Gene Logsdon and Friends

Our Hidden Wound

In Gene Logsdon Blog on October 28, 2008 at 8:11 am

From Gene Logsdon (1992)

I’m a hayseed, I’m a hayseed,
and my ears are full of pigweed.
How they flop in stormy weather—
gosh oh hemlock, tough as leather…

—From a children’s rhyme heard in the Midwest in the 1930s and forties.

Most of us grew up in a society where farmer was often merely a synonym for moron, and I am quite sure that many farmers are still haunted by feelings of inferiority laid on them by this kind of urban and urbane prejudice. In fact, I suspect that many of the most competent farmers among us continue to expand their farm empires not out of greed or an insatiable desire for wealth, but because they feel compelled to prove again and again that, by God, they are not inferior to anyone. They want to cram that fact as far down the throats of their boyhood taunters as they can, and, sadly, they spend their lives doing it.

In my high school days in the late forties, supercilious town girls routinely claimed that milking cows caused hands to grow too large and rough and the reason farmers had big feet was that they went barefoot too much. Lord help the girl who wore a print dress made from a grain sack, although the dresses were as pretty as any. A boy who came to school with chicken manure on his shoes, as could easily happen, or with the smell (real or imagined) of the cow stable on his clothes, instantly became an object of derision. Wearing bib overalls, which, ironically, are all the urban rage right now, brought automatic jeers, and after a while we refused to wear them, even at home. When the school lunch program came along, country children whose mothers packed a lunch for them, believing for some strange reason that parents, not the government, should feed their children, were restricted to a separate part of the lunchroom, and this separation soon carried with it a stigma not unlike the segregation of blacks in “their own place.” Farm work was in all cases put down as “nigger work” and it was too bad, we were told, that redneck country kids were condemned to it. One of our textbooks, with all good intentions, I’m sure, had a chapter entitled “Farm Folk Are Human, Too.” My mother, half-amused and half-dismayed, showed that page to my father. He took one look and hurled the book across the floor.

We farm kids came to school possessing intricate and valuable knowledge about manual arts, food production skills, and the ways of nature—all of which our urban counterparts desperately lacked, as is now apparent from the actions of well-meaning animal rightists and overzealous environmentalists; yet most of the teachers not only ignored this treasure trove of information, but belittled it as having no relevance to life. Kamyar Enshayan, of the Sustainable Agriculture Program at Ohio State University, calls this “paradigm negation” and says that rural students coming into the university are still treated as if what they have learned at home, from tradition or through farm experience, is of no importance. “This is, in fact, the way colonial powers always treat their colonies as a way of stripping them of their identity and destroying their independence,” he says. “Farmers don’t yet realize it, but rural areas have become no more than colonies from which cities are sucking the wealth.”

In high school we accepted the urban prejudices against us in a solid, simmering silence that erupted into rebellion only once that I recall—a violent, bloody fistfight in the lobby of our local theater. The fight started when a “townie” called one of us a “clodhopper” once too often.

It wasn’t so long ago, really, that that kind of prejudice was perpetuated all over America. We who are now in our forties and fifties bear the scars of these prejudices as part of what Wendell Berry, the poet and farmer, calls “the hidden wound” in his book by that title. And we know, like the blacks know, that the prejudice is far from gone: it has only become more slyly silken in its displays. Though the scars have healed, they ache whenever the cultural weather shifts.

Some farmers flaunt the prejudice by wearing dirty clothes to the bank to borrow a quarter of a million dollars. Others over-compensate by dressing up to look “respectable” for the banker. That’s also why they get the car washed every time they’re in town. Some want to be called “agribusinesspeople” rather than farmers even if it does take half an hour to get that word out. Almost all of us are suckers for the “urban counterpart” argument. Salespeople know that a good way to get a farmer to buy their product is to hint that it will enable us to live “more like your urban counterpart.” Those who follow that allurement to its logical conclusion become urban counterparts, because it is patently impossible for a farmer to live like a city person.

