The Death of the Family Farm and the Death of Real Capitalism

by , posted on Monday, June 25th, 2012 at 7:00 am

It was 1921. He was a young man with a bunch of hopes and dreams, just barely twenty, and entering this country from Sweden with a trunk as his only possession. He came from the farms of Sweden hoping to some day buy a farm in America. Someone there had told him it might be possible to own a farm here. It was a wild dream really, but one in which he believed.

In Sweden he knew it was an impossible dream. All the farms and all the land was owned by a small group of large moneyed families and rented out in parcels to tenants. Reuben’s family had been tenant farmers for generations and generations, able to eke out a living but never able to build a secure foundation from which a family can grow. As far back as records can document, no one in his family had ever owned any of the land they farmed.

And so for over two decades in America, Reuben toiled the land. Milked the cows. Learned to read and write English. Fell in love. Married a farmer’s daughter named Rose. Had three boys. And did buy that farm.

Their oldest son Bert was handicapped and lived on the farm until he died. Bert taught the family the value of compassion and patience. Don, the second son, took over the farm, married a farmer’s daughter and had five sons. But the farm was not big enough to support two families. It was the early 60’s, and by this time, corporations were beginning to buy up family farms.

With the development of pesticides, farming large tracts of land became possible. Between pesticides and the rise corporations, small family farms were on a death march. Family farms were unable to compete with the large-scale farming of corporations.

And so Jim, the youngest, had to leave the farming life to find another path. It was a painful decision for him. I learned while living with him that while you can take the farm away from the man, you can’t take the farm out of the man. And that’s a good thing.

Jim, and his entire farm family embodied farm values. Trust in the process of life. Honor your family name. Take a stand when needed. Keep your word. Be kind.

You cannot have a successful farm without learning those values and taking them into your bones. Plowing the fields, milking the cows, birthing the calves, working together as a family unit to put food on the table.

When the farm could not support Jim, he was the first ever in his family to leave farming and go to college. And so began the mass exodus.

Jim’s brother was the last to farm. Jim was the first to leave. And all the children from Don and Jim went on to college and never farmed.

Hundreds of years of farmers in the family, gone from the farm in one generation. But not gone because they wanted something else. Gone because family farms were the first small business casualties in the growth of huge corporations in this country. They had no choice but to leave.

The death march of family farms was soon followed by the death of mom and pop stores, restaurants, and you name the business. If it was successful, corporations found a way to incorporate it, expand it, and squeeze out the family business.

All the children from Don’s and Jim’s family, to their great credit and to the credit of opportunities that were at one time available in this country, have gone on to live successful productive lives without farming. They too, embody the values living day to day on a farm has taught. My hope is they pass this legacy on to their children so the legacy of hundreds of years of farming life is preserved in our family.

But I fear this is part of something much greater that has been lost from our country. As I drive the roads in the countryside where I still live and where all the family farms used to be, I see large homes, country clubs, and golf courses.

But if I drive a few more miles, I see very depressed areas where many people live in poverty. There is a widening gap in this country between the rich and the poor. The middle class is shrinking. Many of the opportunities that were available to Jim and our children have now disappeared. I fear for my grandchildren and their children.

Reuben left Sweden for an opportunity to buy a farm here in America. That dream today would be ridiculous.

It seems many in our country are now facing what Reuben was in Sweden when large moneyed groups owned the resources. Today the average person in this country is left to eke out a living with little hope of truly getting ahead. Huge corporations rule the opportunities available for most of us.

And too many of us are left to fight with each other, struggling with the diminishing hope of finally being one of the very few Americans who actually do get ahead. The development of huge corporations has tilted the playing field and made it nearly impossible for most Americans to have the American dream. The development of huge corporations, along with all their legal protections, has swallowed the opportunity for many small businesses. This isn’t what capitalism looks like; this is what the death of capitalism looks like.

And so, without the opportunity America once provided, all we are left with are our values. Which actually is more important anyway. But just try to feed your baby a bowl of values and she will not survive the week.


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