The Passing of the Farmer


THESE are days of unprecedented social change. The eyes of the world, however, are so attentively fixed upon the developing American city, that the greatest change of all in America’s social life is going forward well-nigh unheeded. The farmer class, which we have grown accustomed to consider the permanent foundation of our society, is showing decided signs of impermanence. The farmer is moving to town, It is not simply a farmer here and a farmer there, each because of reasons of his own, who are leaving the land and entering other occupations. The movement, instead, is general in extent. In a comparatively short time the typical farmer of to-day, who tills the land that he owns, with the help of his growing sons, will be but a national memory.

Though he is the most conservative of men, the farmer cannot forever cling to the past. In his attempt to modernize his occupation, the individual owner must fail, and rather than rest in failure he very naturally turns from the land to seek success elsewhere. The new and better conditions which are to prevail, instead of coming as the result of a gradual development within itself of the old system, will come rather from without, as an extension over the country districts of those modern systems of production which are operating successfully in the cities. Being myself a descendant of a long line of farmer ancestors, and having tilled for some years a small farm of my own in the Middle West, I, as one of those who are within, am able to feel this approaching change, instead of being forced to depend entirely upon what may be seen from without.

It is upon her great areas of fertile land that America’s increasing millions must depend for their food-supply. Agricultural production, however, as carried on upon the farms, is failing to keep pace with the growing demand, in spite of the fact that the experts point the way to a yield per acre many times greater than the average yield of today. The cry of agricultural science is for a more intensive cultivation of the soil. This more intensive cultivation demands an increasing number of laborers on the land. The laborers, however, instead of increasing in numbers are continually becoming fewer; farms, instead of becoming smaller, as the theorists of the last generation predicted, are steadily becoming larger: the trend is necessarily away from crops that demand intensive culture. The production of agricultural supplies in this country is losing in its race to keep in advance of consumption. Not alone are the farms becoming larger, but the proportion of them operated by renters is rapidly increasing. The increase of the renting system can be viewed as nothing short of alarming, unless one believes it to be but a necessary transitional stage leading to something more satisfactory.

There appears to be quite a disposition, in some quarters, to blame the farmers as a class for their failure to measure up to certain standards which it is believed should govern them. Often the class is referred to condescendingly by some townsman, who asks, ‘How shall we uplift the farmer?’ It is felt, apparently, that those now upon the nation’s farms should in some way be held responsible for a more complete utilization of the possibilities of the soil. It is considered by many good people of the cities that the farmer boy, in leaving his father’s acres for the shop or the office of the town, is in some way upsetting a balance that should be maintained. Often it is charged that the rural schools of to-day are ‘educating away from the farm,’ and it is urged that their influence should be thrown against the cityward drift of the young.


In every consideration of the question it must be borne in mind that the movement is not in its essence a movement. from the country to the city, but rather it is from farming as an occupation to something else as an occupation. It is very common indeed in this country, due no doubt to some extent to the influence of the schools, for sons to enter other occupations than those pursued by the fathers. A thought will convince any one that the schools are no more influential in causing the sons of the farmer to leave the farm than they are in drawing the sons of the merchant away from the store, or in determining the lawyer’s sons to turn from the occupation of their father. It is, perhaps, one of the chief functions of the school to broaden the vision of the student, — to give him a world-view. The young man should be made to feel in his youth that the world is wide, that there are many openings into life, that the path his father chose, or was forced into by circumstances, is but one of the many. The school should aid the youl h to determine what path he, individually, is best fitted to follow; and so far as is practicable, it should assist him to take the first steps in that pathway. It should no more be taken for granted that the son of the farmer should be a farmer than that the son of the physician should be a physician.

There is no drift away from any one of the learned professions. They are constantly being recruited from without. No great alarm is felt over the decision of a large proportion of the young men of the city to break away from the occupations of their fathers. There is no cause for alarm. The son of the physician may go into business or become a civil engineer; there is no dearth of doctors, for other men’s sons are studying medicine.

On the other hand, the entrance of farmer boys into occupations other than that of farming is a very serious matter, indeed, for the reason that there is no corresponding movement of young men from the cities to the farms. Though the sons of farmers are among the most successful men in every walk of city life, it is comparatively rare to find a man not country-born who is a successful farmer. Though the city gates swing easily to admit the country boy, the citytrained lad finds it exceedingly difficult to swing them the other way. Those coming to the farms with money sufficient to buy are handicapped by money without knowledge; those coming without money are in a worse plight still. The typical farmer of to-day who is fairly successful, from the financial standpoint, has inherited a cast of mind that is indispensable to his success. He may be wealthy, and often he is, but he has the outlook upon life of pioneer ancestors who were very far from wealthy. The pioneer days, so far as this country is concerned, are passed. Land may no longer be had for the asking. It may be well for the would-be farmer to be poor in spirit, yet his purse must be well-filled.

