Family farming has changed but still remains the nation's bedrock

"The United States has been blessed to maintain its family farming system through thick and thin."

Many former dairy farms, along with the Harvestore silos they erected, now are empty as the industry has changed. But, Mychal Wilmes says, family farming has endured the changes.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek file photo

The old school bus route, which was retraced from memory on a warm spring day when snow geese foraged in wet fields, traveled 60 years back in time.

The riders were almost all farm kids. The boys — most of whom convinced that they would follow in their fathers' footsteps — spent most of the time in the seats talking about tractors and livestock instead of cramming for a second-hour history test.

Town kids never fully understood our fixation, which proved if nothing else we knew what was important. We yearned to cut loose a little, which at recess included playing Mumblety-Peg and/or marbles.

Dad would not have liked it at all had he known that I borrowed his jack knife that was on the dresser along with his tobacco plug and wallet. Fancy cats eyes marbles were my brothers, but they would be returned if more were won than lost.

We bus riders were from diversified farms at a time when 25 cows, a few sows and laying hens were almost enough to get families somewhat comfortably by. Oh, there were always complaints about low prices, about how city folk had become too dependent on cheap food, and how if financial things didn’t turn around there’d be no family farms left.


mychal wilmes.jpg
Mychal Wilmes

It is an old man’s habit to point out to passengers that so-and-so raised a half-dozen children on this farmstead or that; how that one lost an arm when it got caught in a picker’s chains; how another’s eldest son didn’t make it back alive from Vietnam.

The farmer who lived in the now-abandoned small brick house farmed 160 acres with a John Deere B, another was among the first to own a self-propelled combine that gobbled up corn rows faster than any pull-behind could.

There aren’t any dairy herds left on the bus route.

The problem was dairy producers in the 1960s did not make enough profits to adequately reinvest in new equipment or facilities. Financial experts at the time warned lack of adequate financial rewards left the Minnesota dairy industry vulnerable to decline. It would have dire consequences not only for producers but equipment suppliers and general stores that sold milker inflations, buckets, filters, shovels, and pitchforks.

The dairy industry peaked when small cooperative creameries produced cheese and butter and provided employment for can haulers and others.

As the 1970s began, our neighbors to the north decided to improve their dairy farm in a big way. Their herd of top-quality Guernseys were milked in two barns on the homestead. Cleaning gutters in two barns, hauling machines from one barn to the other, and feeding was labor intensive.

They were among the first to build a free-stall barn with slatted floors and a milking parlor. The couple were by no means young, but said the financial risk, which was great, was worth it.

The dairy operation — so advanced for its time — stands empty now as are the Harvestores that promised to yield the best quality haylage possible. The big blue silos and the farmers who bought them fell on tough times in the 1980s when the financial depression hit.


Agriculture has been reborn due, in part, to the realization that larger farming operations can co-exist with niche producers who have found opportunities with organics, goats, sheep and garden produce.

Thomas Jefferson said at the nation’s founding the bedrock of any democracy is found in independent farmers. The United States has been blessed to maintain its family farming system through thick and thin.

Oh, it looks much different than we could have imagined when riding that school bus. That was a wonderful time, when winning a few marbles and playing mumblety-peg in the soft grass was more than enough for us.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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