Along with the rise of women and the expansion of civil rights, the most important social transformation of America’s first quarter-millennium has been the triumph of modern agriculture over the famine and ceaseless, backbreaking effort simply to feed one’s self that had been the dominant fact of human life throughout history. Most of those who preceded us lived their entire lives on the farm. A little more than a century ago, a third of all Americans were farmers.
Successive revolutions in mechanization, horticulture and biotechnology have been an enormous blessing, enabling a tiny percentage of Americans—today fewer than 2%—to feed the rest of us and much of the world. Incalculable human talent has been liberated to invent all the other miracles we enjoy. We spend less of our income on food than any society ever.
But this blessing, like most, is not an unmixed one. Other valuable talents, and much precious social capital, have diminished with the share of Americans living and working on the land.
During a decade in elected office in Indiana, I made it my practice while traveling the state to stay overnight in Hoosier homes rather than hotels. Because of geography and, candidly, personal choice, probably a third of those 125 overnights were with farm families. There I witnessed virtues that one sees too rarely these days—hard work, practical manual skill, a communitarian ethic—woven tightly into the fabric of everyday life.
I saw teenagers and even younger siblings rising at 5 a.m. to feed animals or do other chores before cleaning up and heading to school. It was fun to return home and tell those stories to four suburban daughters whose idea of a tough assignment was clearing the table and washing the dishes.
At county fairs, I would always ask that the 4-H officers be the ones to take me around. Every one of those young people had raised animals for competition, and they showed me projects—artistic, scientific or community service—with the special pride that comes from creative, arduous individual effort.
After shooting the breeze with some Future Farmers of America members in their northwest Indiana town, I was musing to a local friend about what fine characters and purposeful attitudes farm kids seem to have. “Absolutely,” she said. “Our circuit judge has been on the bench here for 20-plus years. Once I asked him, in all that time, how many FFA or 4-H members have come before you? He said, ‘Uh, none I can remember.’”
At the Gerber family’s farmhouse near Boston, Ind., (population 130), I learned about the year that Doug, the father, was hit and nearly killed by a train while trying to clear storm debris off a railroad crossing. He said that when he returned home after weeks in a coma, the first thing he saw was his neighbors sowing his crops and feeding his livestock so that his family would have income that year. “They wouldn’t even let me pay for the diesel fuel,” he recalled.
At the Indiana State Fair, held on grounds now surrounded by inner-city Indianapolis neighborhoods, urban kids can witness, in person, the birth of pigs and calves. Once I asked a boy who had arrived at the fair on a school bus from across town, “Do you know where milk comes from?” He said, “Sure. The grocery store.” A couple of hours later, he knew better and just maybe had a little sense of awe and gratitude for the work and skill it takes to fill that grocery store.
Thomas Jefferson believed that democracy could work only in a society of agrarian yeomen, living in small political units, who would be invested in their society and resolute in defending their liberty against the encroachments of government. We’d better hope he was wrong or, to the extent that he was on to something, that we can recognize and preserve the characteristics that make yeomen (and women) such good citizens.
The cultural fiber that an agricultural upbringing once brought to society will of course not return through numbers. But there are ways other than state fairs to expose modern young people to its value and its virtues. One-third of today’s 4-H members now live in urban areas. Summer jobs detasseling corn or baling hay are still occasionally available as an alternative to Fortnite practice or soccer camp. In their constant quest for diversity, universities should not overlook the benefits that rural students can bring to their big-city and suburban classmates.
The distance that has opened between the producers of our food and the beneficiaries of their hard work, and between rural and urban Americans in general, has been sadly apparent in our politics and popular culture. More than tolerance is in order. Some true appreciation, and even some emulation, would be helpful right now. There’s a lot to learn down on the farm.
Daniels, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is president of Purdue University and a former governor of Indiana. His column appears monthly in IBJ.