Iowa Public Television


Recording The Oral Histories Of Those Who Farm

posted on June 13, 2014

The Agriculture Department reported late last week that fiscal years 2009 through 2014 were the strongest six years in history for U.S. agricultural trade. 

Despite policies that restrict American products in some lucrative foreign markets, U.S. agricultural exports soared to an all-time high of $152.5 billion last year, and supported more than one million domestic jobs.

None of that would be possible, however, without a modern system of production agriculture that has made the American farmer the envy of his counterparts all over the world.       

Still, some are concerned that the same technological advancements that enable fewer farmers to produce a seemingly unlimited supply of food, also pose a significant threat to the pastoral ideal of the “American Farm.”  An important program in The Heartland is working to preserve that history by listening to those who remember.  Paul Yeager explains. 

Barns, the symbol of American agriculture -- are disappearing from the rural landscape at an alarming rate.  Time takes its toll and structures that were once vitally important in daily farm operations often fall into disrepair and are either torn down or collapse. And as the iconic buildings fade into history America also loses a way of life. 

Candy Streed, Program and Partnership Director for Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area:  “It's important to preserve the really unique and the everyday because when you look back on our life it isn't just about the church or the theatre, it's those everyday places that we spent our days that we want to remember what our daily life was like.  And so the world we see, it going to be a distant memory and so we need to have some icons to kind of give us a glimpse back.”

 200 years ago 90 percent of the U.S. population farmed, today it’s just 2 percent and the average age of America’s farmers continues to rise. 

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture 57% of those who farm are 55 years or older. 

To broaden what is already known about a way of disappearing way of life, Iowa’s Silos and Smokestacks -- the only historic district in the country devoted to farming and industries related to agriculture -- and the Grout Museum, in Waterloo,  are working together to compile oral histories from people involved in farming.

Bob Neymeyer, Grout Museum District, Waterloo, Iowa:  “I think the 1930s to the 1970s is indeed the greatest generation for farming because they had gone through so much, the really hard times particularly in the mid-30s then coming out of that World War II is this tremendous boom period followed by the 50s which we're seeing already a lot of changes, 60s you see a lot of growth, 70s you see the explosion of farming followed by those horrible 80s which just devastated folks who had expanded a bit too much, had taken too many chances and were overextended.  The farmers that I talk to, they talk about the 1980s and they say we should have known that, we should have known that because the same thing happened in the 1920s and to some extent it happened a bit in the 50s but we didn't learn, we didn't remember.”

Over the past century, there have been revolutionary changes in agriculture -- technological advancements in how seeds are both planted and harvested.  The innovations have enabled U.S. farmers to produce 262 percent more food with 2 percent fewer inputs than what was grown just 65 years ago.   

Bob Neymeyer, Grout Museum District, and Waterloo, Iowa:  “We want kids to be exposed to what life was like 40 years, 50 years ago and how a farm might look today.  And so by engaging people with stories, by showing those stories in exhibits, we get that attention from them that they might not give a panel on the wall that they had to read.” 

 According to Neymeyer, farmers are great storytellers, and it’s often difficult to limit their conversations to just two hours. 

 Bob Neymeyer, Grout Museum District, and Waterloo, Iowa:  “I try to pull the emotions of what it means to be a farmer, but we also want to get the facts.  As Fred Strohbehn was talking he could sort of tell you it took X number of minutes to pick by hand and now you can do it in virtually no time at all.”

Fred Strohbehn, Grundy County, Iowa:  Back in the 30s we didn't have hybrid seed, we didn't use any fertilizer, we only expected to get 40 to 60 bushels an acre.  There were a few people who would brag about 100 bushel corn but those people that got 100 bushel corn either they lied a lot or they had a lot of, they might have a dairy herd and they might put 10 tons of cattle manure on per acre that way they would get enough nitrogen.”

Bob Neymeyer, Grout Museum District, Waterloo, Iowa:   “We like to ask the question what will farming be like in 10 years.  10 years ago we would have said what would farming be like in 25, 30 years because we thought it was going to take that long to change.  Now we realize that in 10 more years farming will have changed so much that you really have to tighten that span.  And you know the older farmers, they have some sense of why things have changed and they have some opinions on whether it’s good or not.”

Jim Sage, Blackhawk County, Iowa:  “Now the new combines you pretty much stay in the cab and some of them even if you get out of the cab the machine will turn itself of, which is a good safety factor.   Live like you’re going to die tomorrow.  Farm like you’re going to live forever.”

It’s easy in today’s world to take agriculture for granted.  But from 1933 to today the population of the world has grown from 2 billion to 7 billion.  A farmer somewhere raised most of the food you eat, produced at least some of the materials used in making your clothes and even helped fuel some of the nation’s 253 million cars. 

While advancements in agriculture have left an indelible mark on virtually every aspect of modern life, it’s still important to important to preserve crucial parts of the American experience -- whether they are barns or vivid stories of how things used to be.

After all, “history never looks like history when you are living through it.” – John W. Garner.

For Market to Market, I’m Paul Yeager.



Tags: agriculture Bob Neymeyer Candy Streed farming Fred Strohbehn Grout Museum Jim Sage oral histories Silos and Smokestacks


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