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Shannon Bardwell: Losing the farm


Shannon Bardwell



Author Ann Voskamp posted on her blog that she worries about her children. She and her Dutch heritage husband raised them on their farm. They thought they'd grow up to be farmers, but with the economy, she says, they'll have to get fields of their own. She asks her husband, "Did we do wrong raising them like this? Should we move?" 


At the supper table I asked Sam, "How come we don't have any bottling plants anymore?" I saw a big Clark Coca Cola truck on Highway 82, but it didn't say "Bottling." Where do they bottle? Sam talked about being a little boy and seeing the bottles go round and round at the Coca Cola bottling plant on College Street in Columbus. Then one day the bottling plants just slipped away. 


Last fall we took our RV and headed up through America's heartland. It was harvest season and we were thrilled to watch red, blue and green combines running through huge fields of grain. There were long stretches between farms. I wondered about the school children, about the women. Some said the women had to get town jobs to help out with finances. I thought about how the absence of the farm wife would change farm life. 


The subject of farming came up at church and I tried to slink away while the men folks huddled up. Farmers are very proud of their livelihoods. Retired Jim Craddock talked about what a fine living farming had been for his brother and himself. Later, Sam talked to a Mennonite man from Macon who said corn had been good to them. 


But census records aren't as promising. The Environmental Protection Agency says 40 percent of farmers are over 55, calling it the "graying of the farm population." Many farms that meet the U.S. Census definition of "farm" do not make enough income to meet the family's living expenses. Fewer than one in four farms in this country produce gross revenues in excess of $50,000. 


I called a Mississippi university's agriculture and economics department to ask them about farming. I was transferred to the appropriate Ph.D. and asked, "If a student asked you what would it take to have a viable farm, what would you say?" 


The Ph.D. laughed and said, "Family land." 


Since the beginning of time farmers have worried -- too much rain, not enough rain, an early frost, a late frost, wind, storms, hail, bugs. They worried about losing the crop, but did they worry about losing the farm? 


My walking buddy and I pass by Prairie fields every day and watch waves of grain, wheat, corn, even sunflowers. Scott and Lydia Enlow raise garden vegetables and chicken eggs for the Farmers' Market when not at their day jobs. The Alabama kids come every summer selling peaches from the back of a pickup. Karen and Vinny Harris sell tomatoes on the honor system. 


If we're not careful the family farm will slip away like the bottling plants, and we will all be the worse for it.


Shannon Rule Bardwell is a Southern writer living quietly in the Prairie.


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