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PRIDE OF THE FARM
In just 50 years, more than half of Iowas farmers have gone out
|It felt strange, introducing someone to a dying way of life. It
almost seemed pointless. But it felt worse to think that my city-slicker
friend would never know what I mean when I talk about how every
spring planting feels like an exhilarating toss of the dice and
how every fall harvest feels like a job well done and how growing
up on a farm in the middle of nowhere means that neighbors are
family and Sunday church isnt optional and a town of 706 people
can feel like the biggest place in the world.
So we drove eight hours due west, across the mighty, muddy Mississippi, past peeling, hand-painted signs that announced, Welcome to Mallard: Were friendly ducks, and Royal, Iowa: A prince of a community, until we finally crested a gentle hill and rolled into my sleepy home town, Everly: Home of the Cattlefeeders.
At the start of this Easter weekend, my friendan avowed urbanite who has made her home in Hong Kong and London, Paris and Chicagodidnt know what it means to be a farm kid. And if family farms vanish at the rate they have during the past two decades, maybe future generations of Midwesterners wont either.
I wondered if it was a waste of time to explain what life is like for such a minority of Americans as my parents and grandparents and most of my familys best friends. But as I drove through northwest Iowa that afternoon, seeing my friends obvious fascination with the uninterrupted farmland all around us, I decided that Id rather share a worthy way of life than to simply forget the values, the risks and the rewards my upbringing on an Iowa farm had taught me. So I started with the basics.
That, I only half joked, is a tractor.
Of the 35.8 million acres of rich farm soil in the state of Iowa, my dad farms about 500. Hes proud of it. When big-city people ask him what he does for a living, he never tries to use sophisticated explanations like, I work in the field of agriculture, or Im in the food-production industry. It always has sounded so impressive to me the way he says it, simply, almost defiantly: Im a farmer.
My parents, Mark and Cathi Scharnberg, used to be one of more than 182,000 farm families in Iowa. Today they are among less than 91,000. In just 50 years, more than half of Iowas farmersand those all across agriculture-centered states such as Nebraska and North Dakota and Kansashave gone out of business.
My family could be next.
My dad told me several months ago, his voice steeped with emotion, that times were tough. Tougher even than the 1980s, when the entire nation watched as farmers auctioned off their herds and their hills. This time, as market prices hovered at Depression-era lows, it might break us, my father said.
Its amazing, he told me. Ive spent almost 30 years putting food on other peoples tables, and now I can hardly afford to keep any on mine.
I cried on the El ride home that night, surrounded by cosmopolitan business people who probably have never stopped to wonder how all that food makes its way to the aisles of the sparkling Whole Foods in their trendy Near North neighborhood.
I remember feeling so alone as we rumbled past Wrigley Field, a farm girl away from the farm, packed against people who likely never noticed there was a farm crisis in the 1980s, let alone another one right now.
The commuters with their Coach briefcases and Manolo Blahnik pumps did not know that I was crying for people like my family, hard-working, dirt-under-their-fingernails people who have devoted their entire lives to feeding our country.
They did not know that I was crying for towns like Everly, towns without a single stoplight, surrounded by cornfields, where the social fabric is stitched together by three sturdy threads: God, family and farming. And they certainly couldnt know that I was crying because I knew that farm kids like methose of us who fled home for the wealth of opportunities offered in places such as Des Moines and Minneapolis and Chicagoare part of the reason the Heartland is looking so different these days.
Its hard to explain a lifestyle as unique as farming to someone who has never lived it. My friend, Shu Shin Luha bona fide city girlcouldnt have found the concept more foreign. Shes an aggressive expressway driver. Im more comfortable with gravel roads. She makes dishes with fancy-sounding names such as mango glazed chicken with jasmine rice for her dinner parties. I toss a pot roast into the Crock-Pot.
Im a reporter at the Tribune. Shes a reporter at the Sun-Times.
Explain it all to me, Shu said on our drive to Iowa.
So I tried.
I tried to tell her why religion is so important on the farm: Just like a farmer has faith in an unseen God, he has faith that the rain will fall and the seeds will fertilize and the snow wont come too soon.
I tried to tell her why farm families are so close: Harvests require everyones help; dad runs the combine, brother hauls the grain to town, sister and mom deliver lunch to the fields.
And I tried to explain why farm communities are so tight-knit. When a farmer dies, the neighbors finish his harvest, and when a farmer goes bankrupt, his neighbors buy his land, and when the school district cant afford new sports uniforms, a wealthy beef farmer will offer to buy them in exchange for the privilege of christening the school team The Cattlefeeders.
Waving to all the familiar faces in my tiny town, I drove my friend past the house where I excitedly attended 4-H meetings and past the old high school where my brother was a member of the Future Farmers of America.
We drove past the churchesone Catholic, one Lutheran, one Methodistall clustered so close together that if you stand at the intersection of Ocheyedan and 3rd streets, you can see all three at once.
And we drove past the grain elevatorthe same cluster of dusty silos that sits in the heart of every Iowa hamletwhere manure-splattered farmers used to go to socialize but now go to sympathize.
I didnt know places like this still existed, Shu said, bewildered.
All around Everly, little farm towns have dried up. Moneta has only a house or two left. Rossie is no longer listed on road maps. About the only thing thriving in Greenville is the bar.
A rural sociologist recently quoted in the Des Moines Register, a newspaper that long has chronicled the plight of the American farmer, predicted a depressing change coming to Iowa: We will not be tied to the land, to the soil, to the environment, said Vern Ryan, a professor at Iowa State University. 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 Iowa will become without family farms may be questionable, but what it will lose is obvious.
It will lose an industry that accounts for more than 25 percent of its economy. It will lose a way of life that shapes its work ethic, its social values, its history.
Ask my dad to explain why Iowa farmers are going under, and hell tell you the reasons are complex: competition with countries like Brazil and Argentina; our governments aversion to trade with China; and a dirty word in our home, corporate farms.
I dont understand all the causes. But I feel the effect. I see it on Main Street, where the grocery store is shuttered and the second grain elevator is abandoned. I see it at church on Sunday, where most of the pews are filled by gray-haired couples and only three little girls run up to the altar for the childrens sermon. And I see it in my fathers worried eyes when he explains to my friend that he lost so much money on hogs that he no longer has a single pig in the lot 50 yards from our house.
With the precision of a shrewd businessman who counts the value of what he produces in fluctuating dollars and cents, my dad illustrates exactly what is happening to the American farmer.
In 1974, his first year of farming, dad sold his corn for the best market price hes seen since: $2.75 a bushel; today corn is going for about $1.93. In better days, he was selling hogs for about 55 cents a pound; last year he got a dime. And as these prices plummet, others rise. A tractor in 1974 cost between $25,000 and $30,000; Dad recently paid $76,000 for a new one. A decent combine sold for less than $40,000 back then; now a $200,000 price tag isnt uncommon.
The Scharnbergs, Kathy, Kirsten, Mark and Neil.
Still, my dad loves what he does. He proudly served us ham and
pork loin for Easter dinner. Sitting at the dinner table next
to my grandfatherthe man who taught him how to sow a fieldDad
tried to make his big-city guest understand that he wasnt selling
Kirsten Scharnberg is a Chicago Tribune staff writer. This article originally appeared in the Tribune.