In rural America, what brings us comfort?
By Ken Root
(Originally published in 2006, Ken captures the essence of work and family in rural America, past and present.)
As descendents of rural ancestry now entering our third century, what makes this life worth living? Is it the struggle, or the pleasure, that causes the new generation to take their parents' place? We are called "creatures of comfort," as we instinctively move away from painful stimuli and toward regions containing food and shelter. That's all well and good for ameba, but what about fully functioning farm folk? What's our comfort, and how much discomfort does it take for us to feel worthy of enjoying it?
Work is a comfort, as the basis of daily life. We are shown the value of constructive endeavor from an early age, and usually have it ingrained into our being by adolescence. There is a positive physical and mental feeling from joining in a task, and there is a social reinforcement at its conclusion. I recall days of hauling hay, chopping silage or harvesting grain, which required a huge mental and physical investment. However, the pleasure of companionship for a meal, or conversation about the job, made the task seem pleasurable. Roles of the workers were defined along social and physical lines: men worked the fields and women ran the home. External dominance was awarded to the man, but the overall strongest force may well have been the woman.
Women worked as hard as men in the generation of my youth, but they got little credit for it. They were able to "multi-task" as well as any office manager today. My mother would rise early to build a fire and boil water in a huge black pot outside; while making breakfast inside, getting me up and dressed, and my older siblings and father ready to take on a day of fieldwork. She'd then turn to killing chickens: plucking their feathers, burning off the pin feathers, and cutting them up for lunch or the freezer. My parents could cooperatively butcher a hog, render the lard, make lye soap and smoke the meat.
Food is perhaps the greatest comfort and quality of farm life. Those who labor with crops and livestock should have the privilege to enjoy the best of both. Our home garden yielded vine-ripened tomatoes and all forms of fresh vegetables. The livestock selected from the pasture or barn was tender and tasty. And we had a certain additional satisfaction in knowing that we had provided for our own needs.
Cooking was an art as much as it was a skill. By culinary standards, it was reasonably simple. But the fluffy rising of a biscuit, or the flaky crust of a pie, was acquired over many years of trial and error. Our meals contained basic ingredients: meat, potatoes, bread and dessert. A farm family had milk and eggs from their own livestock, with homemade bread made with yeast, flour and repetitious labor.
Companionship cannot be discounted as the "binder" of farm families. Whether sitting at the kitchen table together for three meals a day, or sharing the workload, that one could not possibly do alone, the unit became strong. Most communities had a church at their center, and the single day of rest and reflection allowed recharge and social interaction that balanced the labor and the harsh abstraction of daily life.
As you can tell, all of this has been in past tense, as rural and urban life merged in the past 40 years. The improvement of communication and transportation, combined with the desire to make a better life for our children, brought the golden era of the family farm to a close. Capitalism and labor-saving devices played their part, as we are creatures who work to be efficient and productive. The shock has been the speed of the transition. A man plowing behind a horse spent five hours on each acre. Today, a large spray rig can cover that acre with herbicides in 20 seconds and the no-till planter moves across it in less than 10 minutes.
The final satisfaction of agricultural life is evolution. We have moved forward as opportunities have afforded it. The greatest measure of our country's success is the mechanization of its primary industries. It is still possible for a family unit to operate a crop or livestock farm, but not without the influence of the world around them. The physical size of the operation and the division of labor has changed, and all family members may have one or more additional job responsibilities off the farm.
Perhaps it was easier to find satisfaction when life was less complicated, and less conflicted by the wants and needs of the modern world. The simple satisfaction of working all day, for a purpose, and being given a seat at a table spread with the bounty of the harvest, even if it was cornbread and milk, seemed to be enough to allow for a peaceful night's sleep and the eagerness to start another day. But that was in another time, afforded to the generations who prepared us for today, and who would encourage us to hold their values closely, but to move forward and be ready to face tomorrow.
Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.