The changing rural landscape

When I started school in January, 1956, (yes, the plan for kindergarten then was to go all day for the second semester of the school year only), there were 26 in my class, evenly split between boys and girls. Even more amazing than that number of five-year-olds in one little rural school district is the fact that all but four of us were farm kids.

That was just the way life was then, and I’m sure no one thought much about it because everyone was the same. Except for the four town kids, who could easily walk to school, we all rode the school bus morning and afternoon, trips that wound around the sections on gravel roads and paved, stopping to pick up and drop off at the end of long lanes and short, big farms and others that were in the hard-luck category, those with cattle in the feedlot, or maybe sows in open pens. Life was so rural that I believe there were six bus routes operating from my school. Most of the bus drivers were farmers or retired farmers.

And now there are only four children in my neighborhood of several square miles, and they are moving out of state later this month.

Of course I never considered it at the time, but almost all of those family farms of my youth had been in the same family for several generations. Some of them, no doubt, had been homesteaded. And now my classmates’ dads, some of them veterans of WW II like my parents, were the next operators.

And now I understand that rural Iowa is emptying out. Of course, that’s been going on for years and years as people move away from farms and small towns for better opportunities in their home state and beyond. According to an article I read recently, in all but the 10 most populous counties in Iowa in 2011, the number of deaths exceeded the number of births. More than half of Iowa’s counties suffered a natural decrease in population (more deaths than births) between 2010 and 2012, something that has been happening sporadically around Iowa for some time, but now it’s widespread.

More negative information: The average age of an Iowa farmer is 56. Which begs the question: Who will be taking over the farms? In general, extended families are no longer staying on to operate their family farms, as in my generation and before; although often land stays in a family and then is rented to another farmer. Mostly, the farmsteads that remain around our countryside are occupied by folks who commute to their jobs in nearby towns and cities.

I’m one of them. My acreage is on land purchased by my late grandfather in 1947, but I don’t farm.

There are countless aspects of our culture that have changed in my lifetime, and the way we do farming here in this 21st century is certainly one of them. There’s no turning back now.