An Old Place in a New World

How it happened.

You’ve probably seen it a thousand times.

Have you ever driven past an old, faded farmhouse on a country road and wondered how it fell into such disrepair? Have you noticed the once-highly-functional barns that now serve as storage facilities for broken equipment, old tires, and a shiny summer RV?

Have you ever wondered what led to the demise of these properties? Andy and I drive past these formerly thriving homesteads and shake our heads at the last remnants of a bygone era of farming. It’s painful to see these once-foundational sources of food and community life decomposing into the earth with no caretaker left to revive them or an economy that would even support them.

In the book Jayber Crow, author and poet Wendell Berry gives a rich narrative history of the industrialization of agriculture that drove families out of these farms and small towns and into big city grocery stores and urban neighborhoods. Granted, it’s a fictional retelling so it should be interpreted accordingly.

But the book contextualizes what a textbook would sterilize, in favor of humanizing the dramatic impact on families and communities. He tells about this mid-century cultural transition through two opposing characters, who also happen to be father and son.

Athey Keith was a conservative farmer in all his ways. He managed his land as an observant steward, using less than he had and only planting what the farm could support everything stayed on the farm. It was a picture of thriving agricultural diversity: cattle, sheep, hogs, mules, corn, tobacco, wheat, barley, clover, and grass.

He worked the fields with mules, stopped his work day at dinnertime, rotated his fields without outside fertilizer or seed, only logged what he needed for firewood and fence, and always tried to improve and protect his land.

Wherever I look, I want to see more than I need, and have more than I use, he would say.

His farm and thus his family prospered. Abundance was the norm on Athey Keith’s five hundred acres so much so that he had set aside a large tract of woods on the other side of the river as a long-term investment. These woods were the envy of timber buyers and a haven for wildlife and quiet-seeking neighbors but he always refused the lucrative purchase offers because his Nest Egg, as he called it, was worth more to him than to them.

In 1946, his daughter Mattie and son-in-law Troy Chattham moved onto one of his tenant farms. Troy embraced the new way of farming the business of scale which involved tractors and farm machines, the plowing of more acres, the working of longer days, the use of every available resource with no excess, and creditors. Lots and lots of creditors.

His principle was the opposite of Athey’s. Never let a quarter’s worth of equity stand idle. Use it or borrow against it. What he asked of the land was all it had.

Troy’s new way of farming was sweeping across the country after the war. Farm machinery was readily available, and farm hands became scarcer. Did the machines displace the people from the farms, or were the machines drawn onto the farms because the people already were leaving to take up wage work in factories? Both, I think The new way of farming was a way of dependence, not on land and creatures and neighbors but on machines and fuel and chemicals of all sorts, bought things, and on the sellers of bought things which made it finally a dependence on credit.

The conflict between the two ways was inescapable on the Keith farm. Athey slowly began to give way to Troy in an effort to keep peace, but not at a pace that was fast enough for Troy. He began renting other ground, borrowing more money to buy more tractors to farm it, and left his wife at home with a baby on her hip to do his farm chores.

Athey and Troy’s relationship deteriorated, a mirror of the breaking down of the old way of life. The two ways of farming, and living, were incompatible. Athey remained quiet as Troy ran his mouth around town. Athey aged and moved off the farm, and Troy’s land paid him back what he gave it: nothing.

The old pattern of the farm began to give way.

Troy could have used the Keith place to make his family financially secure for the rest of their lives. Instead, he mortgaged the whole of it. He plowed up ground for corn that Athey had kept in grass because the water ran there. The ground produced a poor crop, and the soil slowly eroded into the river.

He bulldozed every tree and removed every fence to make room for more corn. He built a dairy, bought more equipment, installed a confinement hog barn, and sank deeper and deeper into debt. Two or three acres of ground were now devoted solely to broken equipment storage. The once well-kept and flourishing farm now appeared overgrown and neglected.

Berry describes the shifting mindset after the war: After the Depression and the war and the years of work that they were now beginning to think of as slow and too hard, the country people were trying to get away from demanding circumstances We wouldn’t quite see at the time, or didn’t want to know, that it was the demanding circumstances that had kept us together. 

When the owner of the town’s general store died, no one was interested in buying it. So the store closed, taking with it a prop of the local farmsteads: the sale of eggs and cream. With this financial mainstay lost, the holding of household poultry flocks and dairy cows dwindled. The farmwives now took their money to the grocery store in a distant town, instead of bringing produce and surplus into their local economy.

The fuel distributors then began refusing to sell small quantities to the local gas station anymore, and cut off business from their faithful customers of fifty years. So drivers filled up along the highway instead. In 1964, the official experts on education closed the local school and another building stood empty. Small classes in small towns merged into larger classes in larger buildings in larger towns.

A sort of communal self-confidence, which must always have existed, had begun to die away. 

The self-sufficient farmstead had faded into the sunset, along with the local communities of commerce that they supported. It might be more accurate to say that these farms were squashed into the dirt by the tractor tires that lumbered over them.

We know countless Troy Chatthams. Industrialization has barreled across the countryside, making our lives convenient and our land desolate. 

