Homestead Hardship: A History of the American Family Farm

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Author Evelyn Funda with her father, Lumir, in the summer of 1964. She relates the story of her family farm within the greater tumultuous history of agriculture in the American West.
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In "Weeds: A Farm Daughter's Lament," Evelyn Funda explores her family’s three-generation farming experience in southern Idaho, where her Czech immigrant family spent their lives turning a patch of sagebrush into crop land.

The story of Evelyn Funda’s family unfolds within the larger context of our country’s rich history of immigrant settlement, homesteading, and family farming as a way of life. Weeds: A Farm Daughter’s Lament(University of Nebraska Press, 2013) offers a clear view of the nature, cost, and the transformation of the American West. The book reminds us that in losing our attachment to the land we also lose some of our humanity and something at the very heart of our identity as a nation. The following excerpt is from the Introduction, “In Dirt We Trust.”

In late 2001 my small family suffered what I think of as a triple tragedy. On October 1, 2001, my father, Lumir Funda, age seventy-nine, was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer that, by the time of the diagnosis, had metastasized to his brain, liver, spleen, spine, and bones. The prognosis was two to four months to live; he was briefly given radiation to relieve some of the pain and to shrink the tumor that had compromised his speech and mobility before he was sent home with my mother on October 23. On October 25, just two days later, my mother, Toni, age seventy-five, suffered a heart attack. After nine days in a cardiac unit, where she experienced additional complications of stroke, kidney failure, and internal bleeding, she died on November 3. My father’s death came shortly thereafter, on November 29.

These events were preceded by the sale of the family’s farmland. Just a month to the day before my father’s diagnosis, my parents had signed the papers finalizing the sale of the last parcel of farmland they had worked together since my father and my Czech-immigrant mother had married in 1957. In fact, my father had farmed this land for most of his life. His father, also a Czech immigrant, had originally purchased it for a small sum in 1919 when the parcel was nothing but a sheep-grazed, sagebrush terrain. Although the land was never hugely profitable, my family was always proud of how they had transformed that unlikely spot.

When people talk about the autumn of 2001, these are the losses I think about, not the Twin Towers. The news of 9/11 seemed like a blurry background to my own razor-sharp losses that fall. Some would say that the timing of these events in family history was merely coincidental; bodies fail, land deeds change hands, and people endure losses. Cutting through the hardpan of my family history, I could make out the repeated strata of losing home, family, and a sustaining belief in agricultural values. As I considered individual family stories, I found a series of literal and psychic displacements, a history of transience, obsession, and dispossession, and a hunger for permanence. Farmland came to represent a landscape of loss, and I recognized how my family stories were emblematic of a cross-section of American agricultural history, as it moved from the optimism of the immigrant homesteader, to the industrial illusion of control that characterized the postwar farm, to the economic and political pressures of the 1970s and 1980s that nearly erased the Jeffersonian ideal of one man–one farm, to the exodus of younger generations, like mine, who left because they felt the farm held no place for them.

Influenced by personal narrative, biography, and cultural studies, this cultural memoir traces how different factors (ethnic prejudice, an increasingly industrialized agricultural model, and prescribed gender expectations) lead inevitably to similar endings. The loss at the center of this farm story, therefore, is replayed and recast in ever-widening circles, first through my farm daughter story, then through the generations of my familial and ancestral history. Even though my father and grandfather trusted whole heartedly that the Idaho farmland would sustain the family both economically and spiritually, instead displacement is the ever present theme in the lives of three generations for whom farming became a ritualized enactment of the desire to set down roots in a land we could claim as our own.

