NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665
September 14, 2000
Recently on the radio I heard the bishop of a mainstream Protestant denomination fretting about declining membership. Putting his ideas into my own terms, nobody (or hardly anybody) converts to Lutheranism. You are born into it, or you marry into it.
Thats a lot like farming, which is what I intend to write about, and more specifically why we have so few farmers on the plains. Its just about impossible to become a farmer in this region of capital-intensive agriculture. You are born one, or you marry one.
People think that the Depression and the Dust Bowl drove people from the farms of the plains, but by and large, they did not. Most ex-farmers packed it in since World War II. They left in hard times, and they left in good times, too.
For a while in the1950s it was not evident what was happening. The schools were full, all the country towns were building swimming pools, things seemed fine, rock and roll was here to stay. Then the kids disappeared. This was not the work of some piper. We on the plains, and on our farms, just decided that like people all over the country, we would have fewer kids -- going along with the national norm of essentially replacement numbers.
Disregarding economics and ecology, its easy to explain the loss and consolidation of farms on the plains just by demography. There are ever fewer farmers to operate them.
Do the numbers. Two kids per household. One is a girl, and traditionally we have not encouraged girls to become farm operators. The other is a boy, and in this free country, he has many opportunities. There is a better-than-average chance that a farm boy will wish to follow in his fathers footsteps. But many will not. Then there is no one to carry on the family farm.
There is no end to this and no relief in sight, unless we revisit the passing reference I made above -- about girls becoming women farm operators. This country needs more landed women. Although Ive lived my whole life in the latter half of the 20th century, when I was a stripling there were still physical reasons that farmers, by and large, should be men. Our brown arms hefted square bales into the loft. Now hydraulic arms pick up round bales, and a 100-pound woman can pull the lever as easily as a 200-pound man.
One of the joys of my profession is that I get to know thousands of beautiful, smart young men and women. Dont try to tell me that the young women in my classes would not make admirable farmers. It just rarely occurs to them, or it occurs too late, that they might be.
Lately Ive been reading in The American Country Girl, by Martha Foote Crow, published in 1915. Her chapter, "The Homesteader," cites the experiences of Mabel Stewart Lewis, "a successful South Dakota homesteader."
Lewis says, "What could be more delightful than owning ones own land, having ones own house, digging in ones own soil, and being ones own and only boss?
"I see that our life here is another part of the great feminist movement of the world, a real and very vital part for the young women who are fortunate enough to be classed among the homesteaders." That was in 1915, remember.
Crow calls such homesteaders "exceptional" and goes on to detail what she thinks will be necessary to retain or attract "the average Country Girl." The funny thing is, all the things Crow mentions -- modern homes, health care, society, the arts -- all those things are things country women in 2000 commonly have.
Maybe, you say, girls are just not naturally inclined to be farmers. I say, they are not inclined to be farmers of the same sort as those of the past -- and therein lies our hope.
NDSU Agriculture Communication
Source: Tom Isern, (701) 799-2942
Editor: Gary Moran, (701) 231-7865
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