Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Agricultural Generational Gap

My grandfather has been living with us for the last two months. It's been interesting, to say the least. I love him, but we do not see eye to eye on a number of things... and one of those is farming.

For almost the entirety of my farm job last year, Papaw would call me about once a week, and we would have the following conversation:
Him: So.... why are you working on a farm?
Me: Well, you know, sustainable agriculture and learning about issues concerning farmers and public health and stuff....
Him: Oh, okay.
-One week later-
Him: So.... why are you working on a farm?
I have a sneaking suspicion that this is a common attitude his generation has towards those who, like me, are approaching farming despite never before having so much as picked an ear of corn - i.e. "Generation Organic".*

Papaw was born in 1931 and has lived his entire life in Milltown, Indiana. Milltown is a very small town in southern Indiana, in a county with so few people that they don't even have a stoplight. He spent his formative years on a farm, where his family grew pretty much all the food they needed to survive. They had four cows, a few pigs, chickens, and produce - a homestead, basically. When they needed a little extra money, they went to town in the family's Model T and sold eggs and cream. After a brief stint in the Navy, Papaw got a job with DuPont in Louisville, where he worked until he retired.

To my grandfather, farming is something he was required to do. Being in a position to purchase food, rather than grow it all himself, was a mark of prosperity. You only farmed if you needed to.

Not to mention, he helped pay for my college education... something he never had. From his perspective, it probably looks like I'm just throwing all that money away. After all, you don't need an education to farm, right?

But here's the thing... you do need an education to farm. My grandfather received his education from his parents and grandparents, and they from theirs. His education was distilled over generations of farmers making mistakes and learning from them to find what worked best. Farming is something that takes observation, skill, perseverance, and the ability to problem solve.

Once the middle of the 20th century hit, agriculture in this country underwent a radical change. Technological advancements enabled fewer people to grow larger amounts of food. The number of farms dropped, while the acreage of those farms went through the roof. Suddenly, you didn't have to farm to make ends meet. You could have a job in the city and shop at the supermarket.

And a generation of children grew up without knowing how to farm, and all that lovely knowledge disappeared.

My grandfather will probably never understand why I feel compelled - yes, compelled - to farm. Part of that is because of his short-term memory loss, which means that he forgets everything I tell him within minutes.

But even if he could remember, I don't know if he would really get it. He has always taken for granted the warmth of the sun on the back of his neck, the heft of a shovel, the feel of Indiana soil crumbling between his fingers.

And I have always taken for granted that, if I need to, I can just run down to the store and pick up a head of lettuce. Understanding - or not, as the case may be - is a two way street.

*I say this because he's not the only member of his generation who has tried to convince me that farming is sheer madness and a waste of time. One of the nicer responses I've received was, "Well.... I guess it's a stable occupation..."

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