of a rural community depends on the vitality of its particular agriculture. A healthy agriculture rooted in the possibilities and limitations of a particular place will produce a healthy community. How do our current agricultural practices inform and shape the cultural life of our community?

S. Roy Kaufman

Land Auctions and Our Future

It’s alarming for someone like me, who grew up in this community, to see the disappearance of landmarks familiar from my childhood—groves of trees, fence lines, farm places, schoolhouses, churches. This trend has accelerated in recent years as corn prices have risen due to the artificial ethanol bubble with its demand for corn. Perhaps it could be argued that the landscape looks more like it did when settlers first arrived here 140 years ago—flat open prairie with nothing obstructing the view. But I’d prefer to see the countryside populated with farms and farmers making a living from the land.

One of the practices accelerating the changing landscape in recent years is land auctions, when land is put up for sale at public auction. This is surely one of the easiest and cleanest ways to accomplish the transfer of land for those who have land to sell. Professional auctioneers are engaged to advertise and accomplish the land sale for a small share in the proceeds, and the highest bidder walks away with the land.

Nevertheless, this form of land transfer carries with it some consequences, perhaps unforeseen and unintended by those who have land to sell, for the future of the rural community. Let’s say someone has a quarter

section of land to sell, mostly prime agricultural land, but with a set of buildings and a farm residence. What happens when this land is sold at public auction?

Such land is sold to the highest bidder, who in the current market is often an outside investor, at prices local or beginning farmers cannot afford. Having no use for the grove of trees and old, useless farm buildings, the investor will either sell off farm-site acreage as a non-farm rural residence, or more likely in today’s climate, bulldoze the whole works to increase the cultivated land. Having made a large investment, the investor will require a rental fee most local farmers cannot afford, so the land will be rented out to some large, industrial-sized farm operators from outside the community. These farm operators have no investment in the local community. They will bring in the agricultural inputs from wherever they are based and ship the crop out that way as well. Not only does the community lose a farm place and a

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farm family that might help fill our schools and churches; it also loses all the investment that local farmers give and provide to local businesses and agricultural cooperatives.

That same local landowner, perhaps a farmer past retirement age, could choose other options for the sale of that quarter section that would serve the interests of the local community. He might, for instance, sell the bulk of the tillable land on favorable terms to a neighboring farmer who is getting established or could use a few extra acres for his operation. Then he could take out the farm place with a small acreage, perhaps 20 or 30 acres at most, and advertise this land to new and beginning farm couples who want to do alternative farming— perhaps a community-supported-agriculture (CSA) operation, or a small dairy. That way, both established, conventional farmers would improve their operations, and new, alternative farmers could begin their farming operation. More families, rather than less, would be residing in the community, contributing to our churches and schools, and re-investing in the local business community.

Which future do we want—an endless prairie of corn and soy-bean fields unbroken by any human habitation, or thriving rural communities populated by a diverse and vibrant farm population? If you have land to sell, give this some thought before you just put your land up for public auction.

S. Roy Kaufman

Face-to-face relationships are a rural value

RR Loretta Epp

Many regular readers of this column may know that my wife and companion for the past 43 years died in October. Loretta was a beautiful and gifted woman of course (I’m

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not prejudiced), but what strikes me as I reflect on her life is what a quintessentially rural person she was.

Loretta was born in southwest Minnesota, the eldest daughter of a farm couple who courted and married during the height of World War II. She was a year old when her father returned from service with the army in France, and then he and Loretta’s mother embarked on a career of farming on

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a succession of rented farms. They never owned the farms they worked, and today most of those farms have been completely erased from the landscape. But they were conscientious farmers, caring for the land and the buildings owned by their landlords and working hard to provide for themselves and their growing family of four children.

For all its hardship in hard work and the lack of an abundance of material resources, Loretta grew up deeply loved and well-nurtured as a person and in her Christian faith. She always remembered her childhood and youth on the farm fondly, surrounded by nature and animals and the love of her family. Upward mobility was nonetheless evident in Loretta’s family, as in most post-World War II farm families, as Loretta went off to nurse’s training, eventually completing her bachelor of science in nursing.

Then, of course, she met me and we married. Our first 2 ½ years of marriage were spent in a foreign rural culture on the island of Crete, Greece. There we both learned to appreciate and cherish the rural life of Cretan villages, and there our first child was born. And when we returned to the U.S., I abandoned dreams of graduate school and sought a call from a small rural church to be their pastor, since I had seminary training. Thus began a 38 year pilgrimage in four rural congregations in three states and one province in Canada that ended just over two years ago with our retirement here in Freeman.

