America’s bedrock is in its farm fields

November 16, 2018

The dead-end township road that also is our driveway used to be a railroad bed that carried rail cars south. Rusted spikes occasionally rise from the gravel, a reminder about what was, but will never be again.

Some areas have transformed old tracks into paved bike and walking trails that traverse grain fields and pastures. Other rail beds have been incorporated into fields.

Combine lights — not unlike those that glow on sports fields — move deep into the night as farmers race to finish what has been a difficult harvest. Grain dryers hum and bins fill. Gravel roads carry semis, grain carts and hulking combines from one field to another.

As always, uncertainty is harvested along with the crops.

Many are unsure about the money they will receive from the federal government’s reimbursement for losses incurred in the nasty and ongoing trade fight with China. The Chinese market is critical as the price of soybeans struggles below $8 per bushel. The government will deliver $12 billion in overall assistance for farmers’ financial pain.

Those who depend on farmers to produce food, which remains inexpensive and allows consumers to purchase things that keep the wider economy humming, are unsure what to make of it. Some who consider the taxpayer outlay wonder why, and others are aware that such help is needed in difficult times.

Rents remain relatively stable, although renters and landowners are in general agreement that it is nearly impossible to profit from $300-plus per acre rents. The situation will make for difficult negotiations this winter.

Land values — though the top may have been taken off — remain relatively stable. The old stable that values have but one way to go and that is upward will be tested once again. The disaster of the 1980s, when land mortgages drowned when prices collapsed, must be avoided. Thousands of farmers lost their land, and many more renegotiated loans to save what they could and caused billions of dollars in losses to the Farm Credit system.

Thousands of people were ripped from the land with dire consequences for rural communities. Main Street storefronts closed, school enrollment declined, and rural communities struggled to adjust to the new reality.

The old-timers who gather for coffee in my hometown of West Concord remember when the small town included a clothing store, two banks, three cafes, two implement dealers and auto repair shops. A mural depicts a time when Main Street was filled with parked cars as families spent their money and time uptown. West Concord, like so many other towns, has lost its tax base and its current leaders struggle for economic development answers.

Those things that are great about a small town must be cherished and held. What makes a community viable goes beyond mere buildings. It is the people who make any community great. To an extent, where we live is like a quilt, which is only as strong as its weakest stitch.

A bright tomorrow exists for those who carry on.

Farming has also had boom and bust cycles. The Great Depression left its mark as did the 1980s and its scars remain visible. A new day is dawning through the gloom. It was apparent during the recent FFA National Convention in Indianapolis, where young people came together from thousands of rural small towns and farms. They will shape thousands of tomorrows just as their forfathers did.

Henry Wallace led through the Great Depression and helped with the widespread introduction of hybrid corn and inspired programs that brought relief to a forgotten rural America; the grassroots cooperative movement took power from railroad shippers and pooled purchasing power to give farmers a fairer shake.

New technologies have increased crop and livestock production efficiency.

Throughout time, the bedrock of American democracy is found, as Thomas Jefferson said, in the farm fields, barns and dreams of independent farmers.

That foundation remains much the same today.

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