The Experience of Existing: small family farms in the Northeast United States

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The Love of Farming

Perhaps the most important factor that drives small farm agriculture in western New York and northern Pennsylvania is that farmers like doing it. This is a very powerful force that appears to have received scant attention in economic analyses. When it has been recognised at all, this force has been lumped with other variables in the form of economic rents under such titles as “other valuables” (Chayanov, 1966) or “intangible wealth” (Raup 1978, 306). Farmers have love affairs with the animals, smells, sounds, land and physical labour of farming as illustrated by these quotes:

When the stress levels get really high being with other people, it just makes me want to go back to the farm where it seems like it is a slower pace”

“I can be with the cows and it is just a different type of living and a different type of world that I really like to do and live in, but when I get sick of that world I just want to come back to this one.

Another farmer commented:
I liked working off the farm because of the money but my heart was always back here on the farm and to be farming again. I liked working out but my heart was always back here on the farm and to be farming again. I liked working out because of the money but there is a lot more to life than that and you get wrapped up in the outside world and forget about what is most important, so that is why I like being back on the farm.
A former farmer turned professional said that he is drawn back to farming for some reason he cannot easily describe:
Probably the same reason I like to cut wood. When I go to sleep at night, I like to be tired. That’s a good feeling. It feels like you have accomplished something.
Now that he has sold his farm, he is looking around to buy another that he could just have and operate part time.

Another former farmer yearned to be back on the farm:

Yes, now that I look back, it was a lot simpler life-- hard work but less stress involved and you don’t have to deal with people as much, but you could work at your own pace, be your own boss and you knew what needed done and it was your responsibility to get it done. And if you didn’t get it done then you were the one that was going to suffer the consequences and you wouldn’t have a good crop or milk production would be down, so you were actually affecting your outcome more than you do if you work at a shop for somebody-- else they are the ones seeing the results.
The activities of farming appear to take on spiritual meaning for many family farmers. For example, one of the dairy farmers interviewed said:

Um, my favourite part is just being out fixing fence, because our farm is up on a hill and you aren’t bothered by anyone and you don’t have anything to worry about other than rolling down the hill in barbed wire. But, that is fun though and enjoyable. But at least I can be out -- I call it the big sky where I can be underneath everything.
Bonding with the animals is an important part of the romance of dairy farming according to most interviewees. Other studies have also found strong relationships between farmers and their livestock. Miele and Bock. (2007) found that cows, because of their long life on the farm and their likeability, are the farm animal that farm workers bond with most strongly.

The romance of farming is well-illustrated by the manual written by John and Sally Seymour on how to live independently off of a five-acre farm. Who but a romantic would attempt to perform such a feat? Yet, says the manual, “A cow is absolutely central to the economy of a smallholding…But think about it, a cow is the biggest tie in the world. You have to milk her twice a day” (Seymour and Seymour, 1973, 42). Thus cows force intimacy between farmer and animal. This intimacy may not always be desired but is difficult to relinquish say many interviewees.

The sentimental attractions of the farm are not limited to those who have grown up as farmers. There is trend among young professionals to seek a “simpler life” through farming at least part time. One case study was that of Josh and Kathy Gunn, corporate types, whose farming adventure was reported in Money magazine (Rosato, 2001). In the article Josh said, “it's hard work and exhausting but I get pleasure in what I do every day.”

This romance, with its positive memories, leads to the next most mentioned reason why farmers return to or try desperately to hold onto their small farms. The farm gives them a sense of place and an identity usually beginning at a very young age.

Besides to the act of farming itself farmers feel an emotional bond to the farm. There is a sense of belonging in those who have worked a family farm. It is seen especially in the nostalgia of those who have left it as described by this former farmer:
I would argue that I never left the farm. It is still very much a part of me. I recently went to look for a farm to go back to farming. I wouldn’t quit my job here. I’d be a gentleman farmer. It’s not like work where you leave and go home. It’s a much greater sense of attachment. It involves cycles of life. And, plants and animals are a part of your family. I’m looking to get back to place. It’s nurturing, growing and developing.
Some farmers equate this sense of place to experiences with life and death that are associated with the land on which these experiences took place.
A lamb was birthed and had serious problems got stiff and fell over. I was up all night with it. I woke up in the morning and it died. This life and death gives me a sense of attachment.
The strong sense of attachment to the farm among family farmers exemplifies what has been called cultural place attachment. Defining cultural place attachment as a “symbolic relationship formed by people giving culturally shared emotional/affective meanings to a particular space or piece of land.” Low (1992) has identified a set of six symbolic typologies that define it. For the farmers participating in this study, all her typologies were applicable.

