Charmaine (with underlying farm sounds):
My folks were farmers, and my mother was a part time school teacher…. I grew up on a farm, went to a country school, walked a mile, learned to play with a lot of things that were homemade, enjoyed living on farm, learned how to work, milked cows, went and got them in the morning and night…If money was tight us kids didn’t know about it. Both of my parents had good minds as to how to manage money and invest money. I don’t think they ever over spent when they machinery or a car. It was they saved, and paid for it in cash. ….there was work to be done to help both parents. My dad as well as my mother. If we were told that we had to clean the barn that day we cleaned the barn. We never said no we’re not going to. It was just taken for granted that you were going to do this job, or if we were going to do something in the house we helped my mother. Very seldom did we as kids say no to whatever job had to be done. It was expected to be done, and help the parents. We had thrashers, and I would sit on the tractors and stop the separator. I followed my dad to several different neighbors and helping neighbors to do thrashing. We also had hay, and I drove the tractor for that. I enjoyed my life on the farm.
MUSIC CUE: 1500 Stories theme
Welcome to 1500 Stories, a podcast about something Americans don’t like to talk about–economic class. 1500 Stories is an art and digital storytelling project about economic inequality in the United States. My name is Jen Myhre and I founded 1500 Stories back in 2015. I have a day job teaching sociology–or as I like to call it, delivering the bad news–at a community college in the Silicon Valley and when my day job ends my work as a visual artist, documentarian and community organizer begins. You might be wondering about where the name 1500 Stories comes from. It comes from a visual data display I have nerded out on for over twenty years. It is a poster created by economist Stephen J. Rose depicting roughly the bottom 90% of Americans in terms of income and wealth. Posters don’t make good podcast material but if you were to look at you would notice that most of the people cluster at the bottom and most of the wealth and income clusters at the top. The poster only shows that bottom 90% because the top 10% can’t fit on the poster. In 1997 when I first started teaching the poster in my Introduction to Sociology classes, the poster would need to have been 3 stories tall to capture the richest Americans. By the time 2015 came around, the poster would need to have been 1500 stories tall to capture the richest Americans. That’s five miles long!! That phrase 1500 stories stuck with me and one day it hit me–STORIES!! We need to tell our stories about economic class. Since then, over 700 Americans, people living in very different economic situations, have opened up to the project about their lives. These people share openly about things Americans avoid talking about–things like money, and debt, their economic struggles, their worries and their hopes for the future. No matter where they fall on the economic ladder, everyone has a story.
In this episode of the 1500 Stories podcast, we explore the myths and realities of farm work in the U.S. The first three episodes focused on ideas about middleclassness in the U.S. but in the next four episodes we will zoom in a little bit to learn about rural life. I started to get interested in farm work as a potential topic for the podcast when I was reading transcripts from interviews conducted in Wisconsin alongside those from interviews conducted in the farming communities south of the Silicon Valley. And the differences in people’s experiences intrigued me and I realized I wanted to learn more. This first episode about farm work begins with the Wisconsin stories. Charmaine, whom you heard at the top, is an 80 year old retired mid-westerner who grew up on a farm. And I must admit that when I first heard Charmaine’s story about what it was like to grow up on a farm–outside all the time, playing with handmade toys, walking to the country school–it pinged all my pop culture images of farm life. I was a child of the seventies and I remember playing with one of the those The Farmer Says See-and-Say toys. You pointed the arrow at an image and pulled the string. And the toy would say aloud whatever it was you had pointed to and then offer the sound that animal made. “This is a cow.” (cow mooing). “This is a rooster.” (rooster crowing). In addition to that See and Say my childhood included a LOT of Little House on the Prairie–both the books and the tv show. The stereotypes in my mind of farm life were wholesome, peaceful images of white nuclear families grounded in their land and embedded in communities included both love and irritation, but also could be relied upon in tough straits. And even though I grew up in a rural area that was full of potato farms, my family didn’t work on farms and it was pop culture that shaped my ideas about what farms were like.