In each of these rural settings, Loretta adopted the church family as her own and entered deeply into congregational life as a teacher, musician, mentor to women, and friend. While she would have made an excellent nurse and while I encouraged her in that, she chose instead to devote herself to the nurturing of the family and the life of the community. She (and I) learned to garden and can, raising and preserving a large share of the food we ate through the years. She baked bread from the wheat I ground with a small mill. (I can only hope I can make her bread as well as she did!)

By devoting herself to the welfare of her family and the community in which she lived, Loretta was only doing what rural people the world over devote themselves to do. For rural folks, the family and the community—those face-to-face relationships in which we live close to God’s creation—take priority over careers and success and all the more well-known and recognized achievements that are typically sought after and celebrated in our culture. It is what leads me to say that she was a quintessentially rural person. And this is why rural communities and the people who live in them and sustain them are so important to me. This is the setting where people are best nurtured to be whole, well-rounded people, the kind of people who themselves nurture and sustain the common life of a community wherever they live.

S Roy Kaufman

Our Community is Rich in Cultural Capital

Rural sociologists define cultural capital in terms of the values and symbols reflected in the artifacts used by a particular community. (Cornelia Butler Flora &

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Jan L. Flora, Rural Communities: Legacy and Change, Boulder: Westview Press, 25.) Cultural capital is the legacy that enables individuals to “know who they are” and how to make their way in life. Families and the communities in which they live pass on to their children the tools they perceive to be needed for their children’s survival and well-being, whether in the form of land or education or other resources. For example, my daughter, with an inter-disciplinary liberal arts degree, began temping for a bank after graduation and is now a valued client manager, due in part to the work ethic she inherited from this community through me.

By any measure, this community is rich in cultural capital. I see it in the artifacts at the Heritage Hall Museum and Archives where I work part-time, representing almost a century and a half of life since European pioneers first began settling here. We have been creative in devising ways of making a rich life on what was once a largely empty prairie. (It is easy to forget that American Indians have lived here for centuries and have their own rich cultural capital accrued from living on this land.) This is the legacy, the cultural capital, we are passing on to our children through our homes, churches and schools.

A large part of our cultural capital consists of knowing who we are and where we have come from. This derives in part from the knowledge of our ethnic heritage. Freeman and the rural community around it were settled mostly by various groups of Germans from Russia. These were German farmers who had been invited to Russia by the German Czarina Catherine the Great in the 18th century, and who already had a long history and experience with creating agrarian communities when they came to this country in the late 19th century. While an ethnic heritage can easily become a kind of exclusionary idol that wrongly discriminates against “outsiders,” it is also an indispensable form of cultural capital that enables us and succeeding generations make a sustainable rural community in this place. Heritage Hall Museum and Archives documents and preserves this cultural heritage, and Freeman celebrates it each spring at Schmeckfest.

It is also possible to squander our cultural capital as a community. Or perhaps more accurately, it is easy to choose forms of cultural capital from the dominant culture that destroy a rural community like ours. Recent generations have chosen to adopt the cultural capital of commodity agriculture from the dominant culture. Now we find that there isn’t enough land and that it’s too costly to sustain such farms. It has not been uncommon

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for me to hear successful farmers discourage their children from staying in the community with comments like, “There’s no future here for you!” While the cultural capital reflected in such advice may serve their children well in terms of individual success, it almost certainly guarantees the continued decline of rural communities like ours.

We need to choose forms of cultural capital that encourage our children to remain in this rural community. Using the cultural capital we have inherited from the history of this rural community, we need to envision ways of living that can be supported by our specific place. The current generation of farmers, aging as many of them are, will not be the last, despite the fatalism often reflected in their comments to their children. We have a much richer cultural capital from which to draw. There is a future for an agrarian community like ours!

S. Roy Kauman

Taking Stock of the Assets of a Rural Community

Historically, rural communities like ours here in Freeman have experienced

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a decided disadvantage within the dominant urban cultures where they have lived. While urban centers depend on rural communities for their food, fiber and the raw materials of urban life, their numbers, wealth and power far outstrip those of rural communities. Rural communities typically live under the shadow of the “metropolis,” which literally means “mothercity.” Decisions affecting life in rural communities are often made not by rural residents, but by government bureaucrats, corporate boards, and elite specialists centered in the city. Governments, corporations and universities, all institutional expressions of urban power, all too often dictate decision making in rural communities.

