HOMEGROWN Life: A Love Letter to the Heartland

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I’m certain all of us have gotten questions about our homesteading way of life—usually starting with, “Why”? Most of us have had a gradual evolution into the people we are and, if you’re anything like me, you’ve picked up a few causes along the way. One cause that’s near and dear to me, and the one that landed me here at HOMEGROWN, is preserving the way of the American farmer.

This interest sprouted from two very important areas of my life: concern over where my products come from and travel. Several years ago, I became an RV traveler. I’ve always been a road tripper and if I could, I’d live on the road, collecting people’s stories. Real life has interceded with that fantasy, so instead I travel for several months out of the year and have a home base in the hills of eastern Pennsylvania. Years ago, I began to travel west. This had been a lifelong dream of mine, and indeed it was as life changing as I thought it would be. I returned west the following year and every year since. The destination is different each year, but they all lie considerably west of the Mississippi by at least a couple of days.

For some people, the grassy, wide-open states are just passing scenery until you get to where you’re going. This isn’t the case for me. These middle states offer history lessons and a love affair with our heartland rolled into one. They are, quite literally, the heart and the center of our country and an ongoing picture of how we’re losing the vital contributions of our farmers.

Every year, I take one of two travel routes. I’ve seen the same farms, the same homes, and the same fields again and again. I don’t sleep on our trip. I stare out the window and watch the corn fly by and the canola fields brighten the horizon. I’m deeply in love with the heavy machinery I see methodically crisscrossing the tall fields and the farmhands I see when we stop for our meals and fuel. I observe the beautiful farmhouses and the silos and the quilted fields surrounding them, and I imagine generations of family working this land for their living every day, sunup til sundown. They’re busting their backs to supply the American people with clothing, food, and products.

Somewhere around my third trip out, I began to notice fewer farms and less open land. I saw houses and warehouses under construction on property that had been operating farmland a short year or two earlier.

I don’t pretend to know the most accurate numbers, but I’ve heard that after a 70-year decline in farms, the number had finally begun to rise sometime around 2010. I’d also heard that, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farms in the United States has fallen from about 6.8 million in 1935 to only about 2 million today. My larger concern, however, is what I see versus what the stats tell me—although I don’t love that news either.

I am admittedly a loudmouth when it comes to buying local, supporting our farmers, and connecting the dots between what you consume and where it comes from. I’ve sat at breakfast counters with farmers and chatted, and every day I look out my back window to see my neighboring farmer on his hands and knees planting or stooped over while he picks the freshest organically grown produce you can find. These families and farmers don’t do it for the glory. They do it out of love for the land and pride in their product and heritage. I think, at the very least, I can support their efforts. The only side effect of buying and eating their food is knowing that I’m consuming something that comes from my beloved county and is good for my body and my soul.

When you get a glimpse of the life and the beauty that our patchwork heartland has to offer, it’s impossible to forget. Frankly, it was only after I got to know that part of the country that I began to cry every single time I heard “America the Beautiful.” I heard it last year in the Jackson Hole Arena on the Fourth of July, sung by a cowgirl before the rodeo. She stood surrounded by riders carrying American flags and sitting on the backs of regal horses. I can tell you that there were lots of cowboy hats held over hearts and not a dry eye in the joint. I knew the moment I saw both of my kids singing along with passion that I had indeed passed down my love of all that is good and worth preserving in this county.

So, here is my ode to the spaces in that song: the purple mountain majesties, the wilderness, and the places where the amber waves of grain still sway. I promise that as long as the people who preserve these lands and ways of life remain committed, I will do the same.

Although she’s something of a newbie homesteader herself, Michelle comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a home on the grounds of a Pennsylvania CSA farm. You can read her monthly posts on beginner homesteading with kids and more here in HOMEGROWN Life, and sometimes you can find her popping up in The Stew, HOMEGROWN’s member blog.

This post originally appeared on HOMEGROWN.org.

Photos by Michelle Wire

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