Our Hidden Wound


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?



The Contrary Farmer



Gene Logsdon
From Our Archives May 2007

A farmer of deep ecological sensitivity is to the plow jockey on his 200-horsepower tractor what a French chef is to the legions of hamburger handlers at fast food chains. The chef’s work is infused with artistic, scientific, and spiritual satisfactions; the hamburger handler’s is infused only with the ticking of a time clock. To the plow jockey, soil is a boring landscape of clods that need to be crushed. To the ecological farmer, every clod holds a wondrously exotic, tropical-like world of brilliantly colored microorganisms, the very stuff of life.

Walk with me over our little farm where biological diversity is our first order of business. On this farm lives a human family along with several families of corn, oats, wheat, orchard trees, grasses, legumes, berries, and garden vegetables, the whole domestic tribe living in a sort of hostile harmony with the wild food chain: animals, insects, and plants in such diversity that I have not been able to name them all. On our little farm, I have identified 130 species of birds, 40 species of wild animals (not counting coonhunters), over 50 species of wildflowers, at least 45 tree species, a myriad of gorgeous butterflies, moths, spiders, beetles, etc., and about 593,455,780 weeds.

I believe that the more diversity of species on a farm the more the various forms of life keep each other from achieving out-of-balance population relative to the other species. This increasing diversity means more than merely “balance,” which is a negative accomplishment. Increasing diversity means to me increasing biological dynamism which leads to an increasing amount of total food produced without increasing the amount of human labor or purchased agricultural supplies. The most obvious example is growing clover. Clover works with rhizobia bacteria in the soil to draw nitrogen from the air and make it available to itself and other subsequent plants without any effort or cost to me. A factory to extract nitrogen from the air costs millions of dollars and society’s tendency is then to use the nitrate so produced to make gunpowder, not to enrich the soil…

As all these life forms interact with each other, they create effects that individually they are incapable of. For example, cow flaps draw earthworms to dine on the organic matter. Young trees that have crept into the meadow over the years from the adjoining woodlot draw the cows to their shade. The cow-manure-earthworm-tree environment draws woodcocks to the farm. These birds come for the earthworms under the cow flaps and under the moist dirt bared by tree shade and cow hooves. Not incidentally, the combination has also produced on occasion a fairy ring of edible mushrooms. And also not incidentally, the animal manure is all the while being broken down and returned to enrich the earth. All we have to do is stand and watch in awe and pick the mushrooms.


Wood Is More Precious Than Gold


Gene Logsdon
From Our Archives January 2008

The price of gold is going crazy as investors look for a shelter from a dipsy-doodling stock market.

It reminds me of one of my grandfather’s stories. During the bad financial times of the early 1920s in Germany, the peasants (ancestors of ours) traded their potatoes for gems that the rich people were forced to pay to get something to eat.

That story is one reason why in 1974, I took my family out of Philadelphia where I had a good job, bought a little piece of land in my home country, built a house on it, and prepared for a severe economic depression, which fortunately did not come. Yet.

The only requirement I insisted on in looking for land was that it have several acres of woodland on it. I knew I could have a garden producing food in a hurry, but it takes time to grow the wood to keep a house warm and to cook with, if it came to that. I did not want to depend entirely on faraway oil to stay alive, and in a pinch I wanted to get by without electricity if I had to.

Whether I am just paranoid or prophetical I don’t know yet, but as I sit in my woods, resting from the work of splitting firewood, that decision has continued to make sense to me even in times of stable economics. (Is our economic system ever stable?) What I have gained in enjoyment alone makes my investment in two mature woodlots at least as “profitable” as investing an equivalent amount of money in gold.

You can’t eat gold like you can the bounty of trees in fruits, nuts, maple syrup, and various edible mushrooms and herbal treasures of the woodland. You can’t warm yourself with gold. You can’t bask in the shade of gold. You can’t make fence posts out of gold. A gold house would be mighty expensive. You can’t make a windbreak out of gold. You can’t make furniture, violins, guitars, wall paneling, picture frames, gun stocks, tomato stakes, flooring, barns, chicken coops, and hog houses out of gold. You can’t mulch a garden with gold leaf. Gold does not take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen to preserve an environment we can live in. Gold does not provide habitat for millions of wild animals and zillions of insects necessary for a sustainable environment. And in fact, you can make methane out of wood much more efficiently than ethanol out of corn. All gold can do is go up and down in price and invariably it turns out to be a poor investment, as many panic buyers learn the hard way.