Though from the beginning of the rapid development of the cities there has been a constant movement of country people to them, the migration has been considerably accelerated since the improvement of the rural schools, and the placing of high-school advantages within the reach of rural pupils, as has been done in many localities. The virtual extension of city school-systems into the country districts, together with other modern phenomena, among which may be mentioned the rural mail system, the rural telephone, the improvement of highways, and the building of interurban lines, is in a large measure breaking down the barriers which formerly existed between the country and the city. The two civilizations, rural and urban, which had until recent years existed to a large degree independently of each other, are rapidly being blended into one. This new civilization thus formed is city-centred, and a strong pull toward the centre is setting in.

It is not alone the young people who are to-day drifting away from the farms to town. There is also a continued movement of older men with their families to the cities. Many farmers of middle age are entering other occupations, depending for a portion of their income upon the proceeds from the farms they have left. Many small towns are made up to quite an extent of a population of ‘retired farmers,’ many of whom are still in the prime of life. Instead of having remained at their task until their days of activity should have normally ended,, they chose to get away from it all while they were still young enough ‘to get some enjoyment out of life.’ Like those early miners of gold who chanced to be successful, they, having gathered in their piles, next enter upon the stage of spending. The typical ‘retired farmer,’ however, differs very radically from the old-time miner, in that, as his wealth was not the result of a sudden smile of fortune, he does not spend it in sudden moods of reckless generosity.

The drift cityward is receiving a decided impetus in those country regions best provided with ‘city conveniences.’ Communities that had long existed as almost independent social entities, each having a centre ‘at the Corners’ where were located the church, the schoolhouse, the store, and the post-office, have had their unity destroyed in these modern days. Formerly, frequent social gatherings were held, when the whole neighborhood would ‘turn out,’ — the women and children gathering in the afternoons, and the men, both old and young, joining them in the evenings. The sons of farmers married the daughters of farmers, and new farm homes were established, thus perpetuating the community.

With the coming of improved methods of communication, new groups were soon formed, not on the basis of neighboring farms, mere physical nearness, but rather on the basis of a freer intellectual choice. Mere physical proximity has less than formerly to do with social grouping. The most intimate acquaintances of the farmer and his family often live in the village or the city several miles away. The sons and daughters of the farmer marry, and are married to, the daughters and sons of the city-dweller. Such marriages result, in the great majority of cases, in new homes established not on the farms but rather in the towns. This is but another way of saying that, with the coming of modern means of communication, so that the actual conditions of life both in the country and in the city are better understood by all than ever before, the attracting power of the city for the country-born is much stronger than that of the country for the city-born.

This very evident desire of so many of the young and the middle-aged to get away from the farms, coupled with the impossibility of an influx from without to fill the places of those who leave, indicates clearly that the system of farming, as we know it, cannot indefinitely continue. At the present time so many of the farmer families have left the land that in many localities those who remain are tilling such large areas that the work cannot be other than superficially done. There is also to be seen, in increasing frequency, the renter who will never own an acre, or suitable tools for tilling one, and the mortgager who will never be free of debt. These are days of national prosperity, yet there is a steady increase in the number of mortgaged farms. Farm land is increasing in value so rapidly that the farmer cannot keep pace with his land. The deeds and mortgages are to a greater extent than ever before held by men who are not farmers, but who on the contrary are city business men.


Some of the causes which are operating to drive the farmer out of his occupation are not at all difficult to find. One of the most obvious of them is the decreasing supply of labor. It is becoming continually more difficult to obtain helpers for work on the farms, either for the house or for the field. In the old days, the neighborhood group was very often entirely self-sufficient. There were enough men and women in the community to do the work of the community. It was the most natural thing in the world for the farmer who had more sons than could profitably be employed upon the home acres to allow one or more of the boys to spend a portion of the year in the employ of neighbors who were without sons. Though it was an economic misfortune to be without strong and willing boys in the home, yet one could usually depend upon hiring neighbor boys for just the length of time that help was needed. The daughterless housewife also could obtain all the help needed by calling upon the neighborhood girls. The mingling of the young people in this democratic fashion did much to strengthen community ties. Often the young man of twenty-one, having saved his summers’ earnings, married his employer’s daughter and bought a farm of his own. Many another young man, who had spent his summers at home, also set up for himself after marrying the ‘hired girl.’

