Throughout history, and in every part of the world, political rulers – and the elites who enable them – have been flattering the ‘agrarian’ classes for the benefit of the state. That these classes buy into it, no less today than ever before is an impediment to economic and political freedom. I have always loved agriculture and rural life but have never been of the opinion that people are morally superior merely for living in rural areas, or that those who farm deserve adulation and special privileges either because the economics of agriculture require it or because the production of food is nobler than other occupations or endeavors. Both of my grandfathers were farmers, but neither subscribed to this agrarian exceptionalism.
My own interest in agriculture began as early as it could have; namely, as a small pre-school boy in the 1940s following my maternal grandfather around his hilly and shale-outcropped farm in upstate New York. Not a prosperous man, he still used draft horses and milked his small dairy herd by hand. There were obvious limiting factors that prevented him from increasing the scope of his operation, such as the inability of his land to provide more pasture and feed; the fact that his old barns were much too small for additional storage of hay or livestock; and that he had not enough time to do more work. He never had a permanently hired man and never had the money to install indoor plumbing in their home. They had a large garden and laying hens, so they had a model of what many urbanites believe farming should still be. Of course, he had a few off-farm jobs, including upkeep of a cemetery, to earn extra cash.
I can still remember his old dairy barn with about eight wooden stanchions, each with a painted name over it placed there years before. He told me if a stanchion sign read ‘Molly,’ then every cow that ever used that stanchion in the future would be ‘Molly.’ Why change the signs since cows rarely came with names and didn’t care? I worried that the cows wouldn’t know their names, but I needn’t have worried as the list of names also included both Polly and Dolly. I later learned that he had once during the 1920s decided to become a purebred breeder and began to build a herd of Ayrshires. But the market value of those Ayrshire cows and heifers in the lean years of the 1930s had caused him to disperse that herd and replace it with cheaper stock that produced about as much milk; reportedly a sad decision.
What my grandfather loved most were his horses. He had bought his farm in 1914 by selling his trucking company in Brooklyn, a business he had started while still in his teens after hanging around the stables in that city after the turn of the century. By age 15 he was already a valuable city teamster since, being American-born of English parents, he was able to travel unimpeded from one ethnic district to another. In those days, Brooklyn was a veritable checkerboard of sections populated by newly arrived – and nationalistic – immigrants from Italy, Poland, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Greece, etc. A man who could haul goods among all the deeply ethnic blocks had an advantage, and by 19, he was running his own firm.
But even by 1910, horse-drawn trucks were being replaced by the new motor trucks, a sign of progress that was not applauded by my grandfather. After all, it was horses that had drawn him into trucking in the beginning. He began to dream of being a farmer, where he could spend his days outside working with horses rather than deal with motors, employees, and city ordinances. More disturbing to him was that Brooklyn had been increasingly subject to epidemics of polio (Infantile Paralysis), a disease that authorities know very little about. Being now married and the father of two toddlers, he decided to sell his business and buy a farm where he could make a living while raising his children in a healthy environment.
My grandfather never took things for granted. Having lived in a city all of his life, he understood that he knew almost nothing about farming. In truth, the rocky farm they bought 100 miles north of New York City was barely capable of supporting a family with two children, let alone the family of seven children that they eventually had. He read books and pamphlets voraciously, and he experimented boldly. He learned to butcher hogs, and once, while waiting for a veterinarian, he dissected a cow that had died for unknown reasons to learn more about her anatomy. Why he never contracted Anthrax, since that is what the vet determined killed her, was a mystery, which my grandfather scratched up to ‘beginner’s luck.’
His toolsheds were crammed so full that even I, as a tiny lad, had to turn sideways to reach the workbenches. They were filled with everything imaginable but extremely neat. He had countless jars of sorted nails, screws, washers, nuts and other miscellaneous metal of every description. His shovels and other tools were clean and oiled. Today, he would be pegged as below the poverty line and eligible for all kinds of government help, but he never took any. He didn’t think of himself as poor, and a look at his harness would convince others. It was clean, oiled, polished, and hung neatly until its next use. Walking with my grandfather was like being with Thoreau or a forest ranger. He was intrigued by nature and his lifelong self-study made him an expert, even to the point of selecting edible mushrooms for the table.
Because he had been prosperous in another business (and another world) by the time he turned 21, and because he had chosen to farm knowing he was ignorant, he never took it or nature for granted and never thought anyone owed him a living or ‘parity’ prices. He felt he had a right to try to exist on a farm, but he never farmers had a right to succeed. He was naturally tolerant of anyone who tried farming and especially of all ethnic groups and nationalities – although no one knew more ethnic jokes because every neighborhood in Brooklyn that he had hauled freight into told him jokes about the others. He also never had the notion that because he and his family farmed or lived in a “rural” community, that they were better, either morally or any other way than the equally good people that he’d known in Brooklyn.
My paternal grandfather was a German immigrant who borrowed money at age 16 to emigrate alone from Germany to eastern Iowa, where he worked and eventually saved enough to earn a farm of his own. While both grandfathers lived and farmed 1,000 miles apart and never had the chance to meet, my father was always convinced that they would have seen eye-to-eye on most things. I am proud that all they ever asked was the chance.