By Ryan Schnurr
Growing up, I knew about the farm. I had heard stories, mostly from my father and uncle, and the occasional off-handed reference by some other family member. I knew where it was, generally, and that a couple of generations of my ancestors had grown up wild in that Indiana dirt. But to my mind that was the end of it. I never thought much about the farm myself, never heard it discussed in anything but the past tense, never guessed there was anything more to think. I was twenty-six years old before I realized it was still in the family.
The farm is in Fulton County, Indiana, among the innumerable acres of corn and beans that cover this Midwestern landscape. It is a standard piece of property, as these things go—a squared-off corner of a grid, bordered on two straight sides by county road and on the other two by adjacent farms. A hundred and twenty acres of wide, flat land. But when I learned that one of my great aunts still owned this property—when my cousin let it slip at a barbecue in the summer of 2016—some ancient piece inside of me lit up.
I wanted to see the farm. But I didn’t know how to get there. I called my grandmother, Georgeann, who was one of the ones who had grown up in its dirt. She said there wasn’t a house on the property anymore, and she didn’t have an address. “There’s only a garage out there now,” she said. “It’s really a sad sight.” But she gave me directions anyway, the kind without an address—ten miles past that town on 14; turn left, then a mile or two to a blacktop road; first lane on your right—and I set off to find it.
To get there, I drove just over an hour west and north from my home in northeast Indiana, through a rural country ruled by fields and punctuated by grain silos. It was a soggy morning in late November. The sky was overcast, and a stiff wind whipped across the open cropland. I rode in silence most of the way. I do not always like to listen to the radio when driving by myself. In the silence I feel more aware. I heard the grumbling of the paved road under the tires of my station wagon; I smelled the crisp air. I watched the empty fields stream by. Drawing closer to the farm, I began feel the absence of human beings. It had been an hour since I had seen a settlement larger than a homestead.
The story of the twentieth century in American agriculture is a story, mainly, of exodus. In 1900, forty-one percent of employed Americans worked in agriculture. In 1970, that number was only four percent. And it kept shrinking—by 2000, “farmer” wasn’t even an occupational category on the U.S. Census. Maybe this was inevitable. Advances in technology made farming less reliant on human labor, and what was happening in cities—the energy, the culture, the excitement—was enough of a draw to attract young people in droves. The movement away from farms is one of the most well-known Midwestern stories.
It is the story of my family, anyway. The last time anybody of my relation lived on the farm was 1962, and that was my great-grandmother. My grandmother left in 1947. My uncle visited as a child. My dad, who is younger, did too, once or twice, but only barely remembers. A few of my aunts and uncles have been in the feed business or sold farm machinery. But of my generation—of my cousins on the Schnurr side of the family, all thirty-seven of them—only two are in any way involved with farming. It is a pattern reflected across the country. We are, almost to a person, a generation twice removed.
I turned right off the blacktop road onto a long gravel lane. The ground just ahead was washed out from recent rains, so I parked at the end and walked up the driveway, which seemed to be about half a mile in length. Along one side, telephone poles were strung. It was not raining. I felt the wind hard on my face. The ground was sloppy, and my boots were covered thick with mud.
From what my grandmother had said—from what everybody had said—I expected to find something like an agricultural wasteland. I don’t know, but it sure was bleak. Stretching out to either side of the lane, the exposed ground was covered with the gnarly stubble of combine-harvested cropland. There were scarcely any trees.
After ten minutes of walking, I arrived at the end of the lane. You could tell it used to be the homestead. There were a few trees there, empty of leaves. There were some grain bins, silver. There was a hand pump for water. There was a large garage, and a hole where a house had been. It was an island of grass and gravel in an ocean of cropland. In every direction, the stubbled ground stretched dispassionately outward to the treelines and roads that marked its edges. I was standing in the middle of a big, deserted field. There were no other signs of life.
