Monday, September 08, 2008

Alas, Iowa...

In my visits to Iowa to speak to farm groups, I have learned first-hand of the remarkable insularity of the Iowan culture. In fairness, if you live that close to heaven, why would you want to trouble yourself with goings-on outside the state borders?

Meanwhile, back in in central Il, the advancing edge of farm development hung over my head.  The relentless competition and pressure to perform made my frame of reference much harsher than my neighbors in IA wanted to contemplate.

Perhaps no longer.
But the tale of the disappearing barn, a building whose purpose shifted, then faded away, tells a bigger story too, of how farming itself, a staple in this state then and now, has changed markedly since those writers drove through.

What had in the 1930s been an ordinary farm here — 80 or 160 acres and a few cows and sheep and chickens — is today far bigger and more specialized to pay for air-conditioned, G.P.S.-equipped combines and tractors, so much fuel and the now-skyrocketing price of farmland.

Competition for land — to rent or buy — has grown cutthroat and overwhelming, a matter of networking and schmoozing (at church, at the local coffee shop, while selling seed) worthy of the corporate boardroom. (Some here tell of people who call the widows of farmers who have died days or hours earlier, hoping to secure land.)

All of that has left some of Iowa’s youngest, newest farmers doubtful that one could make a start in farming anymore without roots and connections and land dating back, say, to the W.P.A. era.  [More]

At the very least, Iowans can't say they didn't see it coming. They had only to visit with farmers in Nebraska or Illinois or Ohio.  But my impression of Iowans are overwhelming positive and overwhelmingly self-centered.  While they were pressuring their legislature and the leveraging the IA primary to build ethanol plants, it seemed it never occurred to them to ponder what prosperity would do to their cherished community values.

Those values were only checkbook-deep, it seems.  And the ethics of yeoman community-centered agriculture are a poor match for the entrepreneurial spirit now commanding the helms of farm management.

Typically, the NYT buys into the old agrarian ideal.  Preserving thousands of old barns strikes many non-farmers as a noble enterprise. But as a farmer the question is begged: Why?

Barns burn easily and often, as older farmers well know.  Abandoned barns are havens for varmints and trash dumping. I can see saving a handful of exemplary buildings but, even nostalgia must have some limits of practicality.

Besides, the owner gets to choose - not the passers-by.

1 comment:

Chaz said...

I, too, have mourned the passing of the barns and farmsteads in my home area of western Indiana. However, a strong industrial base and a lot of off-farm employment opportunities have helped keep some of the places occupied. So we haven't had near the 'empty-out' issues of Iowa.

That being said, I do think that the current 'grain boom' (to borrow a John Phipps phrase) may keep some smaller operators in business longer -- or even lure a few back to the farm. Whether they'll save the barns remains to be seen, however.

Our farms have two beautiful cribs (double sided, cupola-topped) that my grandfather built in the 1930s. They're tough to convert to any other use, so are falling into disrepair. I've encouraged my folks to take the cypress (16' 2x6 planks) doors down, have them planed, and use the wood for flooring or paneling before it's too late. At least that way, some of the craftsmanship, materials and memories will live on.