How many generations does it take to heal the scars of prejudice completely? I wonder. I have a notion that prejudice is never eradicated, just transferred. When the “hillbillies” moved into our county from Kentucky during World War II, the focus of urban prejudice switched to them because they were even more “rural” than we were. Nursing our wounds, we farmers, who should have been sympathetic, joined with the townspeople in inflicting the wound on them. When the Mexican fieldworkers came, another segment of society colonized out of its own farm traditions, the “hillbillies” joined us, glad no longer to be at the bottom of the pecking order. Although there are hardly any blacks in our county, they are still referred to broadly as “niggars” by more than a few whites including most farmers; and “niggars” are still thought to be oversexed beyond control. I suspect, in fact, that farmers tend to hold on to such hoary racial prejudices in retaliation against their own hidden wound. Misery loves company.

Our county has just come through a nasty school consolidation fight in which, as usual, the bureaucracy won and the farmers lost. The school in the village of Harpster was closed (along with another township school). Being on the task force that undertook to study the matter, I was involved up to my ears (how they flop in stormy weather) in that battle. I had all the available figures pertinent to the school closing, and those figures did not show that there were any savings to be had by closing the Harpster school. Nor was there any proof that consolidating the schools meant better education. (In fact, nationally, more and more evidence points to quite the opposite conclusion.) Not even population decline could be cited as a reason for closing the Harpster school, because the area was gaining population. But argument was futile since the state of Ohio, like most states, is committed to consolidation. And latent in that policy is a contempt for rural people. Wayne Fuller, a professor of history at the University of Texas, has soundly documented this contempt in his recent book The Old Country School. In order to gain control of the independent school districts, professional educators undertook a campaign, beginning in the nineteenth century and intensifying in the twentieth, to discredit country schools in the eyes of state legislators. The professionals, often bluntly, said that farmers were too ignorant to be capable of running schools. Fuller points out that in most cases, the farmers’ ideas about education turned out to be better than the professional educators’, and that in following the latter’s course, we now have a large percentage of our population that can’t even read intelligently. My friend Craig Bowman who with his sons farms about 4,000 acres today, was a leader in both of the futile fights to save Harpster’s high school in 1960 and its elementary school in 1990. He nods when I tell him about Fuller’s book. “One reason we lost those battles, especially in 1960, was that many farmers half-believed that those yahoos in the state education department knew more about what was good for their children than they did, and they wouldn’t stand up to them. Of course. Society trained them that way.”

Even in our rural county, teachers encourage students not to think of themselves as coming from Harpster, or Marseilles, or any of our little villages or townships, but from the Upper Sandusky School District, which is perceived as a nobler root from which to spring. “Big is better” is a myth behind the myth that country people are somehow second-rate. And that may be why farmers so readily embraced the slogan “Get big or get out.”

But it is not necessary to blame education for the prejudice against farmers, since television, the real educating force in America, reinforces the myth with one prime-time show after another. The bigotry is not even veiled. Night after night, one dramatic episode or another will follow the adventures of a character who just had to get out of a “backward” rural area in favor of the, tah-dah, City. Getting out of rural areas for fame and fortune persists as a story motif even though it flies utterly in the face of reality. The competent farmers and businesspeople who stayed in our county are at least as financially successful as their peers who went to the city, and they don’t have to pay $300,000 for a $90,000 home, either. As one refugee back here from the big city says: “As for the cultural advantages of the city, who needs the traffic hassle? Electronics brings ‘cultural advantages’  to one’s home, wherever it may be.” (The “cultural advantages of the city” is another side of the prejudice against farmers. Why does no one speak of the cultural advantages of the country? For example, is a well groomed, ecologically kept, sustainably fertile farm any less cultural, any less artful, than paintings of fat angels on church ceilings?)

I am sure that the reason for the prejudice so many farmers exhibit against the Amish (the most biased like to infer, with a snicker, that Amish women are oversexed, like black people) is that their lifestyle unwittingly jabs at our hidden wound. The Amish remind us of ourselves fifty years ago, when we lived much like they do now and were ridiculed for it. And it is embarrassing to us that the Amish prove we could all make a decent living in farming by not trying to live like our urban counterparts.

