The lingering issue of ‘keeping children on the farm’

Jenny Schlecht
Forum News Service

A few weeks ago, I was digging through online copies of old newspapers, purportedly in search of some tidbits related to my family history. In reality, it was because I love old newspapers and the unpolished history within them.

When I worked at a newspaper, I would try to think of story ideas that would allow me to venture into the basement and its stacks of more-than-a-century-old papers. I’ve always been fascinated by how much things have changed in the years that yellowed those pages.

But this time, I found an item that referred more to things that haven’t changed.

In an April 18, 1925, issue of the Bismarck (N.D.) Tribune, a headline caught my eye: “Keeping children on the farm.”

The short item summarized an editorial from the McLean County (N.D.) Independent that reported nearly 100 tractors had been purchased in the Garrison, N.D., area that year. The Tribune applauded the Independent’s argument that taking the “drudgery” out of farming and farm life by modernizing not just the farm but the farm house would make the lifestyle more attractive to “boys and girls.” “Farm the easy way,” the newspapers urged.

Let’s take a zip back to 1925, shall we? According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1925, the population of the U.S. was an estimated 115,378,000. That total included 52,532,000 in rural areas, of which 29,023,002 lived on farms. In 1925, more than a quarter of the country’s population lived on a farm.

Fast forward to 2017. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, only 1.3% of U.S. jobs were directly on the farm.

An influx of tractors and washing machines didn’t keep “boys and girls” on the farm in the first half of the 20th century. I am of the opinion that an influx of precision ag equipment and broadband connections won’t do it in the first half of the 21st century.

Those things may help, certainly. But they won’t solve some of the lingering issues that agriculture never has unravelled.

How do we make farming and ranching consistently profitable? As much as we like to believe our own hard work and ingenuity are responsible for our success, we are as much at the mercy of the weather, government policies and market fluctuations as our counterparts were nearly 100 years ago. Is there a way to make sure farmers and ranchers make money?

How do we make farming and ranching allow for lives outside of work? While many of us love farming for the lifestyle it offers, far more have left the farm to gain weekends, paid time off and free time.

Farmers and ranchers may never have the same schedule as their town counterparts, but is there a way to offer some work-life balance?

Maybe the answer is smaller farms. Maybe the answer is larger cooperative operations with more ability to spread the profits and losses as well as the work. Maybe there’s a government policy or a new organizational strategy or something entirely unexplored that will solve the problem of who’s going to keep the farm going as today’s farmers retire.

I don’t have the answer. Maybe you do. Let me know if you’ve got it all figured out.