It was, by those who mourned his passing, a fitting way for him to die. My grandfather died on a summer Sunday afternoon while inspecting tasseling corn and ripening oats.
He was among the many buoyed by faith that all in the fields and the heart were gifts from above, and good labor was rewarded on Earth and in heaven. Not being a preacher, he may or may not have thought sloth — an old English word meaning laziness and a lack of interest in constructive things — one of the deadly seven sins.
There are other ways to lose oneself in what can be described as the challenges that arise in life. Livelihoods and dreams lost are difficult wounds to overcome. I was struck by that during the gosh-awful financial depression that devastated farmers and agribusinesses in the 1980s. The fervent optimism of the 1970s withered and died in the ‘80s under the weight of skyrocketing interest rates and falling land prices.
Opinions varied over the reasons agriculture was caught in the vice. Segments of the experts and the general population opined that it was a natural progression that would result in more efficient farmers and agribusiness.
Some — but not all economists — pointed out the inefficiencies in agricultural production and that the obvious need was to weed out the inefficient. The farming pie was only so big, so if there were fewer farmers, the pieces would be larger for those who remained.
One expert — representing the Chicago Board of Trade — predicted that within decades one or two mammoth dairy farms near metropolitan areas could provide enough raw milk to meet a city’s demand. Sending trucks to dozens of farms to pick up milk, he said, was not only inefficient; it resulted in poor-quality product.
It was much easier for those wearing fancy clothes to reach that conclusion than for the men and women who dirtied their hands with soil. Many of the latter said that the mess was the natural result of bungled government policies, unfair markets and a general goal to reduce the farming population.
This side, at its best, was represented by the crowd that gathered in Ames, Iowa, to protest the dire situation. Organizers drove 15,000 white crosses into the ground in front of the gathering spot to represent the farmers lost.
Both sides admitted great pain would be inflicted.
That was obvious in the shellshocked faces gathered in Ames and elsewhere. Some had drawn near the end of their emotional ropes, while others vowed to fight on.
The national media, which generally ignored rural interests, were slow to grasp the crisis. One famous network correspondent who I often saw reporting on TV asked me why the farmers in Ames were so mad. I went through the dirty laundry lists of reasons before she arranged a one-on-one talk with a speaker.
Hollywood, which previously had little interest in farmers or their interests, responded with a major motion picture. “Country,’’ which starred Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard, was shot in Dunkerton and Readlyn, Iowa. The plot was about the farming pair and a father who were struggling to hold on to the farm that had been in the family for generations.
It was a massive hit, despite complaints that it was an unrealistic portrayal of farmers and farms. If you get the chance, watch it for history’s sake if for no other reason.
The old ways quickly passed, and 21st century agriculture benefits from herbicide and technology advances that have helped farmers become more efficient than ever before. The American Farm Bureau Federation reports that each U.S. farm feeds 166 people annually in the United States and worldwide. That is remarkable, and the importance of greater productivity will only increase along with growth in worldwide population.
I can say without reservation the events of the 1980s left its mark on me. The loss of a way of life and its aftermath cannot be forgotten, even as agriculture is in a new age.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.