What is so curious about the inanity of prejudice against farmers is that it exists right alongside the opposite prejudice: that farmers are the moral backbone of society. Farmers, of course (including the Amish), can be just as ornery as anyone else. This overly favorable image gains more credence the farther it is removed from agriculture. The wealthy townhouse dweller who has seldom been anywhere except Manhattan and Bermuda (and, as a result, is far more provincial than most farmers), thinks of the “man of the soil” as a kind of yeoman saint in overalls, working without surcease in the peace and quiet of God’s country to feed the world. This image lasts until said townhouser builds a million-dollar home in the country and the farmer next door starts spreading manure. The age-old contempt quickly returns and any farmers who must try to “feed the world” next to suburbs are not even allowed to work in their fields after dark.

The prejudice against farmers carries far from the farm. A New York City magazine editor cannot keep from displaying just a tad of superiority when talking about the work of a farm writer like myself. Usually it is more than a tad. When a Camden, New Jersey, columnist reviewed my book about Andrew Wyeth, which I wrote in 1970 while I was an editor at Farm Journal, she wrote most kindly but expressed surprise that such writing could come from someone who worked on a farm magazine! We farm writers, nursing our wound, aid and abet that prejudice ourselves: invariably, when one of our associates leaves our ranks for work in another field of journalism, we say that he or she graduated to a higher rung on the ladder. Why is Time more important than Farm Journal? It is difficult for the urban mind to swallow the fact that a renowned poet and essayist like Wendell Berry, or an accomplished musician like Elmo Reed, is also a bona fide farmer.

This low opinion of our work causes many farmers to see their land as nothing more than a factory or mine or “resource” from which to extract money. They remain unaware of its exquisite beauty, its natural wonders, and its potential as a sanctuary for the recreation of the human spirit. They ignore its natural pleasures in favor of faraway vacation spots: the same farmer who gasps in awe at a redstart in Cuba (once it is pointed out to him) does not know that the same bird visits his Ohio farm every spring and fall. The farmer who destroys the wild sanctuaries of his own farm uses the money to hunt and fish in Canada. He dines lavishly in gourmet restaurants on food that is not nearly as “farm-fresh,” “free-range,” or “organically pure” as the meats and vegetables he could grow in his own backyard and barnyard. Eschewing the good life of his own farm, he eschews the good life of his own neighborhood. His barn is no longer full of laughing, romping children or grandchildren, his hillsides no longer echo the happy cries of sledders, his pond no longer draws the swimmers and ice skaters of his community. There is no community. The neighbors have all gone to the city. The village churches and schools and taverns and inns that once were scenes of far more delight than the boring, manufactured uniformity of tourism are boarded up.

If we farmers deny the magnificence of our own rurality, how can we blame urban society for treating us the same way?

~
See also Gene’s Just What We Need: Faster Tractors
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming

OrganicToBe.org
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  1. Gene, I think “At Nature’s Pace” was the first book of yours I read. I started reading Wendell Berry’s stuff which lead me to yours and Wes Jackson’s. I recently got to watch some video of Wendell and Wes at the Slow Food conference from this past August (where the heck were you??) and it hit me all at once. The need to belong and identify with a place.

    I grew up in a small city, both my parents worked. Mine was the suburban life but several steps back from what it has become today. No running off to this, that, and the other – the only lessons I had were piano lessons and the teacher came to our house. The rest of the time I played in the vast woods beyond the end of the neighborhood.

    Both my parents had grown up on farms and their parents inculcated into their offspring the need for higher education as their ticket off the farm. Both my mother and her brother got several advanced degrees as did my father. His brothers learned various trades but I always suspected that they felt my father was the lucky one for having gone to college even though they were successful small businessmen in their own right (one of them was mayor of his town for a term or two).

    I followed my folks’ footsteps and now have more education than I know what to do with. But for what purpose? I can’t tell what the weather will be based on the plants and animals around me. I know about lifestock but haven’t a clue how to work with them or even care for them. While I never picked on a farm kid (I didn’t know any until 2002 when I was working in a Wisconsin town of 700 souls), I slap myself now for having considered the agrarian life as somehow substandard. When it was THE standard for hundreds of years!

