This weekend, kept indoors by the glorious rain, I finally read a book that’s been sitting on my shelf for at least a year. One of my best friends found it at a thrift store and thought of me. She knows I love anything to do with gardening or farming, and especially with old-timey farming methods, from back before tractors and combines. I don’t know why I didn’t read this book earlier–maybe I never took the time to see exactly what it was about. But the title says it all: From the Land and Back: What Life Was Like on a Family Farm and How Technology Changed It.
The author, Curtis K. Stadtfeld, grew up on a farm in central Michigan during the Depression years. It was a landscape that would never make anyone a millionaire through farming, even in better economic circumstances. Nevertheless, with the distance of adulthood, and having moved away to the city, Curtis feels that his family was rich. Rich in life. In connection to the natural world. Rich in challenges for the body and mind. A farm, he says, was a place where you had to learn about everything, and it seems no coincidence to him that many of the great inventors and original thinkers of America have come from farming families.
But Curtis doesn’t look at the past through rose-colored glasses. He talks about the hardships, too. And he’s well aware that most people abandoned that life as soon as they were economically able–himself included. And yet their motivations don’t always seem to have been rational. One of the first things to leave the farm when diversity started to give way to specialization was the chickens, even though a look at the books reveals that eggs often brought in as much money or more as the production of the milk cows. Curtis’s explanation for their disappearance? “[N]o one ever liked them much.”
So, too, machines seemed to take over the farm because people–well, men–did like them. And they liked them always bigger and more powerful. “A man wanted his own combine,” Curtis writes, “partly because it might give him a sense of independence, but also because it is a universal ego satisfaction to dominate a complicated machine.” Only gradually did it become apparent that those impressive hulks of steel were not going to make everyone rich, either. In fact, they were going to drive most of central Michigan’s farmers right out of business. And put the rest in perpetual debt.
But how can we go back? Life on the diversified, horse-powered small farm may have been rich in some ways, but not in the ways people were starting to want after the boys came back from World War II. They wanted radios, watches, cameras, new cars. They wanted to travel, not be stuck on the same eighty acres with the same six people day in and day out. “The war changed us from savers to consumers,” writes Curtis. It made farm boys rush to jobs in factories. With their new cars and free weekends, they could travel from state to state, and ended up marrying girls from a hundred miles away–or more.
“[T]he real question,” says Curtis, “is, have we improved the human condition? Is man in the factory better off than man on the farm?” (He does mention that the farm was “hell on women.” Though with better medical care, things could be different.) “More broadly, is man in the city better off, happier, than man on the land? If not, then it has not been progress.”
He concludes with this statement: “We should know that once, in the farm country, a system worked, and people were happy. There really should be a way to keep what was good, to add things that really represent progress, and not destroy the fabric of life along the way. We are beginning to see that we must live with our planet, and we must live with ourselves.”
He wrote that in 1972. Just as a lot of young hippies were heading to the woods to try to do exactly that. Forty years later, we’re still trying. We’re bringing back the urban farms. And the first animals to arrive? Chickens. For whom we seem to have developed a new affection.