The multiplication of radiating influences from the rapidly developing modern city has swept away the old days. The growing sons and daughters are spending more and more time in the schools. The well-to-do farmer very naturally wishes his children to enjoy as good educational advantages as do the children of the town merchant. His own children gone, he calls in vain now for the assistance of the young people of the neighborhood. They, too, are at school, or, if at work, are in the shops and stores of the city. The old group is broken, and help, if it comes, must come from without. Efficient single men and women for farm labor may seldom be found to-day at any wage, and the supply of inefficient laborers is becoming continually less. A generation ago the young farm laborer could expect, after a few years of earnest work and careful saving, to own a farm of his own; and he would plunge hopefully into the task. To-day, however, farms sell for thousands, which in those days could be bought for hundreds. The farm-hand of to-day does not expect to buy, and, as a rule, he simply drifts along in an aimless, hopeless fashion.

There seems to be no lack of capable married men who are glad to work on the farms for pay equivalent to their city wage. They must be made certain, however, of work for the entire year, and their pay must include the rent of suitable dwelling-houses. The farmer of to-day, as a rule, is not in a position to take advantage of this source of labor-supply. Hence, his fields are imperfectly tilled, and his crops improperly harvested.

The merchant has no difficulty in obtaining workers. For him, the ‘Help Wanted ’ sign brings scores of applicants. The manufacturer often has a ‘waiting list’ to choose from. That these men may hire while the farmer may not, is a social discrimination against the occupation of farming that cannot long be withstood.

In these days of the occupation’s decline, without doubt the most pathetic figure in the situation is that of the farm wife. It is primarily to ease her burdens that many landowners are turning away from the land. In the former days, surrounded by her daughters, or by neighboring cousins and nieces, she was queen of the country civilization. Though her life was one of constant toiling, yet it was dignified by something that is now lacking. She cared little for the ways of the city, and seldom went to town. Her life was indeed narrow, but it reached deep down into the very soil. Her interests were limited by the limitations of the country neighborhood, but her culture was as genuine as any in the world. However, with the breaking-up of the old group, the formation of new ties, and the inevitable rush of the girls to town, her life has suffered a melancholy change. The grand-daughter of yesterday’s queen has become the drudge of to-day. Her lot is made doubly hard: scarcity of help for the house and the field has called her to redoubled exertions, and since the beginning of the new order her life is being measured by new and, from a certain standpoint, more exacting standards.

A generation ago, the wife and mother compared her lot with that of her pioneer grandmother, and felt that she had much to be grateful for. Today the past is forgotten; comparisons must be made between herself and city sisters and friends. The family album with its reminders of yesterday is seldom opened. ‘To-day’ is ever at hand in the automobile’s honk, the jingle of the telephone bell, and the headlines of the daily paper.

These farm women find themselves in a new civilization, but not of it. They have as great a longing for the best that life can offer as have the well-gowned club women of the cities. In many cases, from a financial standpoint, they can as well afford the luxuries of modern life as the majority of those who possess them. But, as the wives of farmers, they must give themselves to the land. Their houses go neglected that, they may help with work in the fields. Their hands are coarse and rough from assisting their husbands with pressing work on the land. Wives of wealthy farmers in this our country, while at their work, often resemble in their appearance ignorant, poverty-stricken peasant women of Europe. Many a farmer’s son who has completed the course of a city high school has been helped to do so by the sacrifices of an over-worked mother back on the farm, who has taken upon herself many of the tasks that, otherwise, would have been his. In the hearts of these lonely, toil-worn women, love for farm life is turning to bitterness, and the daughters are electing new things.

Undoubtedly the primary fault in the occupation, the one fundamental thing which is rendering the present system of farming the least popular calling in the modern scheme of things, is its lack of opportunity for specialization in labor. In these days of the expert, the farmer is inexpert, and therefore lonesome. In the cities, the men of every calling, from the surgeon to the chimney-sweep, pride themselves upon doing one thing well. The farmer alone is the jack-of-all-trades. Though the trend in farming is toward specialized lines of production, the farmer’s labor remains, as it was in the beginning, unspecialized as to processes. With the coming of more complicated agricultural machinery to be handled, and the growing necessity for thorough study of soils, of insect pests, and of the markets, the farmer is yearly brought face to face with more complex demands.

