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The Evolution of the Family Farm

Carry (left) and sister Kellen Clark check the cows while their Papa, Chris Vann, looks on. Their family farm provides each generation with joys and responsibilities. -Photo Submitted

By Jeffry Boatright

From the air conditioned cab of a 200 horsepower farm tractor, it might seem unfathomable that we are only a couple of generations from plowing with a mule. Technology has transformed agriculture from its primitive methods of instinct and tenacity into a scientific industry of increased yield, improved varieties and advanced methods.

With new advances in agriculture, farmers can yield much more per acre from their crops than they possibly could have just a few decades ago. Once one crop is harvested and the ground is replenished with nutrients, another crop is planted and the cycle continues.

Because of technology, more conservative methods of irrigation allow crops to receive adequate amounts of water without excessive waste of the precious commodity. Technology even allows for remote control of irrigation through smart phones.

It wasn’t always that easy, however. Even though some larger tractors can cost well over $100,000.00, and the price of suitable farm land reaches a few thousand dollars per acre today, the risks and challenges have always been present in the farming industry. Disease, extreme weather conditions and pests have challenged farmers from generation to generation. Indeed, the loss of a crop was equally devastating to the farmer with a mule and forty acres, as it might be to today’s farmer with ten tractors and two thousand acres.

As things progressed in our nation and the mule was replaced by the one-row tractor, which was later replaced by the two-row tractor, the family farm began to evolve. Fewer laborers would be needed throughout the year and that allowed for one or more members from the household to accept public jobs. Still, even throughout the twentieth century, teenagers in rural areas found afterschool jobs and summer work on family farms.

They were taught work ethic and the importance of commitment. Nobody knocked off until the job was done. Sometimes the work carried them into the tobacco fields or watermelon fields. Perhaps it was working in hay or racking tobacco. Those born prior to 1955, probably experienced stringing tobacco. It wasn’t easy, and somehow timid, inexperienced boys and girls would enter into the fields of harvest and exit young men and women who had become better prepared for the workforce. They appreciated the fruits of their labor and would usually spend their hard-earned money on new school clothes. For many, it was also on the job training as they, too, planned to farm.

A general question that is often asked of America’s youth is what their ultimate career goal might be. It wasn’t long ago that the typical response, especially from the adolescent males of North Florida, was to farm. Of course, farming was often viewed as a family tradition with generations of agriculturists before fashioning the North Florida wilderness into suitable land to raise crops and livestock.

Farming was much more than a vocation. Instead, it was a lifestyle. Perhaps it was even viewed as an obligation or duty. In so many ways, that first crop was a rite of passage for the young men and women who struggled to fill the shoes of a new generation of farmers. North Florida was no different. Like the rest of the nation, the youth took the reins and accepted innovative ideas that would lead to higher yields, better products, larger operations and eventually fewer farmers.

After three consecutive years of decline, the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), has predicted the national net farm income to be up three percent from last year. Agriculture has always experienced cycles of economic difficulties and rewards in the United States. Such cycles, however, have introduced financial risks that many young Americans are no longer willing to embrace as a vocation. Furthermore, the astronomical costs of farming and initial investment, along with regulations, have made it impossible for many young Americans to enter a field that has historically been the backbone of America. As a result, we have seen the family farm all but fade into obscurity, which has propelled the growth of corporate farming.

With the ultimate decline of the family farm, there has been much more lost, however, than the opportunity for young men and women to pursue a career in farming. The family farm offered parents the opportunity to work alongside their children. As crops developed, children developed morally, and as animals grew, parents instilled the importance of life in their children.

Families worked together and they attended church together. Bonds were built and love was unconditional. When a neighbor was in need, others came to the aid of that neighbor. When the tide turned, the neighbor was always there, too. It didn’t matter if a roof needed repair or a crop needed harvesting, neighbors helped neighbors. Looking back, the family farm was a common bond that fostered love and devotion in our small communities.

While the family farm might seem a fading memory for some and a fairy tale to others, it does remain a reality. The dream remains alive throughout America. Somewhere in every state remains an Oliver Wendell Douglas who is willing to trade in the suit and desk for a pitchfork and overalls.

As unfathomable as it might seem, the two-row tractor and family farm might eventually regain prominence, not only in the agricultural industry, but in American society. Through concerted efforts, it isn’t impossible. It is entirely possible, especially if we embrace the things that are truly important and demonstrate courage, tenacity, loyalty and faith, just as America’s greatest generations so admirably did.