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Take a new look at National Farmer’s Day

By Staff | Oct 12, 2018

It was an interesting question I hadn’t heard since my days as an undergraduate at Iowa State University (ISU). How far do you have to drive across rural Iowa before you see a farmer working on his or her farm?

The question first came up in the mid-1990s when I was taking a rural sociology class from Dr. Paul Lasley at ISU. It came up again in early October when I stopped by to see Dr. Lasley and sit in on “Rural Transformations: Causes and Consequences,” a four-week adult education class he was teaching at the ISU Alumni Center.

“As I ride RAGBRAI, I make a note of where I see my first farmer driving a tractor, fixing fence or out there working,” Lasley said. “This year I went clear across the state before I saw someone working on the farm.”

Now granted, there can be a lot of factors at play here, and farmers may very well be in a back pasture, a shed or working in a confinement barn, out of sight from the road, but the point is well taken. As technology advanced and the devastation of the 1980s Farm Crisis wiped out a whole generation in Iowa agriculture, the rural landscape looks much different than in decades past. Often the differences are most notable in the lack of population.

These are the kinds of things I’ve been thinking about as I consider my local community and my family’s Century Farm in light of National Farmer’s Day, an event that’s observed annually on October 12 to honor all farmers throughout American history.

Harvest is a fitting time to celebrate the people who produce the food, fuel and fiber that keep our world functioning. From the earliest days of American culture, farmers’ hard work, dedication and focus on continuous improvement have defined the American spirit and nurtured the growth of this country.

Yet the history of agriculture, especially in Iowa, hasn’t been straight path of progress filled with seamless transitions. Instead, it has been a cycle of booms and busts, with consequences lasting generations beyond the original events.

As I sat in on Dr. Lasley’s adult ed class, it was intriguing to hear stories of farming in the 1970s, a time I don’t remember well since I was just a little kid at the time. I do remember the 1980s Farm Crisis, though. “You can’t understand the 1980s without understanding the 1970s,” Lasley stressed.

The 1970s were a boom time propelled by changing diets worldwide, grain shortages in Russia due to bad weather and U.S. government policies that encouraged a “get big or get out” philosophy. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz advocated increased production and encouraged farmers to “plant fencerow to fencerow” to meet global demand.

Instead of conservation, hay, pasture and fragile ground went under the plow for the first time, especially in southern Iowa, Lasley noted. With fixed interest rates and high inflation, farmers went into debt to finance their expanding operations. “You couldn’t just walk into an implement dealership and buy equipment off the lot in those days,” Lasley said. “Machinery was selling so fast you had to order it.”

For a few years, those actions seemed like good business decisions. All was well in those go-go years until interest rates started doubling or even tripling. Beginning farmers often were among the first casualties of the 1980s Farm Crisis.

As the financial hardships intensified and farmland values plunged 60 percent, the fallout left a mark that has never been erased from rural Iowa. “As more farmers quit farming and young people left rural Iowa, what has this meant for small towns, churches and rural schools?” Lasley asked.

It has also impacted Iowa’s role in national politics. Remember when Iowa had six elected officials in the U.S. House of Representatives, instead of four today?

Which brings us back to Lasley’s original question about how long do you have to travel across rural Iowa before you see a farmer working? Remember that fewer farmers are needed to meet today’s food demands. A farmer in 1960 could only feed about 26 people. Today, one U.S. farm feeds 165 people annually in the U.S. and abroad, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

As you think about Iowa’s farmers on National Farmer’s Day, reflect on the ups and downs that continue to shape modern agriculture and influence our future. Also, honor the things that endure, including ties to the land, an attachment to place, the strong work ethic associated with farming, the importance of community and the power of farm life to shape one’s outlook on life.

Above all, thank our farmers for the hard work they do to supply us with food while protecting natural resources. It’s a story worth telling long beyond National Farmer’s Day.

Darcy Dougherty-Maulsby (a.k.a) Yetter-girl grew up on a Century Farm between Lake City and Yetter and is proud to call Calhoun County home.

Contact her at yettergirl@yahoo.com and visit her online at www.darcymaulsby.com.

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