Although the American farmer has been mocked as a “Reuben Hayseed” and an unsophisticated bumpkin, he remains iconic: an enduring symbol of strength, valor, and a distinctive connection with the land. The very word human derives from the same Latin root word as humus, meaning soil. No other work or occupation—with perhaps the exception of motherhood—is so profoundly invested with such symbolic weight or so fully spans the imaginative range of human experience in our culture. Read the agrarian novels of Willa Cather or the impassioned essays of Wendell Berry, consider the rhetoric of the Farm Aid organization (with its motto: “Family Farmers, Good Food, A Better America”), watch any number of films about farmers (from Jessica Lange’s Country to the 2007 award-winning documentary The Real Dirton Farmer John), study Victory Garden posters from World War II or farmers’ market posters of today, and you will see agriculture cast in a wide array of starring roles. Farming is portrayed as a form of spiritual fulfillment, an act of artistry and divine creation, an expression of national commitment and patriotism, a means for proving heroism or manhood, a process of gaining personal empowerment, a foundation for community unity, a guarantee of personal independence and self-sufficiency, a chance to arrive at an authentic and wholesome life, a method for gaining dominion over and improving an imperfect landscape, a partnership with natural forces, and a battle against those same natural forces.

Farming is not just a job—it’s a calling, and the farmer is ubiquitous in our lives. Take, for instance, the bumper sticker that reads, “If you’ve eaten today, give thanks to a farmer.” Referenced in Senate hearings on the state of agriculture during the 1980s farm crisis, this sentiment’s religious overtones are not, I think, by accident. Poised as he is between heaven and earth, the farmer is our mediator, a cultural idea emphasized by Michael Pollan, who writes in The Botany of Desire, “Wheat points [us] up, to the sun and civilization,” because it is as “leavened with meaning as it [is] with air. . . . Wheat begins in nature, but it is then transformed by culture” through a “miracle of transubstantiation,” in which wheat becomes “the doughy lump of formless matter [that] rises to become bread.” This process, says Pollan, is one of “transcendence” that symbolizes “civilization’s mastery of raw nature. A mere food thus became the substance of human and even spiritual communion, for there was also the old identification of bread with the body of Christ.”

Pollan indicates the significant implications farming has for us as both spiritual and social beings; Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, was most concerned with the farmer as the quintessential national figure. Identifying farming as the most important employment to our country, Jefferson called farmers “the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people,” and said they were “the most valuable citizens” because they were “the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous,” and “they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.” This was Jefferson’s farmer-citizen: a better farmer because he was a citizen; a better citizen because he was a farmer. And Jefferson’s idea is one that has proven to have legs. For instance, (a website affiliated with the Farm Aid organization) recently tapped into Jefferson’s national and religious rhetoric when it took as its motto “In Dirt We Trust.” Whether you believe that such a motto means the organization has supplanted God with the farmer (a potential heresy) or that it is indicating a belief that God and nature are one, the line suggests the valorization of the farmer’s work.

The point is that what the farmer does and what he produces are more than the sum of their parts. Take, for instance, the significant growth in the number of farmers’ markets held around the country. We have an increasing interest in what I recently heard termed “sole food” (that is, sustainable, organic, local, and ethically grown food). The pun, of course, indicates that crowds don’t gather on weekends in parks and parking lots just for the sake of a buff -colored organic egg with a low carbon footprint. The farmers’ market has become a ritual where we get to experience a renewed commitment to long-held cultural values. It feeds our souls as well as our bodies. When we exchange greenbacks for green beans, we are buying emblems of the farmer’s independence and self-sufficiency. As we chat with him or her about whether the warm weather is going to hold out—“Don’t we always get a hard freeze in September?” we ask—we express how we feel a personal investment in the farm itself. As we move from booths of produce to booths where photographers sell prints featuring close-ups of heirloom tomatoes or local jewelry makers sell chili pepper earrings, we begin to link farmers to the company of artisans. Moreover, by bringing the farmer into the city centers, markets serve to integrate the farmer into the community at large. He isn’t just the lone figure out in the fields. At the market tables, burgeoning with colorful chards, bushel baskets of corn, frilly stocks of dill, we bump into friends: “Gee, the only place I seem to see you is right here at Bill’s stand!” After gossip and an exchange of recipes we say to each other and the farmer, too, “See you next week.” Farmers’ markets are, write Jennifer Meta Robinson and J. A. Hartenfeld, a “living performance” where we build community and play out a “desire . . . for a sense of authenticity and locality.”

