Some of us still dream of that farm

Written by stevefairchild on .

Walter Russell Mead has some interesting things to say about the death of the American Dream over at The American Interest.  As you see in the block quotes below, he explains that the great shift from farm to city and suburb was the death of an earlier American Dream—farming. Of course I'd argue there are some who still harbor dreams for farming (that's how I'll spend my lottery income once I buy a ticket). But Mead is correct in explaining the evolution of rural culture and agriculture as mechanization bloomed into an exodus from fields and small towns to cities and suburbs. When someone laments the decline in the number of farmers, I tend to remind them that their family, if anyone in it has ever given up farming, is partly to blame. It's a straw man, I know. But rural-to-urban migration did happen, and it takes plenty of people to populate an exodus. 

But Mead is only using the death of that first American Dream to preface his comments on the death of the current American dream—home ownership.

On to Mead:


This isn’t the first time the American Dream has died.  The old dream — your own farm rather than your own home — once dominated American culture, politics and family life as much as the family home ever did.  The slow and painful death of that dream was one of the country’s core preoccupations in the first half of the twentieth century.  The death of the new dream is likely to be a big deal as well.

The ideal of the family farm was once even more deeply rooted in American life than the ideal of the owner-occupied home.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, the average American family owned and farmed a small piece of land.  Cheap land on the frontier made the original American dream accessible to just about anybody.  New immigrants and young people would work for a few years to save up money for basic tools and equipment, head west and start up a farm.

Of course, the West filled up, and much of it was poor farming until waterworks made prime land (some has reverted to poor thanks to recent environmentally driven water allotments). And working a few years to save up for the basic tools and equipment of the modern Midwest farm won't launch you past that pesky barrier to entery: $4,000-per acre land and the capital cost for a line of equipment.

I worked for a state farm magazine as the 21st Century rolled in. We did plenty of those lists that celebrate the Top Things of the Century. For agriculture, even by the late 1990s, the real doozies—the things that set up modern agriculture—really came in those first years of mechanization: Electricity. Tractors. Rubber tires. Power Take Off. Commercial fertilizer. Chemistry for herbicides and pesticides.

 I've written elsewhere that these things were adopted because they made life on the farm better by making it less strenuous and reducing time needed for pure labor, which meant the exodus toward town was inevitable. Mead spells it out like this: 

The old dream died from a combination of reasons.  The closing of the frontier dried up the supply of free land and the mechanization of agriculture made small farms uneconomic.  Federal subsidies lured too many people onto the land; many homesteads in parts of the west were climates unsuited to smaller holdings.  A vast expansion in global acreage under the plow in the late 19th and early 20th centuries exposed small family farmers to tough global competition.  The terms of trade between farm goods and town goods changed over the years; farmers’ incomes steadily fell in comparison to urban dwellers.  The more complex and expensive farm techniques needed to meet the competition required farmers to spend more on equipment and education than their small farms could really support.  Young people craved the excitement and the opportunity of urban life.

The changes that came with this demographic shift were immense. And Mead thinks the latest economic turmoil and shifts in family makeup and other social trends are just as big.

Read the whole thing here. It's not exactly a tonic for a happy day, but from demographic and economic variables at hand, Mead might be on the path toward reality. 

More milk and a few quick meat cows

Written by stevefairchild on .

The editors at The Atlantic Wire seem to have discovered that the USDA has an economic research service. Twice in as many days, TAW blogger, Eli Rosenberg, has dug into the economic minutia of the farms in fly-over country.

In this post about numbers of dairy cows and milk yield, Rosenberg announces to his readers that increasing efficiency on dairy operations is a long-term trend. True enough. But you needn’t read between the lines to catch his drift.

Check out this lead sentence (link is from the original): 

The plight of beef cattle has been well-documented: a majority of meat cows in the United States are raised quickly on unnatural grain-based feedlot diets before being slaughtered. 


Ah, well. Food politicians will be food politicians. What I’m after is a quickly raised meat cow. And maybe a meat bull to match. 

Does the rural fabric unravel as quickly?

Written by stevefairchild on .

You needn't be too oberservant to notice a cultural shift compared to some 30 years ago. Making my way through a host of rural towns in the past 20 years, my observation is that loss of heavy manufacturing, mining and other high-wage employment has made for a downshift in rural wages, where the labor force has fewere options to find new employment. In the void of declining heavy manufacturing came light manufacturing (that's easily turned off when the economy falters) warehousing, and other employment that offers much lower wages and often times, less steady work. The result is a workforce that never quite finds traction. This isn't any particularly keen insight, I know. 

Reading this piece by Roger Selbert brings up several questions about how rural communities will navigate the future under the socio-economic realities plowing our way. 

Particularly, how does the connectedness of a rural community dampen the effect of the social isolation described in these points by Selbert? Or does it?

Declining Social Cohesion

In a recent lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, Charles Murray gave a preview of his forthcoming book, “Coming Apart at the Seams.” His thesis: America has never been a classless society, but over the last half century the United States has developed new lower and upper classes that diverge on core behaviors and values to an unprecedented degree. The divergence of America into these separate classes is different in kind from anything America has ever known, maintains Murray, and if it continues, will end “the American way of life.”

What has Murray so troubled are disconcerting trends in the white working class, for if things are bad in the lower middle class, things can’t be good in the country as a whole. Looking at America’s four essential Founding virtues (Industriousness, Honesty, Marriage, and Religiosity), Murray finds widening gaps between the upper-middle and working classes:

Marriage: In 1960, 88% of the upper-middle class was married, versus 83% of the working class, a negligible 5% gap. Today, 83% of the upper-middle class is married, but among the working class, marriage has collapsed: only 48% are married. That’s a revolutionary change, as is the percentage of children born to working class single women (from 6% to nearly 50% in the last 50 years).

Industriousness: The percentage of working class males not in the workforce went from 5% in 1968 to 12% in 2008. Among those with jobs, the percentage working less than 40 hours a week increased from 13% in 1960 to 21% in 2008.

Religiosity: The percentage of Americans saying they have no religion increased from 4% in 1972 to 21% in 2010. A substantial majority of the upper-middle class (58%) retains some meaningful form of religious involvement, whereas a substantial majority of the working class (61%) does not.

Honesty: The great increases in crime and incarceration over the past decades have overwhelmingly victimized working class communities, while hardly touching upper-middle class communities.

A few words about the Mississippi River from Mark Twain

Written by stevefairchild on .


And this was before the climate change ruckus:

"In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact."

Mark Twain from Life on the Mississippi.


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