It turns out that my stereotypical ideas have a fancy academic name–it’s called the agrarian myth and it is a throughline in American culture. People sometimes lay blame for this myth at the feet of Thomas Jefferson who wrote “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.” Historian Richard Hofstadter documented how for the last two centuries, Americans have been “taught that rural life and farming as a vocation were something sacred.” This is what social scientists refer to as the agrarian myth. As farmer and writer Janet Kauffman has quipped, “Any kid can draw farm with a few crayons-a red barn, a silo beside it.” She refers to the agrarian myth as the “clip art farm.” Sociologists Daniel Lichter and David Brown describe the agrarian myth like this: “Rural America is sometimes viewed as a kind of safety deposit box that stores America’s fundamental values. Americans often believe that rural communities represent the best of America, whereas big cities are dangerous, dirty, and different.” And nationally representative public opinion polls suggest that Americans do believe this. Americans no matter where they live believing that both that rural people are hardworking, loyal, religious, and committed to community and family and also associating rural life with family farms, crops and pastures (Lichter and Brown 2011). But it turns out that the agrarian myth is just that–a myth, a powerful story we tell ourselves that shapes both how we see the nation and how we think about farm work. This episode and the next two will go beneath the surface of that myth to share the more complex experiences of people who spent their formative years working on farms.
In this episode we will get to know Ruth. Ruth is 57 years old, white, divorced and lives in Wisconsin. While Ruth’s story underscores aspects of the agrarian myth–the importance of family and the virtue of hard work–it also undermines some of the romanticization of farm life.
Well, I was raised on a dairy farm so we learned to work at a very young age. I had a strong work ethic instilled in me because of that. Learned how to drive tractor, we had a massive huge garden. My dad was also a full time rural mail carrier so he would get up and do chores early in the morning get the milking done and then he’d go off and work all day delivering mail but that income was really nothing they ever shared with us. We just knew you know that we weren’t very well off, and I guess I’m basing that more on material things but we had the family bonding was more important to us than having things so that was something that we were able to at least grow up with. His dad farmed on the same farm that we were raised on and to him we just didn’t need things because we were fortunate enough to have meet and potatoes. We butchered our own cattle and grew our own food and I guess I don’t even know if the money was there to spend or we just didn’t have it.
I mean I grew up in a town of a thousand people but in the town I grew up there was a company that made, am I allowed to give the name of the place? Walker stainless steel and we had leer manufacturing if you go around any town big or small all the outdoor ice machines that you get bags of ice from those are made at leer manufacturing and then Walker stainless steel they make all of the milk truck tanks. The families that own those, actually in my class was the son to the family that owned Walkers so from the time I was little I knew what it was like to be poor because we didn’t dress like them and we didn’t have you know, we had to wear the same outfit 3 or 4 days a week because we just didn’t have you know many outfits to choose from and they would hardly have to wear the same outfit twice the whole year. We just knew that if you worked at Walkers or leers you made decent money and were able to live better than the farmers were. All farm kids you know grew up knowing that we weren’t as good as them, in there minds because you know number one you had to have the Walker name and number two our dads you know we were farmers.
Farming is just crap, you know you don’t make anything on farming.
One theme that Ruth’s story conveys is just how hard farm work is. Rural sociologists Linda Lobao and Katherine Meyer say there is quite a bit of research that shows that family farming is psychologically stressful. Another midwesterner interviewed for 1500 Stories captured how unrelenting farm work is very succinctly.
My father was a 4:00 AM to however late possible farmer. He worked until his hands bled.
So while the life of a farmer who farms to make a living involves unceasing labor, Ruth’s story also tells us something else that turns out to be true of farming in general today–most farmers don’t actually make their primary income from farming but from jobs they hold outside the farm, like her dad’s job as a mail carrier. By the late 1980s, the conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation in a report called “The Five Myths of American Farming,” documented that 70% of American farms were really too small to be considered farms at all. Did you know that USDA defines a farm as any place where $1,000 or more of agricultural products were sold, or could have been sold, during the year?
In fact most family farms aren’t a real source of income for their owners, and even by the 1980s many owners of such farms worked outside jobs to make a living. The so-called “family farm” in which one family supports itself with the farm and doesn’t hire outside workers only accounted for a quarter of all farms by the late 1980s. This is why rural sociologists Linda Lobao and Katherine Meyer point out that in the 21st century in the U.S. farming is no longer what they call a “household livelihood strategy.” For the overwhelming majority of folks that farm, farming isn’t their primary source of income. In fact by 2000, 90% of the household income of households referred to as “family farms” came from non-farm sources. And finally, Ruth’s story also raises another reality of farm life, which is that many people leave the farm. Here’s Ruth again.
