I would like to explain a photo that ran on Thanksgiving day in the Columbia Missourian. It was a picture of a group of folks, some adults, and at least one teenager who were steadily working together towards one large, and possibly overwhelming project on a local farm.
I was in the photo, along with my husband. We called ourselves a crop mob and on a clear, warm day in early November 30 farmers, gardeners and friends descended on Bill and Brittany Sullivan’s farm near Fayette like a hoard of angelic cicadas to help construct the beginnings of a root cellar.
Bill and Brittany Sullivan and their daughter Kaleigh raise pastured pigs, goats, chickens and vegetables on a 20-acre farm in Howard County. They sell their pork, veggies, and shaved ice at the Columbia Farmers Market, and in local restaurants and grocery stores. As the farm’s production increases, the Sullivans are looking for low-cost and sustainable methods for produce storage, hence the need for a root cellar. And hence the crop mob.
I don’t want to sound like a crochety old person here, but I do think that past generations had something great that has been lost over the slow but inescapable march of time. I know that generalizing is dangerous, but for the most part, rural communities in my lifetime have experienced a myriad of difficulties: from the brain drain, to reduced access to healthy foods; from the erosion of the local economy to difficult access to health care.
I don’t want to oversimplify anything, but back when when more people where farmers, I’m talking about back when more people lived in the country than the city, and when the concept of a farm was totally different than what it is today, rural communities were the heart of America. I am talking about a time when most people raised some pigs and beans for the family in addition to their other forms of livelihood, be it farming cash crops or being an auto mechanic.
The point is that there were people in rural America, not just thousands of acres of uninterrupted corn. And that wasn’t that long ago. I mean, my grandparents grew up in tightly knit rural communities in Southern Missouri.
So I tried to paint the picture of what early- to mid-20th century and earlier rural America was like. It no doubt was some tough living. A great uncle of mine lost an arm in a tractor mishap, but there were communities to help share the load, both physically and mentally. That, in my estimation, is the pass that was fumbled, when, as a country, we made the transition from the farm to the suburbs. Let’s bring back that barn-raising spirit, right? And that is where the concept of the crop mob comes in. Farmers helping farmers share the burden.
As I have noted, farmers are now a minority in our country. According to the USDA census of agriculture from 2012, 3.2 million farmers operated 2.1 million farms covering 915 million acres that generated food, fuel, and fiber for Americans and people around the world.
That is crazy to me.
That is a lot of acres farmed by comparatively few amount of farmers. Since World War II, farming got real big, real fast. Many farms today are huge. The average age of a farmer is 58 and aging, because fewer young people are starting careers in farming. Really, a crop mob, even one that is chock full of the most efficient Paul Bunyan type women and men, can’t make headway on a project on a 2,000 acre farm. Those farms are built around giant pieces of machinery, not necessarily human labor.
So let’s zoom in more, and talk about the minority of the minority: small scale, independent farmers.
There are a lot of individual small scale farms in the United States, in fact, according to the USDA, 80% of farmers operate farms that produce between 1,000- 99,000 dollars of gross income a year. But these farms are so small compared to the relatively few but gigantic farms, they are easily overshadowed when people and legislators talk about modern-day agriculture. Often times legislation is focused more on supporting and protecting the ginormous farms, rather than the millions of small ones out there. That leaves farmers like the Sullivans, farmers that make a living off of their farm but don’t receive the type of assistance that the really huge farmers enjoy, to look for assistance in the community they know will be there for them: other small scale farmers.
The day of the crop mob began with a giant hole in the ground, with a mountain of clay beside it. The goal of the crop mob was to fill woven plastic bags with the clay, line the sides of the hole with the bags, tamp the bags down so they were flat, and continue working upwards layer after layer, placing barbed wire in-between the layers until the walls we were constructing reached seven feet. Even with so many people working to fill bags with clay, string barbed wire and tamp, we still didn’t get finished before the sun went down.
The Sullivans are still working on the project to this day. Once the walls are finished, they will put a roof overhead, and add layers of plaster on the woven plastic bags, which will finish the walls, and hopefully next summer, they will have a functioning root cellar.
The work was simple, repetitive, and physically demanding, but there was good cheer amongst the friends that gathered to work on the project. Laughter, children’s voices, and the steady, dull thud of the tampers drifted over to the cooking group where two kinds of soup were simmering and where there were pans and pans of cornbread laid out for the after work celebration. We might have run out of time that day, but we didn’t run out of camaraderie.
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a whole mess of people to keep a diversified farm running. Add the construction of much needed infrastructure to the long list of daily chores, and there just isn’t enough hours in day, even in a month to get everything done. Which is why on a warm day in early November 30 mid Missouri farmers descended on the Sullivan’s farm to lend what they had: helping hands, strong backs, and the tacit understanding that there is something beautiful in this chosen path in life.
Tied to the whims of nature small scale farmers understand the meaning of hard, fulfilling, get-your-hand-in-the-dirt-and-off-the-keyboard work that leaves behind a positive mark of your existence which is evidenced by soil, water, plants and animals that are tended to conscientiously. That beauty isn’t totally lost in our modern technology-infused lives, where most think bigger is better. That beauty is just hidden in the small farms that dot the American countryside. And on that day in November, it just so happens that a photojournalist caught it on camera.
Carrie Hargrove is the Farm Manager for the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture.
Farm Your Yard is heard on the second Tuesday of each month on KBIA's Thinking out Loud, which airs each Tuesdsay at 6:30 p.m on KBIA.