The first of these typologies is genealogical which refers to historical linkage through community. One participant in our study owned a “century farm”, a family farm honoured by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for having been owned and operated by the same family for over 100 years. The “century farm” was a respected icon in the local farming community. Genealogy was rooted to the land in the farming communities we studied. Residents described local geography using the names of the families whose farms occupied or were nearby features, such as streams fields and woods.

A second typology is Loss/Destruction. Loss or threatened loss stimulates expression of attachment. Mourning the loss of the farm, often concomitant with a desire or plan to return to farm life, is one of the most common themes among those we met living in rural communities. A professor teaching at a rural college wrote a syllabus for a proposed course on place attachment as an apparent catharsis for his longing to return to the farm life of his childhood.

A third typology, the economic typology, refers to the utilitarian role of a place or land in the lives of those who work it. Certainly the farm is a place of work—often hard work. Small farm owners and their farm workers have together formed an extended family that earns its living out of the soil itself.

The fourth typology is called cosmology. It relates to the spiritual nature of the place as having a bond to the universe. While the farms we studied did not have chapels and the country church appears to be less important to the community than it was 100 years ago, the intimate struggle with nature and the caprices of weather seem to give farm people a sense that they are closer to God than city folk. This is expressed in the way that they look at the sky and in remarks that they make about Providence. Some say that they have seen God’s bounty and God’s wrath in their toils on God’s earth.

The typology, pilgrimage, expects that the bond to a place, if it truly exists, is likely to be marked by celebratory events to which people make pilgrimages. This aspect of bonding is represented by the county fairs, grange shows and similar celebrations of the local agriculture. A co-author of this paper was awarded the title of Dairy Queen at such a fair.

The final, sixth, typology is narrative. The place of attachment is expected to engender narratives about it that are passed within the culture. The family farm has been a seemingly endless source of stories, too many to begin to mention. An example is the poem by Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man” (1915) in which a labourer returns to his former farm of employment to die because he is so bonded to it.

Even those farmers that contemplate leaving the farm or say they actually left it mourn farm life in the same breath. Farm life is a struggle. Risk is exciting. Hard work strengthens body and soul. The cycle of life is bonding and deeply meaningful spiritually. However, these elements of farming are very wearing. Body and soul become exhausted. The farmer sometimes wonders why he/she ever chose farming.

A farmer on the edge of leaving the farm explains what it is like:
Sometimes it is love- hate relationship, you love the farm some days and others you hate it and you have so many things on the farm to love and especially the animals, going outside getting fresh air, having good food to eat being your own boss doing your own things when you want to do it for most of the time, but in the dairy business you have to milk cows twice a day and then in the winter you have to clean the barn twice a day. I get so tired of the repetitive routine of things. But when we sold the milk cows I guess I did miss milking them but I miss the cows themselves. It seems that if you’re in the one world you miss the other and it seems that the grass is always greener on the other side.

The desire for a more affluent and freer lifestyle was the strongest factor in competition with farming. One of those interviewed said:

I have a bachelor of arts in hotel management and a certificate in human resource management. I first thought I wanted to become a teacher, but I like to cook and everybody said that I should be a chef or run hotels. I miss farming. Now I am a driver for a vending company.
However, farming is running a small business. One farmer described it like this:
“You get frustrated and you are at the mercy of the elements and if it is going to rain that is holding you up from doing anything in any crops being planted or harvested you have to be very patient and there is a lot to give and take a lot. It is not like when you work at a shop you punch in at a certain time and when four o’ clock comes you punch out and you have done your work. On the farm you may wake up at four in the morning but not get back until ten at night, and not get accomplished what you thought you were going to get done that day.”

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