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Depew Family Farm

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

My little brother sent me the below photo of our family farm this evening. He found it online at an aerial map service.

I remember the aerial photo of my family’s farm that my grandparents used to have hanging on their wall. They paid an aerial photographer for it. Apparently such expensive endeavors are no longer necessary. The photo below is not as high quality as the photo that used to hang on my grandparents wall, but this one was free.

Depew Family Farm near Laurens, Iowa

The pictures is oriented as you would a map. The greenest square in the southwest corner is the yard and house. To the north and west is the machine shed. Directly north of the house is the barn where my grandpa milked cows and where my family has raised sheep, pigs and beef cattle. To the north of that yet is a feed yard and the old silo, unused for decades. To the east of the silo are a couple of open front livestock sheds. North of the silo and those sheds is the grove of trees planted to protect the farmstead from cold north winds.

To the east of the yard and house is the shop and the corn crib that we shelled ear corn out of until I was in high school. The larger white building to the north of the corn crib and to the east of the silo is the insulated winter farrowing building what we bought second hand and moved on site while I was in college.

To the east of the farmstead sits four hoop houses for hogs. We built all four from the ground up with little or no hired labor, completing the first and west-most one in the fall of 1998. I still distinctly remember finishing it on crisp fall days while listening to market reports on the radio as the price of hogs crashed. We poured a shorter concrete slab in the front of that building and used plywood for the walls. Who could justify more expensive concrete and tongue and groove sidewalls with hogs at eight dollars a hundred weight?

I think we took one year off before building the next three hoop houses in three consecutive years. The third and fourth were purchased used. Their previous owner tore them down, opting instead to build more confinement facilities. I remember talking to him as he told me that the hoop house “just didn’t fit with his business model.” I think he had tried to pack hogs into them as dense as he did in his confinement buildings, and was disappointed with the results.

Soon there is a good chance there will be no more hogs in those hoop buildings. That’s a story for another blog post though.

As We Sow

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

Part 1



Part 2


Part 3

Horribly depressing. Film credit.

Rural Decline: One School at a Time

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

I’ve only been through Magnolia, Iowa once or twice, and I don’t know much about the town. Though, what I do know reveals a story all to common in the Midwest and Great Plains. Located in Harrison County in far Western Iowa, the population of the area reached its peak over 100 years ago, a common pattern if not a peak even more distant in the past than nearby regions.

In 1900 there were 25,597 people in the county. By 2000 there were just 15,666, a 40% decline. I turned up some old pictures of the school in Magnolia. Here is the story they tell.

With many more people in both the town and the surrounding countryside, Magnolia was home to a three story brick school by 1916.

Magnolia School in 1916. Photo source.

By 1953 the school had been expanded with an addition that included a large gymnasium. The population of the county was already declining significantly by the middle of the century.

Magnolia School in 1953. Photo source.

I drove through Magnolia, population now less then 200, this last August. As I slowed down on Highway 127, I glanced right and caught just a glimpse of the now abandoned school a block to the North. The top floor has collapsed into the building. The few bricks that remain standing on the top floor frame a window, and highlight the collapse that is occurring on all sides of the building.

Magnolia School in August of 2007. This poor quality photo was taken with a cell phone camera, the only thing I had available.

It is likely fair to conclude that no children will ever again go to school in Magnolia. That’s unfortunate, but we can learn from this stunning rise and decline of a building.

As rural communities struggle to survive amidst a declining rural population, our social infrastructure is the most crucial resource we have. Communities with grocery stores, drug stores and schools will be the ones to survive to host another generation. Once these critical components of a community begin to fade away young adults looking for a place to raise a family skip by in search of one where the school is within walking distance, not a long bus ride away.

We need new policies, ideas, and innovations that keep more rural schools open, and ensure that few schools come to look like the one in Magnolia does today.

The Town I Grew Up In

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

I grew up in (or rather near) Laurens, Iowa. Laurens native Rick Davis writes about growing up in Laurens in the 1950s and 60s in this week’s mylaurens.com online newspaper. He tells a different story (pdf) than the one I could tell today:

A couple thousand miles and 40 years of living somewhere else separate me from Laurens these days. Yet it always will be my hometown – a special slice of Americana in which my roots always will be deepest.

I grew up in Laurens in the 1950s-60s era when “The Busiest Little Town in Iowa” had a bustling downtown of businesses that included furniture, men’s clothing, a movie theater and three grocery stores. Laurens also had an industrial base back then that included M & JR Hakes and Iowa Industrial Hydraulics; a golf course on land that once was an airport and its own consolidation-free school system.

