Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Art of Coming Home

photograph by Kelley Snowden

Along with Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson is an agrarian thinker whose ideas are now finding widespread purchase in our contemporary dialogues about agricultural (and community) sustainability. Mr. Jackson is the head of The Land Institute, an organization with the mission "to develop an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops." A visit to their site, however, will demonstrate that the Institute is equally interested in investigating the culture inside agriculture.

I mention Mr. Jackson because I've been thinking lately about one of the ideas that we're hoping to explore on this site--the idea of a "rural diaspora," the mass of americans born into rural communities who are no longer citizens of rural america. For this population, the prospect of "coming home" is complicated, to say the least. Mr. Jackson's book Becoming Native to this Place (1994), offers a series of meditations on this issue. I've been thinking recently about his notion of a "homecoming" major:
To a large extent, this book is a challenge to the universities to stop and think what they are doing with the young men and women they are supposed to be preparing for the future. The universities now offer only one serious major: upward mobility. Little attention is paid to educating the young to return home, or to go some other place, and dig in. There is no such thing as a "homecoming" major. But what if the university were to ask seriously what it would mean to have as our national goal becoming native in this place, this continent? We are unlikely to achieve anything close to sustainability in any area unless we work for the broader goal of becoming native in the modern world, and that means becoming native to our places in a coherent community that is in turn embedded in the ecological realities of its surrounding landscape. 
Here's one answer to Mr. Jackson's query. Dr. Kelley Snowden is a college professor and resident of the Kilgore College Demonstration Farm, where her husband Scott is the assistant manager. In her  Daily Yonder article Listening to the Farm's Next Generation, she spoke with two of the work-study students and asked them to reflect on their experiences at the farm, their opinions on america's relationship with agriculture, and their plans to return to their home communities.  Here's a short excerpt from The Daily Yonder, where Jerome D. Jones, a student from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, describes the challenges he faced since he began work at the farm:
“My mother was okay about it, but kind of didn’t like it,” he told me. “My friends thought it was very, very funny, and Grandma hated it because in Dallas there really aren’t any farms. It is suburban, and everyone thinks of the bad stuff that happens on farms. “

Bad stuff happens on farms?

Just because you work the demonstration farm doesn't mean you're out of touch. Jerome checks his messages.  “You know, my Grandma is worried about safety,” he answered. “The phone service is poor so I can’t call her everyday and she hates that.”

With this comment, both boys started to laugh and talked about how farms and small towns are always the setting for scary movies, and both agreed that the farm “looks like something from a scary movie” so maybe Jerome’s Grandma had a point. 

This set off a round of giggles during which Jerome added in all seriousness, “If you are Black and from the city, you’re not supposed to want to be farmer.”
Our Ohio, a publication we've discussed previously, also has another good entry in the homecoming syllabus, in this article by Seth Teter that visits with a few Ohioans who have found ways to return to a life on the farm. He suggests that conventional assumptions about such a lifestyle need to be reconsidered:
Perhaps it’s an unexpected trend. Long hours, little free time and hard, dirty labor. It’s not exactly what most people say they want to come home to after a day at the office.

However, not only do more people seem to want to sample the rewards of farm life, but the number of small farms is also on the rise. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the most recent survey conducted, the number of farms with sales of less than $10,000 rose, while there was a decline in the number of higher grossing farms.

Even for many larger scale farm families, it is not unusual for one or both spouses to rely on off-farm employment. In 2009, the average family farm was forecast to receive only 8.7 percent of its household income from farm sources, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.