I recently visited the small white farmhouse near Vassar, Michigan where I spent a great part of my youth and many holidays learning important lessons on entrepreneurism and community. Life on the farm mixed hard work, the joys of exploring woods and streams in the summer, harvesting food from the land in the fall, sledding down snowy hills in the winter, the unique beauty year-round of country living and farm animals, and most of all, devotion to family.
My father grew up on a Canadian farm, but his parents retired and moved to a beachfront community on Lake Erie in the 1950s. My mother’s parents, immigrants from Czechoslovakia, became dairy farmers after the Illinois mines shut down in the depression and their youngest child, my Uncle Andrew, took over the enterprise after they died in the ‘70s. I felt like a lucky kid to grow up both in the city of Detroit, where my parents worked in the auto factories, and on the farm, where I shared weekends, holidays and summers with my extended family, including two brothers and lots of cousins, under a vast blue night sky full of stars.
The Vassar farmhouse and surrounding property is now up for sale. Walking through the rooms one last time this month brought echoes of childhood laughter, reminding me how family farms once were the primary entrepreneurial venture in America. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the original European colonies grew into 13 small, independent farming economies, which joined together in 1776 to form the United States of America. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_history_of_the_United_States
Many small family farms suffered in the 1970s with the rise of industrial farms — and my uncle was one of the farmers who could not keep up with the changes. Yet it seems that there was a rebound in many parts of this country in the last few decades. A recent article in the Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/the-triumph-of-the-family-farm/308998/ chronicles how many farm communities in the Midwest originally survived the “creative destruction of the early 20th century” and emerged triumphant because of a heavy investment in education – Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas, California were the leaders in the high school movement.
Author Chrystia Freeland remains optimistic that the stereotype today of a struggling rural underclass waging a doomed battle to hang onto their patrimony as agribusiness moves in is far from true. She writes that “In 2010, of all the farms in the United States with at least $1 million in revenues, 88 percent were family farms, and they accounted for 79 percent of production.” I already knew from my years in the cooperative food movement that small organic farmers are a hardy and thriving breed.
While the beloved family farmhouse of my youth may be up for sale, although a portion of the surrounding property still remains in the family, I am glad that my cousin had the foresight to donate my grandmother’s iconic coal-fired kitchen stove to an agricultural museum for future generations to admire. As I celebrate Thanksgiving this year, it will be reassuring to know that so many family farms are thriving and more young girls will share my invaluable childhood experiences. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
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