[snip]

Jobs for Laurens kids of that era involved roll-up-your-sleeves summer tasks like cutting corn out of the beans and baling hay. Or you could bag groceries at Don’s Clover Farm or Hinn’s Super Value, pump gas for the locals (because self-service stations were years away from reality) or car-hop at the Dairy Bar or Lucky Luchsinger’s Drive-In. For younger kids on bikes, there were newspaper delivery routes around town, offering the Des Moines Register, the sister-paper Tribune and the Fort Dodge Messenger. I remember all that about Laurens, no doubt romanticizing its significance because nostalgia can do that to you.

Laurens is located in Pocahontas County. The county has been losing population every decade since Rick Davis was a boy. The population of all of Pocahontas County in 1950 was 15,496. By 2000 it had dropped precipitously to 8,662. In the years since the 2000 census Pocahontas County lost population faster than any other single county in the state.

Today there is no furniture store and no movie theater in Laurens. The town probably counts itself as lucky to still support one grocery store, and tales of three (including one that was open 24 hours a day) were just that by the time I was growing up in Laurens. I graduate from Laurens-Marathon consolidated school, and I fear that the school will soon be consolidated once more with yet another dying town nearby.

This is the story of rural communities across much of the country. Rick Davis reminds us that it hasn’t always been this way, but then he laments that he is likely being nostalgic. However, it is important to remember, one can be nostalgic for very good reasons. Laurens probably was a better place when it thrived in the ways Rick describes, and we should work to reinvigorate it - and all of rural America - to thrive once again.

Farm Labor Movement

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

The movement for a fair and just agricultural and rural policy and the movement for fair and just labor policy are both close to my heart. For that reason, agricultural labor movements, and the history of the agricultural labor movement is of particular interest. A guest post on Ethicurean last week offers a good primer on the history of the farm labor movement in the context of the current immigration debate.

Quick! The history of U.S. policy on farm labor in 60 seconds. During and after World War II, U.S. workers shift out of farming and into industrial jobs. Agricultural producers mobilize to persuade the government to help find workers. In 1951, Congress passes a law creating the Bracero guestworker program, which allows producers to “import” Mexican workers legally for seasonal jobs and send them home afterward. (Bracero means “farm worker.”) In addition to tying migrants to one employer, Bracero contracts establish standards for housing, pay, and the guarantee of work that are lower than those applied to U.S. workers. The President’s Commission on Migratory Labor provides this assessment of the situation in a 1951 report: “We depend on misfortune to build up our force of migratory workers, and when the supply is low because there is not enough misfortune at home, we rely on misfortune abroad to replenish the supply.”

Honesty in government — a real breath of fresh air, no?

Fast-forward to the 1960s. The Bracero Program has become the focal point for organizing by the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, which charges that it undermines domestic labor conditions and drives down wages industry-wide. The opposition kills the program in 1964, and the farm labor market tightens. The UFW launches campaigns against the use of undocumented workers as strike-breakers and wins concessions for unionized workers requiring rest periods, clean drinking water, and the provision and use of protective clothing during pesticide application. By 1973, the UFW represents 67,000 workers on California farms producing grapes, lettuce, strawberries, and other specialty crops.

But the UFW’s heyday is short. The networks established during the Bracero era between communities in Mexico and the United States are strong, economies in Mexico and Central America are weak, and the rate of undocumented migration surges. UFW wage strikes in the late ’70s and early ‘80s don’t gain many friends among producers, who turn to the growing pool of undocumented workers instead. By 1983, the number of UFW contracts has dropped from a high of 180 to fewer than 20.

In the ’80s, a weakened UFW decides to switch gears and help undocumented workers become legal immigrants so they can join and support the union. They’re stymied by two factors: first, employers use the threat of job termination to keep workers from even talking to the union, and second, when workers do manage to gain legal status, they typically leave the farm sector for better-paying positions in other industries. They’re replaced by newly arrived undocumented migrants — and the UFW is back to where it started.

And that brings us to today.

Read the rest at Ethicurean

Bill Moyers: “If I had been a farmer…”

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

Journalist Bill Moyers in an interview with the Christian Century on being a populist:

You seem to have a very strong populist perspective. Where does that come from?

If I had been an embattled farmer exploited by the railroads and bankers back in the 19th century, I hope I would have shown up at that amazing convention in Omaha that adopted the platform beginning: “We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin.” Those folks were aroused by Christian outrage over injustice. They made the prairie rumble. If I had lived a few years later, I would hope to have worked for McClure’s, the great magazine that probed the institutional corruption of the day and prompted progressive agitation.

