Although Disregarded, Small Farmers Keep Economy Moving

By Jim Van Der Pol

I was born in the late 1940s into an agriculture community that was failing. In the manner of a child, I assumed that the world I was part of was permanent and ongoing. My living and farming and writing since that time can all be seen in terms of a dawning realization that this was not so. Indeed, I soon saw that not only was change happening, but that something valuable was being carelessly tossed aside. The knowledge of how to farm as well as a passion for the occupation was being lost each time a farm failed. I saw that I was becoming alone, isolated and an outlier in my own home country.

I became angry. Anger by itself is a corrosive and destructive emotion, but anger that has an object, anger that knows that it has been messed with and by whom, is wholesome, character building and very effective as an agent for change.

Many of the essays in my book, Conversations with the Land, are built upon that anger. I think they are some of the best. Some of them point to huge forces that mean to suck the economic life from us and some are directed at what I have begun to call “the man in the mirror.” This is because many of the most vicious attacks by the powers that be upon our economic well being are enabled by the mistaken attitudes we carry around with us.

So from my awakening anger, it was but a short step indeed to the determination to do something about it. That determination, and the capacity for that anger, was put into me by several true prairie populists; my father, who taught me to care for family and love farming and my mother, who taught me to care for family and love learning. They knew that success was not a given, but that giving up was not an option.

So it was that not so many years into farming as the universities and corporate agriculture would have it, I found fellow travelers and went another way. Telling about it and talking about it with others seemed merely the natural thing to do. And now, from the perspective of a full 25 years into the changes and the conversation, it is becoming impossible to avoid the realization that the problems and misdirection I have been speaking about are not exclusively rural, that some version of the same destructive force is impacting all Americans and quite possibly, most of the world as well. This thought is both terrifying, because of the size and power of the destructive force, and exhilarating, because if the problem is really that widespread, think of the millions of people that should be ready to join the conversation!

Agriculture is a human endeavor. We have forgotten this, or have allowed our fascination with our crackpot economic philosophy to drive it from our minds. The goals that my family has set for our farm include that we wish to work surrounded by more people, and because that goal is there, we have made decisions in such a way that some of it has come to pass. Official agriculture, meanwhile, is more inhuman and mechanical with each new machine and each new manufactured seed and hormone.

Geopositioning results in absolutely straight corn rows now, and Roundup makes them weed free, for the time being. Nature does not do this kind of work. Neither do people. Not surprisingly, as the technology has taken control and the management has left, so have the people. At this point conventional agriculture cannot find people enough in the younger generation to carry the enterprise forward. It is, increasingly, an old man’s game. Farming by riding around.

It is people, often female, who can empathize with the farrowing sow. It is people, not orbiting satellites, who can feel the painful changes in the earth through their feet when it dries up and blows around. And it is only people who can deal with climate change and land degradation and desertification, each in his or her own life. No institution can do much more than talk about it. And government is the captive of the forces causing the problem. But people can, if they choose, take care of each other, of the surrounding community, and of the earth on which it depends. This is what being human means. And this is why the conversation is so important.

We need to teach each other how properly to live on the earth. An agriculture that conspires at driving people out of it has a death wish. This is so apparent now that it hardly bears repeating. The task for all of us, breathtaking in its scope, is to try to make sure it does not destroy everything around it in the fulfillment of that wish.

I wish to be as direct and honest as possible. I do not believe objectivity is possible so I offer this short description of myself and my beliefs, so that you may be forewarned. I am a liberal, or progressive, if you prefer. This means that I believe in certain policies, not in a certain party. The religion in which I was raised instructs me that I am to be my brother’s keeper and I have never been able to figure out how to try to do that in our times without involving the government. I am in step with the Democrats whenever they are useful, which they most often are not, unfortunately. When they are not, I go my own way.

In my personal life, I am conservative, upholding as best I can the values of thrift, personal responsibility, humility, care of the land and community and so forth. The difficulty with being politically conservative in America is that the philosophy is confused and dumbfounding when it comes to economics. Conservatives insist upon a belief in capitalism, which is not conservative at all, but incredibly radical. Capitalism destroys resources and people with equal equanimity as it seeks to turn them into money with all possible speed. It gives no thought to the future and takes no responsibility for damage to either the natural or human community in its quest to gather all wealth to itself. And “itself” is always fewer and fewer people.

Liberals, without much in the way of success, seek to control the viciousness of capitalism while preserving some of the good productive results by government regulation. Lately, I have become attracted to the idea of cultural controls on capitalism. I have written about the idea. We all know stories of good smaller businesses and farms, some of them multigenerational, which run without damage, or by minimal damage, to the resources they are using, the people doing the production, or the customers. And I wonder, what is it about these people that seems to allow them to use the tools of capitalism, without participating in its destructiveness? I have begun to think that exploration of this idea and phenomenon holds the most promise for fostering a good and conserving agriculture and rural community in America.

Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn. This is from the introduction to a collection of his columns, Conversations with the Land, which was published in January by No Bull Press (

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2012

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