Only a generation ago, farming used to be a greater part of Minnesota culture. Nearly everyone had relatives in farming, and small farms existed even fairly close to downtown. I used to listen to WCCO’s Hog Report while getting ready for the school bus; now I pass Cargill and Syngenta headquarters on the way to my parents’ house, but almost all the farms on the way there are gone.
The farm crisis of the 1980s led to the foreclosure of thousands of family farms, dramatically transforming the Minnesota landscape and mind-set. It was a traumatic era for rural communities, yet in many ways, it’s been forgotten. Today our food increasingly comes from overseas, and the farm in largely gone from popular culture. But Minnesota writers like Gayle Marty and Will Weaver want to make sure we remember.
Weaver, who grew up on a dairy farm, has written extensively about Minnesota farm culture, and is putting the finishing touches on his memoir; “Sweet Land,” a movie based on his writing, is newly out on DVD. Marty, who grew up on a farm in Southeastern Minnesota, now works with the Land Stewardship Project and the University of Minnesota, and has just published “The Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of A Family Farm” (University of Minnesota Press), a memoir capturing the dairy crisis years.
“The farm where I grew up was so beautiful to me. I wanted to record it as accurately as possible. And I loved my family. I was blessed by a good childhood, surrounded by people who loved me, and I wanted to honor their work and their lives, which were neither easy nor simple,” Marty says.
She writes vividly of the connection to nature, the satisfaction of hard work, the joy in being connected to a piece of land and watching it move through the seasons. But she doesn’t romanticize farming; the book starts out with a devastating farm accident, and Marty discusses the singular problems farm kids faced — and still face — as they hit the teen years and try to decide where to go, in an era where starting out on your own as a farmer is a long shot.
She lives in the cities now, although her mother still lives on the unsold section of the family farm, and Marty hopes to return there someday. Until then, she works for farm advocacy and preservation efforts, and she sees some hopeful signs. “The vast majority of farming continues to be done on a large scale, while the ‘small, local’ conversation impacts marketing more than anything else. But I do think the impact of that conversation is deeper. Over the past 10-15 years we’ve seen an enormous surge in community supported agriculture, and Minnesota and Wisconsin have a high amount of small-scale entrepreneurial farm activity.”
She’s especially heartened by the efforts of the Farm Beginnings Program, which is helping young families launch farm businesses. “It provides support for people to keep the spirit of entrepreneurship alive in rural communities. It also focuses on holistic goals — not just dreams, and not just making money,” she says. “It’s given me hope that I might live part of the next chapter of my life in a rural area, and it’s given me a mechanism for defining my goals and working toward them, together with my mom and my daughter.”