It wasn’t always like this—a hundred and twenty monotonous acres squared off. It used to be that land was land, and all of it was connected. Later, this place became part of the ancestral homelands of the Miami people. Eventually the United States came along, stole it, and divided it up into forty-, sixty-, and one hundred and twenty-acre tracts. It’s hard telling when this exact plot was marked, but I know it was sometime before 1848. That year, the land was granted by an act of Congress to a man named Peter Lain, a private in the Third Regiment of Indiana Volunteers. It’s not entirely clear what he did with it, but whatever it was, he didn’t do it very long. Two years later, Peter sold the land to a man named Lafferty for four hundred dollars.
In 1917, a few people from the Shanley family pitched in together and bought the farm. They paid just under eighty-four dollars an acre. The Shanleys owned the land across the road and had farmed it for some time. They came by way of Ireland. The father, Thomas Shanley, arrived in 1860 at the age of twelve—a potato famine refugee. He attended a Jesuit School in Cincinnati, Ohio, then lived in Newport, Kentucky, and Logansport, Indiana, where he got a job working on the railroad. In October 1871, Thomas heard about a great fire burning in Chicago. Anybody who volunteered to help fight the fire got free transportation, round-trip by train. So he went. When he came back, he married a local girl, Catherine Costello, and they bought land to farm. Thomas was a small man but hard-working and capable. There were horses and mules. He kept an orchard that won him blue ribbons at the County Fairs. He built stone walls around the land, like the ones he had seen as a boy in Ireland.
Thomas and Catherine had ten children, three of whom died before the age of one. The rest grew up and went to a one-room schoolhouse, called Shady Dell, just a mile from the home place. It was a small school. In 1900, there were forty-nine kids and one teacher. Paper was precious. There were no mechanical pencil sharpeners, so the boys whittled their lead ends with knives. Most of the Shanley boys—and most of the other boys, too—quit school after the eighth grade to help out on the farm. The girls, Alice, Catherine, and Esther, finished at Majestic High School in Grass Creek, four miles up the road. The youngest boy, George, who was also sometimes called Kelly, kept on into high school for a year or so, but dropped out. After nine years of schooling, he could sharpen a pencil with a pocket knife better than any mechanical device.
Seven years after the Shanleys started working the Lafferty place, George bought out the others to become sole owner. That same year, he married. His wife’s name was Anna. They had six children: Mary, JoEllen, John, Bill, Thomas, and Georgeann—my grandmother.
The children loved the farm. They played all over, from the barn to the fields. In the spring, my grandmother walked barefoot in the rows behind the horse-drawn plow, to feel the warm richness of the dirt between her toes. George farmed with two horses, slow and steady. When Georgeann got tired, she would hop onto his lap and ride back up to the house.
It was hard farming those days. Indiana was—and is—at turns blazing hot and freezing cold. Sometimes the rain would deluge and flood the fields. Other times, it wouldn’t come for months. In flood, George and Anna and the children prayed for the rain to subside; in drought, they bowed their heads and asked for a downpour.
It was around this time—right in the middle of the Great Depression—that Aldo and Estella Leopold purchased a run-down farm along the Wisconsin River. The date was April, 1935.
Aldo Leopold was not, strictly speaking, a farmer. He was, however, an ecologist before that was the title, and the new owner of a worn-out patch of farmland. And he had a lot to say about farms. Probably because, in the early nineteen-hundreds, when he was doing most of his research and writing, farming was changing rapidly under the influence of industrialization. Probably also because he knew that farmers held a huge amount of the land in his home region of the Midwest, and any serious attempt to address land conservation would have to consider what was happening on their farms.
The Leopolds’ farm, like the Fulton County farm of my family, was one hundred and twenty acres in size. They would spend the next fourteen years and longer there, on the weekends, as a practical outlet for Aldo’s enduring passion—restoring and maintaining the health of the land and its inhabitants. And it would become both setting and subject for his book A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There. Leopold biographer Susan Flader writes that the year 1935 “marked a reorientation in his thinking from a historical and recreational to a predominantly ecological and ethical justification for wilderness.” The farm played no small part in this reorientation.
