Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Musings of My Childhood Home

Iowa has gone major change in my lifetime and that is but a severely cropped portion of the whole picture. During my grandfather's generation, two and a half million people lived in the state of Iowa and almost one million of those lived on farms. Today, our population is now just shy of three million people while only 150,000 or so people remain on the farms. While the states overall population increased some twenty percent, the farm population dropped eighty-five percent. I find these statistics staggering.

The farm homestead where I grew up was situated in the south-central part of a block of land 960 acres big or exactly a mile deep by a mile and a half long. In my lifetime there were a dozen families that lived on that block of land and perhaps 50 or so people. The land itself was divided up among eight landowners. Before that there were even more families and even a school. Today, only three people remain, two of who are my parents and the land is divided up among three landowners with my parents owning the vast majority of it.

As the years went by, the buildings were hauled off or torn down for their lumber. Those that weren't torn down or were left behind moldered and decayed into the land. Now as I drive by these sites on occasion during a particular nice sunny weekend, all that remains of the farm families that once lived there are a cluster of trees that once provided shade on a warm summer afternoon. I try to imagine the proud farmhouse that no doubt stood among those trees or the well-kept lawns and large vegetable gardens. There would undoubtedly be a few chickens pecking in the dirt, perhaps a few flowerbeds for gathering blooms for those important occasions when somebody was ill. being married or buried and always a small orchard. Now if you poke around these sites, all that remains are perhaps a few wild looking once domesticated flowers, a snag of a tree that once used to bear fruit and perhaps a foundation or the remnant of a clothesline post or two. The scene always conveys a sense of sadness to me.

When we drove by the one in the picture above, I didn't get out to explore it because I knew exactly where the garden had been, the fruit trees, the flowerbeds and the old chicken coop foundation. I grew up there in a proud farmhouse that has long since rejoined the earth. In the picture below, you can see a white pine tree that seems out of place and one post of the old clothesline that is still standing though leaning far from vertical. The garden was close to the foreground of the picture above underneath a windmill that hasn't been there in twenty-five years. Back in the late 80's when my grandfather died, we made the decision to move to his farm on the same block of land but a mile north along the fenceline. Most of the buildings and storage needed to operate a farm were already over there so it just made sense. But for me, this place in the picture above will always be my home.

If I close my eyes and think back, I can still here that windmill creaking idly in the wind as I played in the dirt underneath the large silver maple tree now leafless and lifeless in the picture below. In the summer months, that tree was our air conditioner and where I spent many hours shucking peas, snapping beans or husking corn from the garden. All the produce from the garden was hauled up in an old red metal wedge-shaped wheelbarrow with two wheels along the gravel road. It seemed like such fun to pull that wheelbarrow at a full run to see how fast I could make the trip up to the house and back. Several years ago at an auction, I saw an identical wheelbarrow to the one of my youth and bought it for a whopping dollar. We still use it around our house and someday if I think of it, I will take a picture of it and post it here.

There used to be a lot of white pines in our yard because I helped plant them as a kid. Back then, they were mere twigs with a few fine white roots on one end. Most got eaten by deer and one got ran over by a certain kid pushing a lawnmower through some grass that had gotten too tall during planting season. I tried to hide that one from my mom by putting the top half over the stump. It fooled her for a few days but eventually it turned brown and was discovered. Not a well thought out plan on my part. But two survived and can both be seen in the picture above. I had my graduation picture from college taken in front of the white pine on the right near the gravel road. It was probably only a dozen feet tall back then. Now it is taller than the telephone wires. I remember when I planted my tree thinking that someday I would be able to climb it like the ones that I used to climb at my grandfather's farm. It didn't quite work out that way. The ones on my grandfather's farm, where my parents now live, have all died off and now that the one I planted is big enough to climb, I'm too "old" to climb it. Perhaps someday when my daughter is older and it is just the two of us, we will come back and climb that tree when no one is looking.


R. Sherman said...

Thanks for this; I enjoyed it.

Do you think that increased yields and increasing technology have led to the shift away from the actual farming part of agriculture? That is, is the employment moving to "staff" instead of "line" positions as it becomes easier for fewer people to get the "growing" part done?


Ed Abbey said...

R Sherman - I think the main reason is that as yields increased, prices came down and farming became unprofitable. You either got big or you lost the farm. Those farms that remain now mostly fall into two categories. The first being those like my parents who got big enough to make a living and those who just have a small hobby farm and a source of income other than farming. It is very difficult to find a small farmer with farming as the only income. Back in the 1950's, that was all you could find.

The farming crisis in the 80's also drove a lot of farmers out of business. I was into my teen years then and saw what my parents went through. We survived but those memories I'm sure play a part of why I didn't become a farmer. I think it did others as there are almost no young farmers anymore outside of corporations. In twenty years, I don't think there will be a farm in the sense we know today. It will all be owned by corporations.

Perhaps another reason which also plays into my second paragraph, is the cost of getting into farming is extremely high. You just can't go buy 40 acres and some cows and make a go. It costs tens of millions of dollars of assets just to get to a point where you can break even. Therefore, the only people outside of corporations getting into farming are those that inherit them.

sage said...

Since Michigan is the White Pine state, you can think about Murf and me when you recall that hair cut you gave to that poor helpless tree!

Thanks for sharing, good memories.

The Real Mother Hen said...

So you are from Iowa! Well, I first learned to ski in Iowa, which people usually laughed when they heard it, given that Iowa is quite flat :) hhmm, perhaps that's the reason why I can only handle Bunny slop after all these years, ha :)

PS: maybe one day your daughter will take her graduation picture in front of the white pine too.

Good story you have there, ed abbey.

R. Sherman said...

Ed, the capital start-up costs certainly seems prohibitive, unless one is going for ultra-small self sufficiency. Of course, that's outside the realm of "farming as business."

I remember the farm crisis. As a lawyer, I had to negotiate the byzantine estate tax regulations which wound up preventing people from passing their farms onto their kids. To pay the death taxes, the kids wound up having to to sell off, either to large corporate farms or to developers. That was one of the incentives for Reagan to start upping the size of the estate tax exemption.



Murf said...

I can't quite make out that tree, Ed. How about posting that graduation picture? *insert angelic look here*

Saur♥Kraut said...

What wonderful memories! It sounds beautiful. It reminds me of my childhood in Clearwater, FL, before the Scientologists moved in. It was such a sleepy, quiet beach town and so full of mystic beauty then.

Ed Abbey said...

Sage - It wasn't so much hair as it was hide.

Mother Hen - Yep. Iowa is a long ways from Oregon where from reading your blog, I suspect you are from. The picture of my daughter in front of the tree is a great idea!

R. Sherman - Someday I'm going to have to deal with that when my parents "leave" this world. I hope things have gotten better since then. It really is their dream to keep the farm in the family.

Murf - Sure, I'll post a better picture of the tree the next time I drive by the old place. ;)

Saur - I would sure like to hear your take on the Scientologists someday since you live so close to their headquarters.