A Cry of Anguish for the First Death Throes of Family Farming

When I was about 35 years old, my former wife Etta gave me a pierced earring for Christmas. We had recently been to Shakespeare's birthplace, and she apparently thought I would look fetching (but fetching what?) in an earring. I unwrapped the small package while sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace in my mother's living room in Dickinson. My grandmother Rhoda Straus looked on in consternation from a nearby couch. When the gold earring was exhibited and explained to her, she shook her head and laughed, and then barked out, "It's a good thing Dick didn't live to see this!" she said.

So I never pierced my ear.

Dick was Diedrich Straus, a second-generation American of German ethnicity, a grain and dairy farmer, and formerly a small implement dealer. He would have been 80 years old that Christmas.

All I can say is, it's a good thing Dick didn't live to see this: the sovereign state of North Dakota opening the door to corporate agriculture in the hog and dairy industry. I'm not a legislator. I respect their hard work, to which they (not I) have been elected, but I look on the decision to permit corporate agriculture within the boundaries of North Dakota with the deepest melancholy, grief, and dismay. We are lightly giving away a essential centerpiece of our identity and character. We are witnessing, as routine legislative business, an agrarian tragedy, perpetrated by the very last place I would have expected to drink the Kool-Aid of the corporatization of agriculture.

Throughout my whole life, through the course of my travels, no matter where I happened to be, when I was asked to talk about home, I have said, "North Dakota is a family farm state. All farms in North Dakota have to be owned by family farmers, or limited family farm corporations. We believe in the special sanctity of family agriculture." Most of the people I have met elsewhere don't really know the difference between a family farm in Kidder County, North Dakota, and a giant corporate fiefdom in the Central Valley of California, but they sense something significant in the words, and hear something of the pride in my voice when I explain our unique agrarian heritage. Whatever else we have been, or sought, or endured, the rock rib principle of North Dakota life has been that family farms are the backbone of our identity.

America's agrarian visionary Thomas Jefferson believed that what he called "small holders" were the foundation of a republican society. We would be the freest, happiest, most virtuous, and most independent country in the worked, he argued, as long as the great majority of us lived on small family farms. He said once that farming must indisputably be the most honorable of all professions; after all, it was the occupation of Adam and Eve, our first parents, in the Garden of Eden.

If you step back and ask yourself hard questions about North Dakota's history, its heritage, its core identity and our value system, you will agree, I believe, that we are who we are because we are the children and grandchildren (and nieces and grand-nephews) of family farmers. Our celebrated work-ethic (nationally recognized by employers), our deep capacity for common sense, our self-reliance, our deeply pragmatic outlook, the sheer number of Jacks (and Jills) of all trades we produce in every Crosby, Hankinson, Rhame, and Grafton of the state—these are the legacy of family farming and related small town businesses.

We are told there are plausible reasons to permit corporate control of hog and dairy operations in North Dakota. To be competitive in these industries nowadays requires vast amounts of capital. Either corporatize, in other words, or say farewell to the last of the already-diminished North Dakota dairy industry.

We've heard these arguments before, of course, decade after decade, but each previous time we have somehow found the courage to say no, even when it is clear that more money could be made (for someone!) if we just gave up and let Cargill and Monsanto in.

One of the most beautiful qualities in the North Dakota character has been our quiet conviction that there are some things more important than profit. Family. Neighborliness. Rural communities. Rural life. 4-H. Our continuing commitment to family farming, in the face of all the political and economic pressures that have coursed through the state over the past century, is one of the things I love most about North Dakota.

My grandparents were quiet, decent, hard-working people, who grew a significant percentage of their own food, saved every penny they could, bathed and dressed for church every Sunday no matter how weary they felt. They routinely put their own interests aside to help their neighbors in times of sickness and need. They paid their taxes on time, regarded a handshake as a sacred contract, kept their word, met their commitments, and entered the voting booth with God and country in their hearts. They believed, to their core, that "farming is everybody's bread and butter."

Absurd as it may seem now, my grandparents had a loving relationship with each of their cows. Mostly Holsteins, they all had names, chosen by my grandmother, "Blossom" and "Petunia" and "Pinky." Grandpa lost sleep when they were ill, and nursed them with gentle hands when one stepped on a teat or a nail. They grieved when one of their cows died. After my grandfather became ill, and had to endure the big farm auction between the barn and the garage, he stood stoically while his old open cab Farmall and his pull-type combine were sold, and rolls of barbed wire and bailing twice, and the manure spreader my grandmother had given him (with a big fat red ribbon around it) one Christmas. But when the auctioneer began to sell off "Whitey" and "Pal," Dick Straus broke down and had to be helped into the house because he could not bear to witness the dispersal of his small dairy herd.

I know such "food factories" are now the "standard of the business," but that does not make them right. Personally, I would rather not have the milk I drink extracted on such a scale with such industrial efficiency, not to mention the hormones that force today's cows to live in perpetual discomfort. My grandfather used to massage the milk bags and udders of the cows he milked, and speak to them in comforting words, and stroke their flanks when they fretted, and strip them of the last of their milk by hand to relieve them of the pressure. I'd rather not eat pork that found its way to my table by way of a massive confinement warehouse, a byword for unhealthy hyper-claustrophobia, employing what can only be called inhumane (and environmentally questionable) fattening techniques.

In my opinion, we need to be moving in the other direction in American agriculture, away from the excesses of the industrial paradigm (whose goal is profit) to a new agrarianism (whose goal is healthy farms and healthy families producing food for healthy communities).

I'm certain that compelling reasons can be put forth to support the corporatization of hog and dairy operations in North Dakota, but once you crack that door open, the rest will surely follow. It truly is a slippery slope. It is the end of the greatest phase of North Dakota history. In some sense, it is the end of North Dakota as we have known it.