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The View from Here: The family farm and farm family

Mike Gangwer Published on 17 September 2010

The oldest family farm in the U.S. will be sold. The Tuttle family has owned the farm in Dover, New Hampshire, for nearly 400 years. The news article appeared in many national press newspapers including the New York Times (published Aug. 1, 2010). The agricultural and naturalist writer Merlyn Klinkenborg wrote of the sale in his weekly column.

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I agreed with his premise, and it is one I see all over the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan. While I am busy in Washington, D.C., preparing for my next expeditionary assignment, in this column I write of my own reflections about the perennial topic of family farms and farm families.

They are not the same. Just turning these two words around changes how we interpret them. One, the family farm, as in the Tuttle Farm, describes the business entity, the financial description, the organizational structure and to some extent, the economics of the business.

The second, the farm family, is the Tuttle family, or your family, having engaged in farming as business owners, operators and managers. We describe farm families as multi-generational, or young, or nearing retirement, or perhaps as a family engaged in some form of farming regardless of size or crop or animal species or location.

Klinkenborg reports that the Tuttle family, as owners and operators in their early 60s, had enough of the daily work and effort of staying in business. The farm economics gave way to larger, more scaled farms. That economy of scale and potential increased debt to mitigate depreciation were not worth continuing the farm as Tuttle Farm. And then he reports the Tuttle Farm owners strongly discouraged their six children from becoming the 12th generation to farm these fields.

Incredible. Yet this story mirrors hundreds just like it every day across America and, from my view, across the entire planet wherever crops are grown and animals raised. The perennial challenge for all farms of passing the farm business to the next generation includes at the very core the passing of the enthusiasm and work necessary to become a farm family.

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You cannot have one without the other. I have often told my colleagues the reason why family farms go out of business is less about economics and scale and location but more about the emotional willingness of the next generation to take on the farm as a business. The farm family is first in the equation. A family farm does not exist without a farm family.

I have been away from the dairy farm in Parkdale, Oregon, for 21 years. I have traveled the world and continue to do so. Yet on my desk in Alma, Michigan, is a jar of Parkdale loam, a volcanic Andisol from our very own farm in the Upper Valley. I love this farm. I love the soil there, and the butting up of our alfalfa and corn fields against the majestic Mt. Hood to the west is extraordinarily beautiful. The memories, dreams and reflections of Cascade Farm come to me often. I am comforted. However, I left the farm and have visited the farm only a handful of times in the last two decades.

So I am fully integrated into the emotional challenges of leaving a farm, and thus handling the consequences of this leave for now over two decades. I can sit next to the Tuttles as a peer, for like any one of you having left a farm, there is pain, joy, fondness and survival.

One may think the use of the word survival as odd. Not at all. For all of us who have left the farm, we cast out into new places. We remove most of our roots (not all) from these soils and enter the world for another way of life. I became a scientist, and an expeditionary one at that, but I can assure you I am not so far removed from these Parkdale loams as one may think (hence the jar of soil).

Farm people understand this. The Tuttle family will never leave that farm. Yes, a new owner will arrive and enter the fields with new ideas, perhaps new equipment and crop rotations or even plant an orchard, but the Tuttle roots will never completely be torn out of the earth, the spot of earth this family has farmed for hundreds of years.

Klinkenborg wrote something else: “The soils on the Tuttle Farm are as fertile or perhaps more fertile as accomplished by the previous generation.” This comforts me as well. A thousand years of weathering and chemical transformation goes by for each few centimeters of soil formation. And just a few years of mismanagement can degrade this natural effort. Perhaps the best we can say about the long line of Tuttle families having farmed this spot on earth is that they truly adopted the Iroquois way of viewing stewardship … that of managing our resources for at least seven generations into the future.

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Farm families come and go, some short in years, and others, like the Tuttle family, setting records for the longest. Yet when change happens, the valuation of stewardship may be something as simple as the fertility of soils that remain. Think about this. For if we squander and waste and spend the resources, the next owner, as a farm family, must repair and reconstitute and rebuild the foundation of all farms … the soil.

In Iraq, desertification is a result. The cause, the very root cause of desertification, is not a lack of water or resources or markets. It is the young son or daughter wanting a life elsewhere for a plethora of reasons. No doubt one is the elder generation’s discouragement. For if the 60-year-old (or 50-year-old) does not mentor and encourage the young 20- and 30-year-old son or daughter, then just like the Tuttle family, the new owner arrives. I anticipate a new owner’s arrival because the farm has been managed well … especially the soils. In Iraq, too often the farm sits vacant largely due to land ownership (title ownership) issues that prevent the orderly transfer to a new farm family.

Once again we find the lesson. The transfer of farms to the next generation or to the next farm family must be lawful, orderly and certainly based on the potential to provide a return on investment for the enthusiasm of emotional effort. I see that here in the U.S., but in Iraq, it is nearly lacking across the board.

Therefore the new owners of any farm, whether son or daughter or entirely new, must have something to work with ... a land title and productive soils are a good start.

But first and foremost is the willingness and enthusiasm of that next farm family … eagerly engaging in one of the most inward callings of a life – that of entering sacred fields with mind and soul embedded in the very soils that sustain us and bring us the composition of a fulfilled and authentic life. PD

PHOTO: Parkdale loam soil from the Gangwer family farm. Photo courtesy of Sandy Gangwer.

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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