The structure of A Sand County Almanac is important. It begins not with a treatise, but a journal. While the last section of the book, titled “The Upshot,” is devoted to succinct descriptions of the book’s core ideas, it represents only a sliver of the actual page count. The majority of the book, outlined in the journal entries, is a chronicle of playful, subjective explorations on the Leopold family’s farm in Sand County, Wisconsin, what the family “sees and does” during its time there. It reads more like literature than science, in short episodes that illustrate the development of Leopold’s environmental ethic.
Probably my favorite passage in the Almanac is an entry from February, titled “Good Oak.” In it, Leopold recounts the cutting down of an oak tree on the farm. As he cuts, he considers the rings through which he is cutting, and the events of the years in which they likely formed. An excerpt:
“It took only a dozen pulls of the saw to transect the few years of our ownership, during which we had learned to love and cherish this farm. Abruptly we began to cut the years of our predecessor the bootlegger, who hated this farm, skinned it of residual fertility, burned its farmhouse, threw it back into the lap of the County (with delinquent taxes to boot), then disappeared among the landless anonymities of the Great Depression. Yet the oak had laid down good wood for him…”
Leopold continues on like this, using tree rings to trace the history of the farm and beyond, considering their interrelation. All the while, he is building a case toward what he terms the ‘land ethic.’ When he reaches the 1860s, he writes:
“Our saw now cuts the 1860’s, when thousands died to settle the question: Is the man-man community lightly to be dismembered? They settled it, but they did not see, nor do we yet see, that the same question applies to the man-land community.”
Probably the most basic aspect of Leopold’s ethic had to do with what he termed the ‘biotic community.’ The biotic community is a definition of community extended to all living things, which are related and interdependent. It was Leopold’s belief that this should be the basis for a unifying ‘land ethic.’ He outlined this in an essay of the same name, at the very end of Sand County:
“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts…The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” It is no accident that Leopold’s articulation of these conclusions comes after he introduces the reader to a particular place with its particular ecology. He had come to see his life and the life of that place as related, even interdependent. He did not believe that an ethic could be imposed on a community. Instead, it had to arise organically, out of a deep sense of the direct relationship between oneself and one’s community—between oneself and the land.
In 1941, when my grandmother was eleven years old, news came that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. The resultant war pulled young men away from the farm—thousands of them, at harvest time. But the earth is indifferent to the conflicts between humans. If people wanted to eat, somebody still had to harvest the crops. Somebody still had to plant again come spring.
Enter the fruits of the industrial revolution: tractors, combines, corn pickers. Not quite the colossal machines that are in use now, of course. There was no GPS or cruise control. But they were a lifesaver for those trying to plant and harvest these war-cleared farms. A combine could do the work of a dozen men, and at least that many horses. Tractors never got tired. Farmers could now work longer hours and cover greater expanses of land. The postwar farm was a marvel of engineering.
Some people saw in this new technology an opportunity. The industrialization of agriculture—a logic of efficiency, paired with the use of machinery, chemical fertilizers and pesticides—along with the availability of large amounts of usable land, meant that farmers could increase the size of their operations while decreasing the amount of human labor required. It was a moment ripe with possibilities, and one of those possibilities was the accumulation of enormous amounts of capital. People started referring to that ancient working of the land not as agriculture but agribusiness. This new privileging of business over culture illustrates the mainstream of ideas that would come to characterize American farming over the next half-century.
One problem was that the machines which formed the infrastructure of this revolution in farming were incapable of distinguishing between crops. To accommodate this deficiency, farmers needed to simplify their planting. It turned out that by planting greater and greater acreages of one crop, and only that crop, they could make their farms adapt to the demands of the new machines. The experts at the agricultural schools called this ‘monocropping,’ and suggested it as the best way to maximize production and efficiency. Never mind that you can’t really eat only one crop and stay healthy. Never mind that you can’t eat raw soybeans at all.
This sort of thinking was encouraged by the individuals responsible for government policy. Probably the biggest proponent was Earl Butz, a foul-mouthed agricultural economist tapped by President Richard M. Nixon to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Butz grew up driving horse-drawn plows in Albion, Indiana. He went to Purdue University, where he eventually received the school’s first PhD in Agricultural Economics. Before joining the government, he was Dean of Agriculture at Purdue and served on the board of several major agribusiness corporations, including Ralston Purina (producers of livestock feed), J.I. Case (tractors), and International Minerals and Chemicals (fertilizer).