I actually went out off of the farm and got my first job when I was 15. I knew that, well I started cooking at a young age, I was like 5 years old when I was taught how to cook and bake and it was something I loved to do. So my first job ever was at 15 years old in a restaurant in the next town over and I started out in the kitchen and I worked there all through school, high school.
I got married. Had four kids and when my youngest was 2 decided I wanted to go back to school and when I was in culinary school, I went back to the same restaurant. I drove on Fridays after school down home drove two hours, stayed all weekend down home and then I was a manager of that restaurant. I worked my way through college with 4 little boys that way. Then when I graduated culinary school I got another job at another restaurant. Then I did that for several years, and I still had that love of nursing in me so I went and got my CNA and then I was able to get a job as a CNA that led me to running a dementia unit for 12 and a half years in the same facility. I got to the point where I could not handle being hit and kicked and bit and slapped everyday and it was ruining my back and you know I could tell my body was giving out just from lifting. I got a job in another kitchen and I’ve been there eve since so most of my career has been in restaurants. Minus 12 and a half years in the nursing home.
Ruth’s story of leaving the farm for other work is not uncommon. In 1956, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in the American Heritage magazine: “The United States was born in the country and has moved to the city.” He wasn’t wrong. Rural sociologists Linda Lobao and Katherine Meyer note that while over one third of Americans were farmers at the start of the 20th century, only 2% of them were by the start of the 21st. And sociologists Daniel Lichter and David Brown point out that in 1900 60% of Americans lived in rural areas, and now roughly 80% of the American population is concentrated in and around cities. In fact, I have sometimes wondered whether the rural-urban cultural wars so much talked about these days, and something we’ll talk about more later in the next two episodes of the podcast, are really a divide between the people who stay–people who are rooted in one place over generations–and the people who move and migrate, whether for work, or out of desperation, or because they want new experiences. And among the other 1500 Stories participants who grew up on farms, none of them were farming anymore by the time of their interview. Linda Lobao and Katherine Meyer (2004) offer another important corrective to the agrarian myth: “Another misperception equates farmers with rural communities, but just 5 percent of rural people are farmers.” And leaving the farm doesn’t necessarily mean leaving poverty or hard work behind. Ruth’s story also suggests to us that economic inequality lives everywhere in the U.S., and for many making a living is hard.
I’ve seen it my whole life, it’s all in who you are and what name you have. At least where I grew up that’s just how it is, it’s just a fact. It’s not an assumption, it’s a fact. It’s all in who you know and who you are and what family you’re born into. You can be born into a poor family and be successful but you gotta work a thousand times harder than the person who was just born into it.
I would love to retire before I die but I don’t see that happening. I’ll probably work until the day I’m buried.
As we’ve explored in previous 1500 Stories episodes, given income and wealth concentration the class divide is primarily a rich-and-everyone-else divide. Like Ruth, many Americans have to work until the day they’re buried. This is one of the many things that rural Americans have in common with Americans who live in suburbs and cities. We will continue our deep dive into experiences of farm work and rural life in the next three episodes of 1500 Stories. We will see that when we pull back the agrarian myth to look at the realities of farm work, we are likely to be surprised, over and over again.
This episode was written, produced and edited by Jennifer R. Myhre, with editing assistance from Lea Li and Deven Sutaria. The music that opens and closes each 1500 Stories episode was composed and produced by Benjamin Henderson, who also composed the additional music. You’ll find references for the sociology and data discussed in this episode in the show notes. The 1500 Stories podcast was launched thanks to generous financial assistance from the Mellon Foundation and American Council of Learned Societies community college faculty fellowship program. However, any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed here are our own and do not necessarily represent those of Mellon or ACLS. Thanks to Lea Li and Melinda Poley for their ears in early stages of drafting this episode. Special thanks to all of the storygatherers who conducted interviews for the project and all of the people who shared their stories so openly. You can hear and watch more of these stories at 1500stories.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at 1500 Stories. Thank you for listening. Listening deeply to another person’s story is one of the most valuable gifts you can give them. Imagine how the world might change if we really listened to each other.