A recent issue of The Land Stewardship Newsletter (No. 4, 2013) featured articles highlighting a new initiative of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), the well-established, Minnesota-based “rural revival” effort to keep “land and people together.” The initiative is “farm transitions.” It is designed to counter “current land consolidation trends,” and provides tools to assist farm owners and would-be farmers transition land to the next generation. LSP and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) have developed a Farm Transitions Toolkit for this purpose which can be accessed by calling 800-909-6472 or at www.
The margins in mind are those boundaries between human habitation and cultivation and the wild places of nature, those intersections between settled places and wilderness. It may be nothing that more than that patch of weeds in the corner of the garden or field, or the few scrub trees and bushes springing up along the fence lines. It may be the roadside ditches on country lanes. Or it may indeed be the boundary between farmland and a state park or between the field and the creek or river or prairie or forest.
So why should it be troubling to see more and more shelter belts and fence lines and pioneer wood groves being bulldozed and burned and buried? Or hasn’t anyone else noticed the disappearance of landmarks that have graced our landscape for some 100 years now? Even those of us native to this place find ourselves lost on familiar country roads when we come to intersections that used to mark a farm or a grove of trees, as my brother who now lives in Michigan and I discovered when we were out for a drive a few weeks ago.
Last August, Dick Thompson of Boone, Iowa, died. Thompson was an “alternative farmer” before that came to be a common thing, as it is today. A founder of Practical Farmers of Iowa, Thompson and his wife Sharon believed strongly that a healthy agriculture/rural community involves an integrated system of land, crops, livestock and family. I remember him speaking at rural life conferences in Iowa during the farm crisis of the 1970s, though it isn’t clear to me that that crisis has ever stopped.
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.
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.
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 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.
Rural sociologists define cultural capital in terms of the values and symbols reflected in the artifacts used by a particular community. (Cornelia Butler Flora & 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.
Historically, rural communities like ours here in Freeman have experienced 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.
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.