Kay Emerich and her daughters Amber and Natasha run a small dairy in Wheaton, Kan. (Kathleen Masterson/Harvest Public Media)
This is the latest installment of Harvest Public Media’s Field Notes, in which reporters talk to newsmakers and experts about important issues related to food production.
For this edition of Field Notes, Harvest Public Media's Bill Wheelhouse spoke with Zachary Michael Jack, author "The Midwest Farmer's Daughter," about the shifting landscape of rural America.
You’ve probably heard about the decline of the family farm in America: The move toward corporate agriculture and the resulting drop in the populations of once thriving rural towns, many would-be farmers living in cities or doing other types of work, old farmhouses waiting for time and weather to knock them down. But what of that celebrated icon the Beach Boys tunefully mentioned in “California Girls,” the farmer's daughter?
One man who grew up on a farm in Iowa and watched what the years have done to this way of life has chronicled these big and small changes in a new book titled “The Midwest Farmer's Daughter: In Search of an American Icon.” In his book, author Zachary Michael Jack, who teaches at North Central College in suburban Chicago, Ill., laments the changing landscape of rural America. Through the pages he chronicles the many cultural and economic factors that went into the slow but certain change of farm country. The book is equal parts research project into the enduring cultural icon of the farm woman, memoir of the author’s own farm upbringing, research into agricultural trends and treatise on what might be helpful for the future.
Women are playing ever more vital roles on the farm. While there are fewer farmers, and thereby farmer's daughters, there is actually an increasing presence of females involved in farming, according to Jack. The author says this shift opens the door to the possibility of a significant change in farm practices, even if changes won’t be immediate.
“Thirty percent of the new farms are women owned,” Jack said. “Yet on the flip side of that, the vast majority were very small, less than 10 acres. The overwhelming had net sales of under $10,000.”
Even so, Jack believes that women have something unique to say about the future of rural life and may have a different take on farming than male farmers. Jack says his research found that in many cases, women of retirement age, frequently from the East or West Coast, have inherited land in farm country and try to run it in a thoughtful or sustainable way.
“Women really do have the privilege and prerogative to determine what the future of agriculture looks like,” Jack said. “Here’s a moment to cultivate the kind of agriculture they want – especially if they grew up in the 1940s or ‘50s – to be great stewards of the land.”
Jack said that over the next 20 years, 80 percent of North American farm ground will change hands. That is where the female land owners come in.
“One of the choices that many women land owners will have will be do they want to sell their land or do they want to rent the land. And if so, to whom,” Jack said.
Stemming the tide of exodus from rural areas won’t be easy, for women or for men. In the book, Jack says there were 60,000 fewer farmers under 35 in 2007 than there were in 1997.
“We need to make rural kids realize that they don’t have to leave to succeed,” Jack said.
And making farm life attractive to women could be an even tougher challenge, especially with a lack of models in the form of well-known female rural voices.
"There are many on-the-farm memoirs,” Jack said, “but very few are recalling working farm girlhood.”