Homestead Hardship: A History of the American Family Farm

Author and professor of American literature at Utah State University, Evelyn Funda shares the history of her family farm and explains how the ideals of freedom and independent living through homesteading lost their way in America.

| September 2015

  • Funda's family farm
    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.
    Photo courtesy University of Nebraska Press.
  • Weeds: A Farm Daughter's Lament
    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.
    Photo courtesy University of Nebraska Press.

  • Funda's family farm
  • Weeds: A Farm Daughter's Lament

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 Dirt on 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.


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