Such persistence of the farmer as a nationally significant icon is all the more remarkable, given the steady decline in our nation’s farm population. In 1790, only a few years after the American Revolution, an estimated 90 percent of our citizens were involved in some aspect of farm-related economy. By the end of the twentieth century that number, according to the Agricultural Census, was down to just 1 percent, with each American farmer supplying food enough for an estimated one hundred people. In fact, in 1993 the Census Bureau stopped counting farmers as a separate occupational group (deciding to lump farmers together with fishermen and loggers) because their numbers were “statistically insignificant”—at least in terms of population figures.

Like people in hundreds of stories from western history and literature, my family was desperate to believe they could trust their connection to the land. My grandfather, for instance, was not that different from Per Hansa, in O. E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, who envisioned his homestead becoming a “kingdom” where he and his progeny would thrive forever, emboldened and nurtured by their connections to the land. I think, too, of one of the most defining stories of Utah, where I now live: when Mormon leader Brigham Young and his party emerged from Emigration Canyon in 1847, he gazed out over the Salt Lake valley and proclaimed, “This is the place.” Four unassuming words were a declaration of dependence on a specific place, the moment in which the displaced had found their Zion.

My grandfather may have felt that same certainty initially, reinforced by an old Bohemian myth that credits the very founding of Bohemia and of Prague as the capital city to the prophetess Libuše and her farmer husband, P?emysl, the Ploughman. Before their marriage Libuše had governed the Czechs alone since her father’s death, but when she ruled in favor of a young farmer in a boundary dispute, the loser in the clash cursed Libuše and said his people ought to be ashamed to be ruled by a woman “with long hair but short wits.” Calmly, the prophetess queen assented. She instructed her councilmen to ride three days, led only by her riderless horse, and at the end of those days, she said, they would find a farmer named P?emysl plowing in an uncultivated field surrounded by tilled fields. Following Libuše’s instructions, the noblemen found P?emysl and summoned him to “take up the sovereignty ordained to you and to your heirs.” Although P?emysl did not seem surprised to see the men, he dismissed his oxen, which vanished into a rock, and then said to the men, “If I could have finished ploughing this field there would have been abundance of bread for all time. But since you made such haste, and have interrupted me in my work, know that there will often be hunger in the land.” Turning his plowshare on its side, he drew bread and cheese from his satchel, laid them on the plowshare shining in the sun, and invited the men to join him for breakfast at his iron table. After their breakfast P?emysl changed into the princely robes the men had brought from Libuše, but he placed his peasant shoes into a bag that he brought to her castle with him, “so that my descendants may know from what stock they are sprung, that they may go in awe.”

P?emysl honored his duties as leader of the Czech people, and he and Libuše were devoted to each other. He was there when she looked out over the Vltava River and foresaw the founding of Prague, a city whose fame would touch the stars. Their children founded the P?emyslid Dynasty, which ruled the Czech Lands well through years of feast and famine, peace and war, until the early fourteenth century.

But P?emysl considered leaving behind his beloved fields a great personal sacrifice, one dictated by fate and necessity rather than his heart’s desire. I imagine him years later, in the rare private moments a king can steal from managing wars and settling disputes. He pulls a rough burlap sack out of a trunk and removes the old sandals from the folds of cloth. He fingers the soil that still clings to the soles, and he tries to remember the smell of newly plowed soil. He imagines the glint of the sun on the plow that he left in that field of unbroken sod. He remembers how his fingers lingered on the smooth plow handle in the instant before he greeted the queen’s emissaries, the moment he became not a monarch but a farmer in exile.

Excerpted from Weeds: A Farm Daughter’s Lament by Evelyn I. Funda by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2013 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Available wherever books are sold or from the University of Nebraska Press 800-848-6224 and at Nebraska Press.