Farming Through Natural Selection

If you think about it, clichés about farmers being simple and perhaps simple-minded cannot possibly have any basis in truth.  Have you ever tried to farm successfully (she asked rhetorically)?  I am not talking about agribusiness, I am speaking here of you and your family subsisting by farming your land.  The amount of physical and mental strength that is required to anticipate and plan and react to the organization and the business of farming is frankly mind-blowing. And this is the case even after taking government subsidies into account.  If you can’t simultaneously plan crop rotation, harvest and storage, as well as animal breeding, care, and sales, and still be able to do most of your own large equipment repair, you will not be farming for long. You’ll be long gone. It would be a compelling, though desperate, reality TV show:  “Here is a fully equipped farm, now live on it.”

The characters in “Deliverance” who played fiddles and such were not farmers.  I suspect that the mountain boy character, for instance, would have survived only a day or two on a farm.  Some pseudo-natural-selection-like-pressure has to operate on farming.  Only ever-smarter people can survive the life.

My knowledge of farmers is pretty extensive since this category includes my grandparents on both sides of the family. Even outside of my family, most every one of the farmers I know is possessed of amazing brainpower.  And, probably through pseudo-evolutionary pressures, they want their kids to get smarter, not stay the same.  The recent book Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams is about working class kids who were the first in their family to go to college. For them, the transition was difficult because in making it they offended everyone around them without a college degree.  The book is a collection of stories of college-educated kids repeating the same jibes from their parents: “What, our life ain’t good enough for ya?”  This does not, however, describe the families of the farmers I know.

My father’s mother, who did not go to college, drove my father and his sister all over the state of Kansas in the 1940s so that they could become debate champions.  When he was not debating, my father was playing the role of the Stage Manager in the high school production of “Our Town.”  Upon graduation, he was accepted on a full scholarship to Northwestern University, where he became the first freshman ever to make the varsity debate team.  No one in the family asked him why he needed to go to Northwestern; they sent him there.  He admitted that the first Christmas break after arriving in Evanston, he went to the station to catch the train back to Russell, Kansas four hours before the train left.  He didn’t want to miss it.

When I was a kid and my father drove around and visited farmer friends in the summer (in Kansas, or in Wisconsin where we had a “vacation” farm), and took me with him, all I was allowed to do was listen to the conversation.  So I did.  Harold discussed planting trees, gardening, keeping certain kinds of insects away and certain kinds of birds around; Raymond knew about welding and mechanics and building fences that would stand for decades (and also had a penchant for opera and American history).  Charlie could fix anything, did wood working, and had advice about storing vegetables in the winter, and Art smoothly butchered and wrapped pork, and knew where the best blackberry picking and bass fishing were.  And this was on the side, because they also knew all about the everyday business of farming.

One summer night when I was about twelve, a farmer neighbor, Pat, came to talk to my father because he was dragging around the heavy guilt of having a 17 year-old son who he had failed to fill in on the little detail that he was adopted.  How could he tell the son about being adopted at this late date, he wanted to know?  Pat had written poems about this, which he shared with my father there on that warm night. 

I reminisced about Pat recently with a friend who had known him well. “That Pat,” he said, shaking his head, remembering. “You couldn’t meet a smarter man.”