Every winter, we grimace as row crop farmers rip out tree lines all around us, as if the Dust Bowl were something that happened once upon a time in a land far far away. They install ground tiles to drain water from their fields, as if groundwater was an unlimited resource and drought could be avoided by insurance.

Make room for more corn, more beans. Why? To feed massive confinement coops full of livestock raised in conditions that require workers to wear masks, head coverings, and full body suits to protect them from the filth. Raise them cheap and sell them cheap, because the market has been trained to expect cheap food.

Anyone who has ever kept a summer garden knows that food is anything but cheap.

This new way seems more convenient but history (and an honest examination) reveals it to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Late in Jayber Crow’s life, he calls the effects of the Troy Chattham lifestyle a bad dream that he can’t escape from even in his secluded river house retirement.

On pretty weekends in the summer, this riverbank is the very verge of the modern world… On those weekends, the river is disquieted from morning to night by people resting from their work.

This resting involves traveling at great speed, first on the road and then on the river. The people are in an emergency to relax. They long for the peace and quiet of the great outdoors. Their eyes are hungry for the scenes of nature. They go very fast in their boats. They stir the river like a spoon in a cup of coffee. They play their radios loud enough to hear above the noise of their motors. They look neither left nor right. They don’t slow down for or maybe even see an old man in a rowboat raising his lines.

I watch and I wonder and I think. I think of the old slavery, and of the way The Economy has now improved upon it. The new slavery has improved upon the old by giving the new slaves the illusion that they are free. The Economy does not take people’s freedom by force, which would be against its principles, for it is very humane. It buys their freedom, pays for it, and then persuades its money back again with shoddy goods and the promise of freedom. ‘Buy a car,’ it says, ‘and be free. Buy a boat and be free. Buy a beer and be free.’ Is this not the raw materials of bad dreams? Or is it maybe the very nightmare itself? 

The effects of the new way are inescapable. You can likely recognize some of your own modern lifestyle in the type of  rest Berry describes. We certainly do. And it pains us.

It begs the question: how then do we live?

This question plagues our every lifestyle and farming decision.

While we cringe at the hierarchy of values that rules the modern agricultural industry, we’re also bound by it. We, too, have to survive on what our hands produce inside a food system that is built to reward a factory-farm model of production. Our family longs to live like Athey Keith, but we feel caught and choked by the times and seasons in which we live.

So how then do we live?

We can’t go back to yesterday. We have to wait for tomorrow. So what about today? How do we live today? How do we harness Athey Keith’s values while trying to survive in Troy Chattham’s world?

A snappy modern writer would now transition into a list of 3-10 ways we can all return to our roots, pitch in to revive small town life, and make farming great again (Gosh, that would make a killer headline. I labored over this post for weeks and weeks, trying to wrap this dilemma up in a tidy conclusion that makes it look like we’ve got the solution.

But I couldn’t get there. The conclusion I’ve come to is too personal to trivialize with humanistic remedies and false hopes.

Mind the gap.

Have you seen this sign they post in British train stations?

In American, it means watch your step. The warning is there to remind travelers of the gap between the walkway and the train during the boarding process. There’s a gap between where you are and where you’re going, and if you’re not careful, you’ll fall into the in-between and get stuck, or worse.

The hard reality is that we live in this painful in-between space where what is wrong is ever before us, while the ultimate fix that we believe for – and that many of you do too lies afar off in a future day.

It was not supposed to be this way. We were not made to live on a broken earth under the tyranny of a broken system. Yet we must navigate the gap between what is, and what will be. What will be is our hope. So we must mind the gap.

We are pilgrims, friends.

We cannot bear the weight of all that is wrong as if it were our burden to solve. There’s only one who can do that. Our role is to steward what we have been given to the best of our ability opening our hands and releasing the outcome as we wait for perfect justice and perfect order.

It will come. But not yet.

So we wait, and play our limited role according to the boundary lines laid out for us. And while painful, it’s also freeing.

It’s not up to us to fix all the broken things. We tread on our corner of dirt, healing it with the tools made available, comforting those walking it with us, and releasing our grip on the perfect we want to establish.

That’s not an abdication of responsibility. It’s an acceptance of limitations learned the hard way.

So for us right now, we make small decisions that we hope will make an impact. We favor heritage breed animals that you don’t find in modern confinement or factory farm operations, to provide greater food diversity and battle against the monoculture dominating agriculture. We raise them small-scale, giving attention and care that large farms can’t provide.

We feed a mix of grains, grasses, and minerals that we grind and mix ourselves: to provide higher nutrient value and maintain full control over what our animals are eating. We’ve chosen non-GMO grains because we don’t trust multinational corporations trying to control the food supply.

All of this reflects our values: to make higher quality food available to more people for the sake of food security. There are troubling times ahead of us, and we believe this work is timely and needed. We’re working to make a way for others who share these values and also want to make an impact in their corner of the world.

And beyond that something like what Athey Keith built would be magical.

You may be wondering what happened to Athey’s Nest Egg. What became of that sheltered forest of trees and wildlife in which the characters of Port William found solace? What happened to that display of abundance after Athey was no longer around to protect it from Troy Chattham?

I won’t ruin the book with a complete spoiler, but you’ve probably already guessed the outcome.

It’s not a happy ending.


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