View from the hill

“The need for a change is a prediction of the future, not a judgment of the past” -David Saxowsky, agricultural economist, North Dakota State University

I found the above quote in the January 2000 issue of Farm Journal Magazine when I was cleaning out the shelves to make way for the bulk of new publications that were sure to find their way into my mailbox.

Even though I agree that looking at the past with a critical eye is not always productive, I believe we need to know where we’ve been before we consider where we want to go.

Change is indeed overdue in agriculture. At least, that’s the opinion of a growing number of farmers I have been in contact with. Here are some reasons that point to the need:

— The proponents that promoted the benefits of the Freedom to Farm Act have been silenced, thanks in part to the often promoted but never delivered promises that exports were our salvation. (“Where Freedom to Farm Went Wrong,” by Sonja Hillgren, Farm Journal, September 1999)

–?In the last 25 years, based on 1999 dollars, gross income for the three major crops of wheat, corn and soybeans has declined by 47.7, 48.4 and 53.5 percent, respectively, even though average yields for all crops have increased. (“Freedom to Farm: Kill It or Keep It,” John Dittrich, Successful Farming, December 1999)

–?In a recent article in the Des Moines Register written by Washington Bureau writer George Anthan, Iowa State University economist Neil Harl declared that gloomy projections for the agricultural economy signal a “clear and present danger.” It was Harl who issued a similar warning in the early 1980s before the farm economy suffered through the worst times since the Great Depression.

— In the same article, University of Tennessee economist Daryll Ray reportedly informed Congress: “Left to itself, crop agriculture would continue its downward spiral, bankrupting successive farmers on a given piece of land, forcing bank foreclosures and, in general, wreaking devastation on all rural areas.”

But the threat to American agriculture is more than economics. It is a war against the culture which threatens the very existence of a sense of community. The demand for efficiency in production agriculture is relentless, and it will not stop until every last drop of “waste” is wrung out of the process by which raw goods are transformed into user-ready, consumer-defined products.

This economic taskmaster is no respecter of persons or communities. “Nothing personal, it’s just business,” is the mantra. The amoral nature of this force has at times destroyed the ethnic diversity of whole communities as it drives toward the ultimate goal of ethnic and cultural equality.

Jennifer Dukes Lee, a staff writer for the Des Moines Register, wrote not too long ago about farming in Iowa: “The profound change has significance far beyond economics. It is altering Iowa dramatically, in ways not yet fully known. At stake is a way of life wound tightly around a way of doing business.”

Lee quoted Vern Ryan, a rural sociologist from Iowa State University, noted: “We will not be tied to the land, to the soil, to the environment as a culture. Family farming gives Iowa a certain sense of uniqueness, and hopefully pride. When we lose it, it really becomes a question of what we will become over the generations.”

What can we do, if anything, to halt the decline of our culture that has long been the defining statement of who we are as a people?

First, we have to decide if we want to save our culture. Is it worth fighting for? Not everybody is convinced it is. Some people may believe we are better off without our unique nature.

Mennonites, for example, may look like a peculiar people to non-Mennonites. Other communities in this area also have their own unique ethnic heritage that reflects a Lutheran, Catholic or Methodist background.

But one fact that seems to be more evident as time goes by is that our culture will undergo tremendous change if nothing is done to moderate the demands of economic transformation.

Our hope for survival should be focused on adapting to the times and creating new entities that enable us to maintain our unique identities.

And we might survive the inevitable rush into this strange entity that is called “the new world order.”

I’ll address some of these new entities later. Stay tuned.

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