The Family Farm

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Given my total inability to care for other living things, it’s somewhat surprising I’m descended from a long line of farmers. When I was born, my parents lived on land owned by my family for at least three generations. One of my relatives allegedly acquired it directly from its original inhabitants, who were either Indians or lizard people. Family records from back then are sketchy, but I’m fairly certain my great grandmother had a green tail. The only thing my bloodline is better at than sunning itself on warm rocks is quitting, which my dad demonstrated when I was a toddler. He abandoned the drudgery of farming to enter the exciting world of cubicle work, and he wasn’t alone. Across the world, the family farm is dying, just like it has been for thousands of years. At the dawn of agriculture, everyone grew their own food, but now less than 3 percent of the population produces the calories for the entire planet. With each successive generation, it takes less labor to yield greater harvests. Someday there will be zero humans involved and all food production will be handled by automated farm equipment. Then those machines will turn against us and humanity will starve to death, thereby making self-aware tractors the dominant form of life on the planet. It’s called progress, people.
Farmers keep the human race alive. I stare at a computer screen all day and take naps with my eyes open. Clearly both jobs are equally important.
Politicians rail against the decline of the family farm, but the truth is agriculture isn’t a quaint hobby; it’s a business. There’s no reason a factory farm for hogs should be any different than a factory for shoes. If you want artesian-crafted, fair-trade loafers, by all means fork over $200 for them. Sure, they’ll wear out just as quickly as shoes from a large plant, but you can’t put a price on the respect you’ll gain from your fellow hipsters. Wait, actually you can. It costs exactly $200. For those of us who aren’t intimidated by the ironic flannel mafia, it’s not practical to buy overpriced food from the nine farmers in America who insist on harvesting crops like sixteenth-century peasants. Real serfs used the best technology available to them, even if it was only a blade on a stick. I would’ve loved to be in the lab with the guy who made that exciting breakthrough. When industrial innovations like the combine harvester came along, American famers embraced them. Their goal wasn’t to make their lives look like an idyllic scene in a medieval oil painting; it was to make money to support their families. They laid off hired hands and replaced them with cheap, mechanized labor, enabling a single farmer to handle hundreds or even thousands of acres by himself. The so-called “family farm” is a capitalist enterprise every bit as heartless as Goldman Sachs or “Sesame Street.” Everyone knows those puppets are only in it for the money.
The power of a truck is measured in horses. The power of a combine is measured in peasants. This harvester is rated at 900 serfs.
My ancestors and their fellow immigrants didn’t view backbreaking labor and animal fecal matter as romantic. They farmed when they got to America simply because it paid the bills and was a convenient alternative to starvation. I don’t know what my great great grandparents did for a living in their home countries, but I assume they weren’t very good at it. Few people fled Europe to escape success. Then again, maybe they all came to America for a vacation but couldn’t return home. Back then the U.S. was one big tourist trap. Few travelers could resist catchy slogans like “South Carolina: It’s not so bad if you’re not a slave” and “Iowa: we have dirt.” That soil thing suckered in immigrants from every poor, Catholic country on the other side of the Atlantic. When my ancestors got here, they farmed because uneducated immigrants who didn’t speak English usually didn’t get accepted to medical school. If there were job options other than agricultural labor and factory work, they would’ve picked something else. My great grandfather would’ve made an excellent cocaine trafficker or organ thief. A whole pig isn’t nearly as valuable as one human kidney.
My ancestors were awfully excited about Iowa’s dirt. By the mid-1800s, most of Europe’s farmland was already covered by strip malls.
The movement to preserve small farms like museums rather than respect them as free-market businesses is strongest in people who have never worked the land. Farmers themselves are decidedly unsentimental about anything. My grandfather couldn’t think of anything useful to do with his childhood home, so he burned it down. Things like that tend to happen when you have a full liquor cabinet and only three TV channels. The building came down easily because it was built on a slope that was somewhere between a steep hill and a gradual cliff. When my ancestors first got to the area, either all the desirable land was already taken or my family’s patriarch was mainly concerned with finding good ground for sledding. The grade was so severe that when he sold his livestock to someone who owned level ground, they still walked at a slant. Angled farming must have been more lucrative than it sounds because my forefathers eventually bought up three neighboring farms and combined them into a single 200-acre estate. It sounds like a lot of land to someone who lives on a subdivision lot small enough to mow with scissors, but if you think of a modern farm as the size of a house, my grandfather’s operation was as big as a spacious broom closet. My dad’s dad moved into a house on the annexed land set fire to his former home because it was old and useless. No one brought up this policy years later when it was time to decide what to do with him. When you spend hundreds of hours caring for an animal only to turn around and eat it, you tend not to get too attached to anything.
The family farm has been disappearing since the dawn of agriculture, so politicians who decide 2013 is the right time to save it are a little late to the game. My grandfather farmed four times more land than my great grandfather, and modern farmers easily handle ten times more acreage than that. Thanks to this efficiency, a handful of agricultural entrepreneurs work very hard to ensure the rest of us can lead lives of sloth and gluttony. We’d be wise to stock up on these surplus calories now. Before we know it, those self-aware tractors will rebel and cut us off from food. It’s our patriotic duty to get ready for this siege by adding a few more layers of fat.