Butz’s major contribution was to reverse the policies of the New Deal. After the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt put in a series of safeguards to manage supply. For one thing, the government would buy extra grain from farmers who overproduced. Then, in drought or other lean years, it would put this back on the market. One reason was to keep prices from jumping too high or falling too low. The second reason was to keep the land from being over-farmed. Roosevelt and his associates had seen what happened with the Dust Bowl and wanted to avoid a sequel.
Butz, who was a hard-nosed advocate of the free market, dismantled this system of price supports a few years into his term. His idea was that farmers should plant as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and sell it on a global market. He urged the nation to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” and most famously told small farmers to “get big or get out.” Under Butz, large-scale commodity production was the goal. Industrialized monocropping was how to get there.
Somehow, Butz avoided the broom that swept Nixon and his entourage out of Washington. He managed to stay on for another couple of years, until 1976. That year, on an airplane from the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, to somewhere in California, the singer Pat Boone asked him why the Republicans were having trouble attracting black voters. Butz reportedly replied, “I’ll tell you what the coloreds want. It’s three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit. That’s all.”
A reporter from Rolling Stone, who happened to be in the room, published the quote and attributed it to “an unnamed cabinet official.” But Butz had a reputation; everybody knew who it was. This caused him a fair amount of deserved political trouble, and he resigned in disgrace. He went back to his alma mater, Purdue, where he held a professorship until he died just a few years ago.
Yet Butz’s ideas, which had been widespread before him, and became policy directives during his reign in Washington, persisted. The result was that, over the course of the twentieth century in America, many small domestic farms became fewer, much larger, more industrialized farms. The total number of farms in America shrunk to one-third what it had been at the beginning, and their average size ballooned from around a hundred acres to more than four hundred. Farms of several thousand acres, growing only a single crop, became commonplace.
For Leopold and other conservationists, the most concerning aspect of this development was a loss of diversity. What Leopold calls “the funeral of the floras of the world.” Among Leopold’s central arguments was that ecological diversity is a necessity for the health of the earth and its inhabitants. He argued that the beauty and health of a piece of land were deeply intertwined, and that what was needed was a change in standards: “There is, as yet, no sense of pride in the husbandry of wild plants and animals, no shame in the proprietorship of a sick landscape.”
U.S. agricultural output increased dramatically during the last half of the twentieth century, as mechanization took over and diversity decreased. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. In the 70s, unlike the Depression, there was plenty of money. In the 80s, unlike the 70s, the U.S. produced too much grain for the market and there was a massive farm crisis. Thousands of small farmers lost their farms.
More recently, a team of researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health have tied farm consolidation (especially the concentration of land and capital) to “the deterioration of rural communities,” including lower incomes and education levels, and higher levels of poverty and social inequality. On top of this, they wrote, “the industrial agriculture system consumes fossil fuel, water, and topsoil at unsustainable rates.”
Leopold’s introduction to the ‘funeral of floras’ came in the form of personal experience, as he noticed the removal of Silphium from a graveyard that he regularly passed. And though he died before the full realization of the industrial ideal in American agriculture, he still managed to foresee a profound poverty that would come to affect the farm landscape—barren stretches of exposed dirt, empty of flora, not to mention fauna. Not to mention humans.
George Shanley died in 1959. None of the kids lived on the Fulton County farm anymore, the last having moved out the year before. Anna lived there alone for a few years, but eventually got lonely. In 1962, she moved to Fort Wayne, to be closer to her daughter JoEllen.
JoEllen—who by this time was going simply by Jo—and her husband, Chet, bought the farm to keep it in the family. But they didn’t live there. They lived in Fort Wayne, near Chet’s job at the General Electric plant. They didn’t farm it, either. This was a matter of necessity; even then, it was difficult to farm in absentia. Instead, they rented it out to a crew of commercial farmers. There wasn’t enough acreage for such an operation, of course. The same crew was also renting all the other land around, a move which served to erase any distinctiveness the farm had retained. The commercial farming enterprise ran its machines over the land, its tractors and combines. The old house sat empty.