I’ve known my two woodlots intimately for over 70 years. The one of ten acres was my playground as I grew up. The other, of about four acres two miles away, I also tramped as a child and have lived in, literally, for the last 34 years. There are so many ways to figure the value of woodland, so many intangibles that don’t show up on ledgers, that I doubt anyone can make an accurate estimate. But I want to try, using only my own rather uncomplicated experiences, leaving out intangibles like how the tranquility and exercise I’ve gained from caring for my woodland may have affected my health beneficially.

I paid $700 an acre for the four acre woodlot in 1974 and $2000 an acre for a ten acre woodlot in 1979. The four acre plot was really the lot for our house, so to speak, and so it is hard to try to calculate its value as woodland alone. So I will focus on the ten acres although what is true for one is true for the other.

Twenty thousand dollars for ten acres of woods was extravagant by local standards in 1979 but that’s what I had to pay to keep a corn farmer from bulldozing it away. I presume that if I had invested that money in the stock market, it would have doubled or tripled by now, but then again, after the recession in the 1980s when the market took a beating, and again in 2002, and now in 2008, maybe not.

A few years after we bought the ten acres, a timber buyer offered us $20,000 if we would let him clear-cut it, which of course I had no intention of doing. But I did sell five white oaks as veneer for $5000. A few years after that I sold another $2000 worth of logs. About 1995, my son, who was getting in the home construction business, hired a sawyer with a bandsaw mill to saw about 10,000 board feet of lumber which my son and I have used in various ways. The slab wood “waste” made several loads of firewood too. The sawyer charged thirty cents a board foot as I recall. We figured the wood was worth, above that cost, about a dollar a board foot, possibly twice that. If you have purchased wood from a lumberyard lately you know that you can carry $150 worth out to your truck in one trip. My son used some of the red oak as trim throughout his new home. It is breathtakingly beautiful. What is that worth? I sold another $2000 worth of trees in 2007.

Every year I harvest about four cords of fuel wood from the 14 acres of both woodlots. My son and other family members have been harvesting firewood from the ten acres too. Experience teaches us that an acre of mature woodland will produce indefinitely at least a cord of wood annually just in deadfalls, blowdowns, and thinnings, without lessening the over all yearly production of wood, and in fact increasing it. One mature tree containing two sawlogs to sell or make lumber from, also has enough branches to make a cord of wood.

The price of cord wood, needless to say, is going up as fast as the price of oil. I’ve always figured that a cord of oak replaced about $100 worth of other fuel but now the replacement value is higher. In general the wood I’ve used to keep the house warm over the last 25 years saved us an average of $400 a year even after deducting the cost of five chainsaws I have worn out in the process. My son figures that today his wood replaces about $300 of other fuel per winter month. He heats almost entirely with wood. I let our woodstove go out at night in favor of backup electric heat unless the weather is very cold.

Actually I rarely count wood by the cord but by the amount I need to heat the house for a day. Experience has shown me that I can cut from the log and split a day’s supply of heat in about an hour if the wood is straight-grained. Could do better when I was young. So to work up enough wood to last a hundred winter days, which is what I do, takes about a hundred hours. Since I like to work in the woods, and since I am not paying money out of pocket to someone else, I consider that labor as part of the profit.

Obviously the original $20,000 was an excellent investment. The woodlot will go on producing fuel and lumber and satisfaction forever with proper management. Even discounting that, the land is still there, going up in value whether it has trees on it or not. And if I were to sell the land, it is worth far more for homesites if it has mature trees on it than if it were bare land.

When I was a boy, farmers followed a code of ethics that proscribed a ten acre woodlot be kept for every hundred acres of farm land. That of course was forgotten when coal, fuel oil, bulldozers and subsidized corn became easily available. Would we not have much better homeland security today if that practice had remained as part of our cultural heritage?