In late May, the Butter Bitch and I undertake a trip to visit my grandmother, my great-aunt and my mother (Mom of La Muncha) in Idaho, and as part of our trip we stop by the land that my grandparents farmed from the 1930s until 1951. My mother, aunt and uncle spent the first parts of their lives on this farm and, when they were old enough, had worked the fields. The farm was slightly more than 77 acres. The site is not far from Highway 84 between Burley and Twin Falls.
I ask my mother what are the stubby little plants on the fields to the East (the direction of the picture). She looks across the fields and informs me that it is all corn as far as the eye can see. An orchard stood where we were looking, and the fields contained wheat, barley, peas grown to maturity and dried, and alfalfa. These crops were in addition to the garden that my grandmother kept. They also grew russet potatoes for a year or two, but not big fields. Grandfather was not good at hiring help, and disliked working for others or having others work for him. "Only us," says my mother, meaning herself and her siblings, "and my mother."
"Our biggest, most lucrative--if you can even use a word like that--crop was dried pinto beans, Great Northern Whites," she continues, adding that they would grow certified seed beans for the most profit. Certified seed beans had to meet strict requirements or they would not be salable at the certified seed grade. In the worst case, the bean crop could turn moldy and would be sold for animal consumption or be lost altogether.
What surprises us about the landscape is not that every field is planted with corn, but that there are no fences. My grandmother proclaims her appreciation of the wonderful view now that the fences are gone, while my mother speculates that we are standing in the middle of an enormous corporate corn field.
We look around the farm and the farmhouse for several minutes, hoping that the residents of the farm will wonder why these strangers are standing outside their fence. My aunt had visited the farm three years ago and chatted with the owners, who didn't mind her taking photographs then, but we are not so lucky. The Butter Bitch easily asserts her dominance over a local dog using the dreaded ear rub, while Mom of La Muncha and Grandma recall which trees still survive on the site.
The original house is changed considerably. Aside from the reorientation of the front door from east to north, the building has a second story and has been expanded to the west. The oddest feature of the house is not the enormous boat, which can be seen peaking out from behind the house, but the suburban green lawn covering both front and back yards. We are surprised to see a well-kept lawn in the middle of a farm on the Great Basin Desert, but I am reminded that a canal runs through the property. Whoever lives here has enough water for their lawn, in addition to the fields.
I take a photograph of the idle equipment behind the farm, noting that the activity level on the farm does not match my idea of life on the farm. Lest you think that I am beholden to the Agrarian Ideal, know that I have spent time loading wet hay bales into a pickup truck. I don't begrudge the workers their leisure time away from hot work under the Idaho sun. Life on a farm is far from ideal--my mother relates how challenging it is to grow bean seed to certified standards, avoiding the problems of late rains and early frosts.
Much has changed in the lifespan of my 88-year old grandmother, who once drove the horse that was used during the harvests before the family acquired a used tractor. Until my uncle was old enough to lift the 100-pound sacks of beans, my grandmother would fill and sew shut the sacks and maneuver them onto the stacking platform.
My grandparents left the farm to escape cold winters and the hard work of farm life. "We were outnumbered," says my mother. She and my grandfather did not want to leave the farm, but my grandmother, aunt and uncle did.
What has been gained and lost? Farmers rely more on oil, machinery, artificial fertilizers, artificial herbicides, industrial seed, loans, and government subsidies. Corn is a major crop whose health effects on the human diet, as a common food additive, are still being understood. The farm communities that existed 60 years ago are disappearing with the farmers. We leave the farm and drive through the nearest community, passing the empty high school, and drive down a main street populated with vacant buildings.
We have gained a reliance on oil such that a loss of oil would mean the collapse of the modern food system. There also are the gains to farmers, who can escape the daily cycle of hard labor provided they can avoid debt and as long as the crops hold. Whoever lives in the old farmhouse appears to be doing well, but whether the prosperity is related to the farm or not, we don't find out.