The Great Depression was the tsunami of my experience, and my perspective was shaped by Main Street, not Wall Street. My parents were laid low by the Depression. When I was born my father was making $2 a day working on the highway, and he never brought home more than $100 a week in his working life. He didn’t even earn that much until he joined the union on his last job. Like Franklin Roosevelt, I came to think that government by organized money should be feared as much as government by organized mob. I’d rather not have either, thank you.

I am a democrat (notice the small d) who believes that the soul of democracy is representative government. It’s our best, although certainly imperfect, protection against predatory forces, whether unfettered markets, unscrupulous neighbors or fantastical ideologies, foreign or domestic. Our best chance at governing ourselves lies in obtaining the considered judgments of those we elect to weigh the competing interests and decide to the best of their ability what is right for the country. Anything that corrupts their judgment, whether rigged elections or bribery masked as campaign contributions, is the devil’s work.

Here is that populist party platform in full.

Farmers in the Senate

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

My post below prompted me to research the history of farmers in the U.S. Senate. The following list includes U.S. Senators since 1900 who were also farmers. The parenthetical comments list their occupation(s) as taken from the Political Graveyard and/or the Congressional Bibliographic Directory site. As you can see, many “farmers” were also bankers, lawyers, sheriffs, etc. It will take significantly more research to determine which of these Senators were primarily farmers, and which were bankers who owned a farm.

Farmer-Senators Since 1900

Ellison DuRant Smith (D-SC) U.S. Senator 1909-44 (engaged in mercantile and agricultural pursuits, organizer of the Southern Cotton Association, field agent and general organizer in the cotton protective movement 1905-1908, known as “Cotton Ed”)

Obadiah Gardner (D-ME) U.S. Senator 1911-13 (engaged in the lumber, lime, and creamery business, and also in agricultural pursuits and in cattle raising)

Henry Wilder Keyes (R-NH) U.S. Senator 1919-37 (farmer, banker, and politician)

Magnus Johnson (DFL-MN) U.S. Senator 1923-25 (lumberjack, farmer, school clerk and assessor)

Lynn Joseph Frazier (R-ND) U.S. Senator 1923-41 (farmer and politician)

Hamilton Fish Kean (R-NJ) U.S. Senator 1929-35 (engaged in banking and agricultural pursuits)

John Gillis Townsend, Jr. (R-DE) U.S. Senator 1929-41 (engaged in banking, also interested in manufacturing and agricultural pursuits)

Robert Davis Carey (R-WY) U.S. Senator 1930-37 (engaged in the raising of livestock and agricultural pursuits, also interested in banking, politician)

Patrick Anthony McCarran (D-NV) U.S. Senator 1933-54 (farmer, lawyer and judge)

Harry Flood Byrd (R-VA) U.S. Senator 1933-65 (newspaper publisher, fruit farmer, politician)

Guy Mark Gillette (D-IA) U.S. Senator 1936-45 (military, engaged in agricultural pursuits, attorney)

George David Aiken (R-VT) U.S. Senator 1941-75 (engaged in fruit farming in 1912, also conducted an extensive nursery business and commercial cultivation of wildflowers)

Zales Nelson Ecton (R-MT) U.S. Senator 1947-53 (grain farmer and livestock rancher)

Earle Chester Clements (D-KY) U.S. Senator 1950-57 (farmer, sheriff and county judge)

Frank Carlson (R-KS) U.S. Senator 1950-69 (farmer and rancher)

Frank Aloysius Barrett (R-WY) U.S. Senator 1953-59 (lawyer, rancher, politician and civil servant)

Henry Louis Bellmon (R-OK) U.S. Senator 1969-81 (farmer, rancher and politician)

Summary thoughts in relation to the newest farmer in the Senate, Jon Tester (D-MT):

There are not many other Senators who were just farmers, the way Jon Tester has been just a farmer for most of his life. Not many farmer-Senators on this list rose as quickly to the U.S. Senate as Jon Tester has. Most were long-term politicians holding a variety of posts and rising though U.S. congressional positions or governor seats to the U.S. Senate.

There is a noticeable decline in the number of elected farmer-Senators about the middle of the last century with only three of the seventeen Senators listed above achieving election after 1950.

My sources profess their own incompleteness. If I missed someone, add them in the comments below.

American Dreamer

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

I’m not blogging because I am reading this book.

H.A. Wallace was, of course, a native Iowan, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Vice President and third party presidential candidate (among other things).

The book is 600 pages long. It might take me a few days.

A Poem and A Photograph

Friday, May 19th, 2006

A poem by U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser from Flying at Night.

Abandoned Farmhouse

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A women lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm–a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went very wrong, they say.

A picture from Gone: Photographs of Abandonment on the High Plains by Steve Fitch.

A kitchen in an abandoned farm house near Regent, western North Dakota.

Be a Populist

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