Soon enough, animals moved in. To keep the farm occupied, Jo told me that she and Chet rented the house to a young family, but this didn’t work out as they’d hoped. After a short time, the tenants up and moved out, suddenly and without notice, leaving the house vacant again. After a time, it became too much of a hassle to manage remotely, and they decided something would have to be done.
The simplest fix, they thought, would be to get rid of the building altogether. They had no mortgage to deal with, or insurance. They knew the fire department sometimes burned down derelict buildings to let the firemen practice on a real blaze, so they called and asked whether it might want to conduct a training exercise on the farm. But the fire department wanted something like five hundred dollars for their trouble. Jo and Chet didn’t care to spend that kind of money, so they would have to figure out some other way.
The story I know of what happened next goes like this: some time later, they ran into the fire chief at a to-do in town. It was some kind of dinner, maybe a fundraiser. The three of them were all sitting at the same table. Toward the end of the meal, Chet said to the chief, “Hey, what’s with charging me so much money just to burn down that house?” The fire chief explained the reasons: because the farm was way out in the country, and because the siding was made from asbestos, which is toxic to people who breathe it. The fire department just couldn’t expose their firemen to that without some compensation. Then he paused, looked around, leaned across the table, and said: “Chet, don’t you have a match?”
Chet took this as permission. A few weeks later, on a clear, windless day, he poured gasoline around the inside of the house, ran a trail outside, and lit the end. Piles of black smoke billowed toward the sky. The asbestos in the siding would have been a hazard, except that, in the aftermath of industrialization, there were no neighbors around to speak of. Only acres and acres of crops. Nobody called the fire department. Nobody even noticed it was gone.
I stepped away from the homestead and walked out into the nearest field. It was wet with November sog. Mud stuck to my boots. Bubbles of air gurgled up from the soil. Dried-up corn husks hung fat with water. The wind had picked up, beating loudly through the stubble.
Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac that “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning [read: having a relationship with] a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” Spiritual dangers—I love that choice of words. It implies not a material deficiency, but one that is manifested in a person’s spirit, that intangible force animating life. Leopold was not a religious man in the traditional sense, but a deep believer in what he called ‘the land community’—a world in which people belong not only to each other, but to the earth. A world in which people cultivate love and respect for things like soils, waters, plants, and animals.
In Leopold’s Almanac, there is an entry for the month of November titled “If I Were the Wind.” It begins, “The wind that makes music in November corn is in a hurry. The stalks hum, the loose husks whisk skyward in half-playful swirls, and the long wind hurries on.” After describing the “lifeless”-ness of the farm, the marsh, the sandbar in the river, Leopold watches a flock of geese honk southward until they are “a blur in the far sky.” He concludes the barrenness of this winter landscape with a curious resolution: “The wind has gone with the geese. So would I—if I were the wind.”
I stood still, then, and let the hastening wind rush across my face. I thought of my grandmother walking behind the plow; thought of her father dragging a tractor through this hardscrabble ground; thought of my family, gone with the geese. I wondered how long it had been since anybody had walked barefoot in this earth, felt its warm richness between their toes. Then I turned and walked back down the lane toward my car.
The twentieth century in America brought dramatic changes to the farm, changes of scale and mechanization. These changes have had consequences which are equally dramatic, one of which is the abstraction of my family and me from our roots on the land. And we are not the only ones. What we have lost in the process, I think, is not only the farm but a relationship, the notion that we are connected, deeply and completely, to the earth.
I got into my car and turned out of the lane onto the blacktop road. The radio was quiet. I heard the growling road, smelled the crisp November air. Past the dominating fields, past the hulking silos, I drove on in silence—the music of the wind still ringing in my ears. ■
Ryan Schnurr is editor of Belt Magazine. His first book, In the Watershed, was published in 2017 by Belt Publishing.
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