I have sometimes been asked by young school kids to name the most important changes I have witnessed in my lifetime. Realizing they are expecting me to refer to space travel, the birth of computers and miracles of science, I probably disappoint them in my response. Instead I tell them that I was 11 years old before I met my first divorced person, and that among all the kids I grew up with, I knew of no class mate who went home to a house without a full-time mother waiting. I am enough of a realist to acknowledge that it was far from a perfect world I describe, that in fact the depression was still in its depths, there was almost universal struggle, and then, along came World War II which affected everyone, everywhere. Yet, there were certain things, certain institutions and standards of mutual outlook that were a “given”; things we could count on.
J. Robert Smith, in an article republished recently in “American Thinker” wrote that “Old America was a physically rooted and connected place.” A place he went on to say where “families were intact and extended”. . .and where “the Greater community was tightly knitted together through face-to-face commerce, clubs and churches.”
At the risk of being labeled a hopeless sentimentalist, I feel blessed to have known and grown up in “Old” America, both in a small town, and later on a family farm in a rural state. In fact, even though it can be argued that “corporate farms” and “Agri-business economics” are merely a reflection of progress when it comes to food production and distribution for the “global world” in which we now live, I feel that the demise of the family farm – for one thing - has been a high price to pay for that “progress”. And so it is that phenomenon about which I write today.
In 1935, America had 6.8 million farms, and by 1940, 23% of our population still worked in the field of agriculture, most of them in a family-centered farm environment. (Today, that number is more like 2%.) Even during World War II, 80% of all our fruits and vegetables were grown in family-tended gardens and small local farms, and despite wartime rationing, home canning and preserving hit an all-time high, more than offsetting the need for the U.S. to feed much of the remaining free-world. I think it is no coincidence that the term “greatest generation” we assign to those who fought and won WW II, describes men and women who grew up in a society whose work ethic, sense of morality, and love of country were anchored largely in the rural and small-town America with whose values they were imbued.
Since 1981, 750,000 farms in America have gone out of business, and with them one million jobs. In his book, “A Family Farm”, Robert Switzer says the American yeoman-farmer is “doomed”, despite the fact that farms and farm families remain powerful symbols of American culture. An indication that this sad trend is continuing can be found in what can be termed “the graying” of our farm population: 40% of farmers & ranchers are 55 or older, while only 6% are 35 or younger.
Not long ago I stood with a life-long friend whose Arbuckle hilltop acres look down on the Vermont valley in which I grew up, noting – as I gazed upon all the farm homes and fields I remembered so well – that “nothing has really changed”. My friend shook his head, “Wrong: look again”. When I still didn’t understand, he explained: “Count the cows!” It took only a moment. There weren’t any. At one time 80% of Vermont was farmed, and there were 32,000 farms; mostly dairy. Today, Vermont, the one state which has otherwise resisted change more than any other I know, has only 2,000.
I keep trying to tell myself that we live in the “best of times”, surrounded by wonders that spell PROGRSS writ large. But deep down, there is a quiet, nagging voice whispering “I miss the OLD America.”
Perhaps because it reminded me of the barn in which I did my own growing up. I began taking photographic note of this typical, now abandoned, Vermont farm each year while visiting the town of Pittsford. Then, on my last visit in 2008, it was gone; even its remnants hauled away. Today, its memory lives on in my digital photo file; a kind of pictorial obituary to so much which we have lost. Al Cooper Photo
In his own inimitable way, Norman Rockwell, who loved “Old” America deeply, perfectly captured this intimate image of the multi-generational nature of the traditional farm family of an earlier time.