To manage and do the major part of the labor, satisfactorily, on a farm of eighty acres, demands on the part of the farmer several lines of proficiency which are seldom found combined in any one individual. He must have the strength and physical endurance of the unskilled laborer, combined with the ingenuity and mechanical ability of the skilled workman. He must be somewhat of a student, an authority on matters connected with the science of agriculture. As a student, he must also have something of the spirit of the investigator and experimenter, for his own farm presents problems for which he can find no solution in the books. He must be a business man competent to manage a large and complicated undertaking, or much of his labor will be wasted. The typical farmer, in his attempt to make a creditable showing upon each of these counts, attains no better than second-rate efficiency in any single line. Comparisons with the city expert are bound to make him uncomfortable. However, such comparisons, although unjust to the individual, are yet inevitable. It is told to ail that he is a poor business man, a superficial student, a bungling mechanic, and a clumsy laborer. He is made to feel that he is a misfit on the land and in the work of his inheritance. He is rather severely punished for marching in the rearguard of a vanishing procession.


The pioneer days are over. The supply of cheap land is nearly exhausted. It is now as much out of the question ‘ to go West to take up a farm ’ as it is to go East to take up a factory. The former call of the land was to those who had little money or special training of any sort, and who, for this very reason, were glad to build homes in the wilderness and to live in them, braving the various dangers of frontier life, while they changed the wilderness into a garden and watched the price of farm land rise.

The present call of the land is not unlike the call to other activities. It is to men who have money to invest, and to those who have expert knowledge and ability of some sort. As the farming class was called into being by the existence of abnormal land conditions, it is very natural to expect that as conditions become normal the class will be merged back into the society from which it sprang, and the task of agricultural production taken over by the classes of modern industrial organization: by the capitalist, the manager, and the laborer. The laws of social and economic development which brought the factory are in operation still. Agriculture is but a form of manufacturing, and its development must be along the lines marked out by the development of manufacturing in the past. The little shop in which the owner and his family lived and performed all the labor, both mental and physical, connected with the manufacture of wagons or shoes has given way to the great plant employing thousands of specialists. The small farm of to-day is similar in its organization to the shop of yesterday, and must as surely give way.

The farmer does not leave the farm because it is in the country. He turns away from it for the same reason that the cobbler turns from the shop, because he feels it to be out of harmony with the life about him. The real ‘isolation,’ which we are to understand is the prime reason for the unrest of the farmer, is not physical, it is social. It docs not consist in the fact that his nearest neighbor lives a quarter of a mile or more away, but rather in the fact that he is a farmer: his occupation and necessary mode of life do not fit well in the modern scheme. If physical isolation were the cause of the discontent, modern improvements in methods of communication would do much to bring contentment. It is noticeable, however, that in those communities best provided with modern conveniences the drift cityward is most rapid. The more closely men are drawn together, the more surely does the old order pass.

Though the pioneer’s work was well done, it is now finished. There is no especial reason to look for the expert agriculturist of the future among the descendants of the pioneer farmer of the past. The men who are to carry on the agricultural production in the coming days are being prepared in the cities for their task. As the new civilization is urban, so the new farming is of necessity a specialized department of urban life. There cannot long remain the distinction implied in the terms ‘townsman’ and ‘countryman.’ All men will be grouped in the tables according to occupational divisions. The question will be not, ‘Where does one live?’ but rather, ‘What does one do?’ Country work will be as well subdivided as the work of the cities, and for the most part according to the same divisions. The agricultural expert will direct the labor in the fields as do other experts the various processes in the great shops. Agricultural production will have come into its own.

One of the greatest social advantages which we may hope to derive from the change, is a vastly increased opportunity for laborers now crowded into the cities to find work in the country fields. One would expect to see a continual shifting of laborers of the poorer classes back and forth between the town and the country. The more of these people who can be brought into direct contact with the soil, the better. America has in the past looked to the farm for the rejuvenation of her social vitality. The land will probably much better serve social needs under the new system than under the old, for the healing influences of the soil will be applied directly to those of our people who stand most in need of healing. It is not the few who can afford to own farms who most need the benefits of country life, but rather the many who can neither buy nor rent. Under the new order they and their children will receive a blessing which might never come to them in the old, and the whole of society will be benefited thereby.