All this is ironic, given the fact that the city depends directly on the countryside for its very life. One would think that would give rural communities some leverage! It is ironic as well because in fact, rural communities possess unique assets that could and should enable them to hold their own against the urban powers in which they live. Rural sociologists speak of these assets in terms of different forms of capital that are present, sometimes uniquely, within rural communities. These types of

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capital are:

• Cultural capital—the values, heritage, and ways of life represented in the community;

• Human capital—the skills and abilities of each person within the community;

• Social capital—the networks, norms of reciprocity, and mutual trust within and among the groups comprising the community;

• Financial capital—the money available to be used for investment in the community;

• Built capital—the infrastructure and institutions available within the community;

• Natural capital—the landscape, natural resources, and biodiversity present within the community; and

• Political capital—the ability of people and groups within the community to influence and control decision making regarding the other assets of the community. (Cornelia Butler Flora and Jan L. Flora, Rural Communities: Legacy and Change, 2004, p. 9-10.)

Rural communities like ours rarely take stock of these assets in any systematic way to see what they have and how they are utilizing the assets they have. We tend to focus on one or the other and perceive the limitations we might have. But the question is how well we are utilizing all these various types of capital for the welfare of the community as a whole.

For instance, we might recognize the limitations of our financial capital, but fail to realize and utilize the social and human and natural capital that exists within our community. We have often allowed our natural capital to be defined almost exclusively in terms of the dominant paradigm of commodity agriculture when in fact the natural capital of this area may be largely unexplored in terms of its potential benefit to our community.

In this community, we may do fairly well at appreciating and capitalizing on our cultural capital, but perhaps we struggle in translating that strong cultural heritage into political capital capable of influencing decision-making and the exercise of power.

Perhaps we need to take a closer look at the assets we have and in that way build and utilize all the forms of capital present in this rural community. This community does not have to keep declining, and we are capable of regaining the political capital that will enable us to make the decisions required for a sustainable community life.

S. Roy Kaufman

Intimacy with the Land

One of the beauties of farming as a way of life is the intimacy that it affords farmers with land and the natural community of life among which we humans live. Writing in the Iowa State University newsletter of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Fred Kirschenmann writes, “Every farmer ultimately knows that good management requires intimacy. Like all living organisms, farms constantly change and therefore close involvement with the plants, animals and soils of the farm is essential to skillful farming.” (Leopold Letter, Summer, 2012, p. 5)

This intimacy has been reduced by the pressures of industrial agriculture to specialize and achieve economies of scale. Farmers, like the rest of us, have been encouraged by Enlightenment philosophy to see a disconnect between themselves and the rest of the natural community of life among which we live. We are led to believe that we can “master” nature. We claim to own the land to use as we please, instead of seeing ourselves as a part of natural systems and dependents of the land.

But even so, most farmers I know pay close attention to their land. They learn to know how the land lies, what creatures and plants are most likely to thrive on each part of their land. They observe how the land absorbs and holds the moisture, where it is likely to erode, and how best to conserve the soil. Undoubtedly there are moments, perhaps daily, when farmers pause in awe at the mystery and grandeur of life in which they are privileged to play a part as tillers of the soil and keepers of the plants and animals we have shaped to form our agriculture.

This intimacy with the earth which sustains our lives by God’s providence and grace is something that is also sought and claimed increasingly by people in every walk of life, including urban dwellers. It explains the explosion of urban gardening we witness in decaying cities like Detroit. It is in no small measure the reason for the popularity of the local food and community supported agriculture (CSA) movement which links rural food producers with urban consumers. Often these CSA’s will encourage and invite urban consumers to visit the farm and assist in caring for the crops and livestock. There is deep within us, alienated as we are from nature, a longing to be more connected with the deepest sources upon which our lives depend.

Some years ago Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., wrote the provocatively titled book, Becoming Native to This Place. The title suggests that the heart of the agricultural task is learning how to fit in and belong to the place we find ourselves. Another provocative book title in my library is Learning to Listen to the Land, a collection of articles about sustainable ways of living here on planet Earth. And still another book I have is titled Meeting the Expectations of the Land, suggesting that it is the land, and not we humans, that calls the shots. As Fred Kirschenmann says at the end of his column, “Being ‘a part of’ our world

instead of ‘apart from it’ will

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be critical to any sustainable future.” (Ibid.) It is important for each of us, farmers and city dwellers alike, to learn how to “be at home” in the place we find ourselves, to be content there, but also to understand how and where we fit in the grand scheme of things, this web of life in which we find ourselves.

S. Roy Kaufman