Monday, May 4, 2009

Farmers and Organizing - through the Years

On Sunday morning in an Aitkin Lutheran Church, the Clear Lake Chapter of the Grange served coffee and delicious treats between services. Then when we had settled down at our tables, a leader told us about the formation of the Grange back in 1867.

This first of the farmer organizations in America was created after the Civil War to help heal the nation and assist the South to get crops planted again and harvested so reconstruction could proceed. An early problem for 19th century farmers was the unreasonably high cost of transporting their produce on monopoly railroads.

The Grange Movement had success removing these barriers. You don't hear much about the Grange today, but in Aitkin County we have an active chapter.

What is often heard is the political slogan, "Preserve the family farm!"

My parents grew up on farms in Stevens County. Four of my uncles farmed in the county, where we helped at harvest time, bought our eggs and beef. Grandpa Erickson's Eighty still produces rental income for us.

But most of the "families" that farmed in the Midwest Farm Belt have scattered and moved away to towns and cities. In our extended family, my relatives have gone to live in Texas, California, Virginia, Nevada, besides Minnesota. Almost all of us were active in 4-H as kids, exhibited at the county fair, learned a lot about agriculture and home ec. That was years ago.

Today our food and fiber largely are produced in the factories of Industrial Agriculture. Monocultures of soybeans and corn spread across miles of prairie, where once we grew flax, oats, wheat, sunflowers, barley, and corn.

Two and three generations ago, most farms consisted of quarter sections of 160 acres, up to half sections. (One square mile is a section with 640 acres)
There were chickens, vegetable gardens, sometimes sheep and hogs, a couple milk cows, maybe a herd of a couple dozen beef cattle. One family, and at times, a hired man, operated the farm year round.

Today poultry, hogs, dairy and beef cattle are raised in mega-buildings and feedlots, with animal units numbering in the thousands. For such agribusinesses to thrive, there must be "inputs" of chemical fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide. To maximize profits we see irrigation systems, growth regulators, and farm machinery that rivals the heavy equipment of the mining industry.

Farmers still organize. You can visit their booths at the State Fair. Farmers Union, Farm Bureau, National Farmers Organization, and the Farmer-Labor Wing of the DFL.

It's not the railroad today that threatens a young family that wants to farm. Challenges come from the banks, the government, Ag chemical companies that genetically engineer the corn and bean crop. But sustainable agriculture is happening. The organic movement is growing. Ask for local foods where you live and shop. The air, soil, and water in the Midwest can be improved after years of corporate abuse. The disappearing University Agricultural Extension Service might even be regrown.

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