In praise of farmers


A recent drive north of Crawfordsville took us past waves of winter grain almost ready for harvest, straight rows of knee-high corn filling huge fields, healthy soybean plants blowing in the wind, and small vegetable gardens growing near homes — what we remember as Victory Gardens during World War II. Beautiful sights!

We expressed our gratitude for many decades at home in the breadbasket of north central Indiana. Our farmers helped feed us, our neighbors, and the world — Britain during WWII, Europe after the war, India following Independence, and Africa during more recent droughts and floods. Decades ago, we knew some farmers were ‘sea cowboys’ delivering animals in the Heifer Project to repopulate the farms of Europe. We are blessed to live where we enjoy rain, fertile fields, and seasonal changes that unfurl beautiful landscapes of vivid colors, rather than surviving in a desert environment.

After our drive through the countryside, a pleasant conversation with an elderly, retired farmer included stories about changes in farming during our lifetimes. He started farming in the 1960s using an old International Harvester tractor and a one-blade plow. The day before we were talking, his neighbor had come to spray his rented fields from two tanks of liquid on a semi-trailer. He had supported his family by farming 120 acres. Now all the family farms around him are rented or sold to be combined into large-scale, economically viable businesses.

He and all successful farmers mastered more subjects than most people — biology and genetic shaping his hybrid seeds, geology of contours and layers of the fields, mechanical engineering of diverse equipment, economics of commerce, ethics, and chemistry of soils, fertilizers, and insecticides — all that to facilitate good decisions for their families, their communities, and the environment. None of those decisions has ever been easy. Tradeoffs were often required.

Our family resided in India in the 1960s when the ecological and poisonous dangers of DDT pesticides then documented by scientists made the news in India. However, DDT also enabled fields to produce more food for starving people. Indian officials and farmers decided that saving starving people for the immediate future was ethically the more justifiable path.

I stand in awe of the superior knowledge and ability of many farmers I have known. Along with our gratitude for the good fortune of living amidst abundant fields, we should be grateful for farmers. Therefore, let us praise farmers. They are worthy of praise.

Working on farms has never been an easy occupation, and now it is even more demanding — perhaps not more physically demanding, but more challenging to keep up with technological changes of equipment now directed by computers, with global economics governing costs and income, and with amazing new discoveries unimagined a decade ago. Farmers must now run and learn faster than ever striving to survive in business. Moreover, economic changes and consolidation of farms make it unclear whether we should praise farmers, now fewer in number, or praise conglomerates that now control worldwide crop production and distribution.

In fact, understanding the whole enterprise seems beyond the ability of those of us who are barely able to tend a small vegetable garden. We are just astounded that large quantities of food appear on our grocery shelves, replenished daily from farms around the world, following distribution over complex networks. The least we can do is to praise all people who work so hard to feed us!


Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.