    It pains me terribly to see farm kids in such a hurry to move to The City. They’ll lose their identity that way and it will come back to haunt them when they look to start families of their own. I never had an attachment to a place for most of my life. I went where there was college and/or work, once I was old enough to venture out on my own. I once noted to a friend, after mentioning that I’d lived in five states, that there were 45 more to go. I’m done with that and have been done with that before the age of easy energy ended. I’m done with being place-free; I’m now place-full.

    Maybe that’s partially why the family farm as a livelihood has been vanishing. The people living on them no longer identified with the place of their forebears. Well, I suppose if you’d been hearing how worthless you were for so many years, it shouldn’t be a surprise that you’d start believing it. So I guess the jury’s still out on the fate of family farms although I see encouraging signs that young people with no immediate history of farming taking it up. Maybe that’s how the image of farming will be transformed – by those who have no baggage from the past. It won’t matter one wit what the “townies” might think. The new farmers want to farm because they’ve evaluated their options and that was the best one. Might get the oldtimers to sit up and take notice, you think?

    Kerri in AK

  2. We have been having a bit of a discussion on one of my blog posts about the perpetuation of prejudice in our institutions, language, and culture. You’re post fit right in, so I have linked it in the comments. Come over and join the discussion if you like.
    http://www.robertsroostecofarm.com/2008/10/lessons.html

    Thanks for writing about this hidden issue.

  3. In urban places – in suburban eastern Massachusetts and urban Portland, Oregon – I never saw any townie/farmer prejudice; no farmers. Both my parents themselves grew up near farms, and I listened to stories about them as kids helping at these farms. It was quaint, something people did in old times; nowadays (and I mean back in the 70s) food comes from grocery stores and factories.

    But I think it’s part of a general disconnect with food and the earth, a huge missing link in the cultural memes (at least based on what I grew up with no idea about). Food is cheap, and we don’t respect it. We as a culture have forgotten that all food comes from the earth, that every person is utterly dependent on food grown from the earth – on farmers – for every bite we eat every day of our lives. Somewhere, magic happens, and toothbrushes and pizzas and cashmere sweaters just pop into being, but no understanding of what that means, what was involved in producing that, what the impact on the earth is, how interconnected we and the earth are.

    We have a small homestead farm now, and people visit and say how this kind of life is their dream, or how they admire he “simple” life. They have no idea… But in spite of all the work, and how challenging and complicated it can be, it’s the most real and meaningful thing I can imagine doing.

  4. Kerri and Lisa, your letters are simply beautiful. It is so inspiring to hear from people who have something peaceful and thoughtful to say… in this world where so much bitter meaness is being exchanged. Peace may yet triump over prejudice.
    Alan, read your blog and the comments. Again, I can only repeat how reassuring it is to know so many thoughtful people out there CARE about making the world better. Gene Logsdon

  5. I have to admit I was on the wrong side of the prejudice issue when I was younger. Now, I know farmers are the smartest people around. As I’ve explored the different issues that need to be juggled in order to start a small CSA, I realized how much farmers know. And this knowledge isn’t easy to come by. Many of the “experts” have never had a good hoe in their hands and wouldn’t know what to do with it if they did.

  6. Gene, a good farmer is about the smartest person I know. I did my doctoral dissertation in a school of agriculture and of course got to talk with many of the faculty. More importantly I saw the range of courses the undergraduates had to take to get their agriculture degrees. Now I realize this was “book larning” removed from the feel of a hoe in the hand or being chased by a mad bull.

    But a good farmer has to know so much: about soils physics, chemistry and mechanics; about many aspects of livestock and how to handle them; about mechanics so s/he can fix the machines and keep them running; about water as it relates to the land and weather; really about weather and climates; about crops – how they grow, how best to care for and feed them; and the business, accounting, and economic parts of farming.

    Not only book learning, but the important aspects of farming can only be learned by “hands-on” experience, over many years. The urbanites who are going into farming, even if on a small scale of an acre or two, have so much to learn, and such a steep learning curve. I suspect most of them don’t realize it and don’t have enough capital invested to keep them afloat in the early years of their enterprise.

    More could be said, but I don’t know anyone who has to know as much or have the range of skills that a good farmer must have.

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