Camel's Hair and Locusts: The Past that Saves Us from the Future is Nearly History


This last weekend of August, my wife, Jean, and I celebrated, with the usual poignancy, the passing of yet another central Michigan summer by attending the annual Steam and Gas Engine Show in Blanchard.  This is only one of many such shows that take place across the state throughout the summer season and into the fall, and all are dedicated to the memory and celebration of the rich agrarian culture that shaped our state in the last half of the 19th century and throughout most of the 20th.  In fact, one of the most sobering aspects of this for me is found in the reality that, as my 60th birthday rapidly approaches, much of this culture has only become a thing of the past within what is, in the greater scope of history, my somewhat limited lifespan.  More sobering still is how little of it remains today.

Our enjoyment at this year's show was greatly enhanced by having our daughters Hannah (who just turned 25) and Martha (who is about to turn 17) attend with us.  And so it was with great anticipation on Saturday morning, that old dad managed to squeeze more comfortably than anticipated into his old bib overalls and, with his new straw hat, babbled on excitedly about the wonders from our farming heritage that we were about to see.  And see them we did!  Old steam engines, tractors, stationary engines and farm machinery, all up and working and showing us first hand what a great and glorious place rural America used to be.  While the Blanchard show isn't the biggest or fanciest of these events, it is held in a truly beautiful location at Blanchard's Millpond Park, and the day was sunny, warm and perfect.  The nice country folks in attendance, and manning the exhibits and the flea market, were equally warm and friendly, and a splendid time was had by all, including, and perhaps especially, our two girls.  I know their mother and I sure had fun watching them rediscover and embrace their country roots.  These two were the first and last of our three children born to us when we were living our own country dream on an old farmstead in Leelanau County, and, after a terrific lunch at the Judges Bench Tavern in Winn, we all came away flushed with pride at being able touch and hold again, even for a short while, a little piece of the original American dream: our family farm heritage.

While the old machinery is impressive, and a tribute to the quality and workmanship that brought the United States to the pinnacle of the industrial revolution and, through the mechanization of agriculture, laid the foundation for a national greatness that was the envy of the world, it is the doggedness of the people who are descended from this culture of greatness that impresses even more than the machines their ancestors built.  And, while it is indeed impressive that the one hundred year old Advance Thresher steam traction engine still runs the antique sawmill and the threshing machine with the same grace and ease that it did a century ago, the real beauty is in the sons and daughters of the sons and daughters of the much respected and greatly admired "old timers," who originally operated and maintained these machines.  The machines themselves were designed and built by men with no knowledge of, or inclination towards, planned obsolescence.  They have been passed down to these latter generations with an inherent knowledge, demonstrated by their durability, that any culture that devours its own resources by demanding "newer and better" just to have it is ultimately doomed to failure.  The message at these shows is centered in the idea that America isn't quite dead yet, and as long as the old John Deeres and the Olivers and the Allis-Chalmers still run, and the folks who keep them running understand what this is really all about, we have the ability to recapture the greatness that was once ours.  And maybe, as a nation, we really can find our way back again to that old white saltbox farmhouse and the red hip-roof barn that served us so well and that we used to call home. 

But time is running out.

We live in the middle of Michigan's Lower Peninsula on the western edge of the Saginaw Valley, which is one of the richest agricultural areas in the state and the nation.  Mostly to our east and south lie vast acres of premium valley farm land, once owned in parcels of dozens, or maybe a hundred acres, and farmed by individual families.  Now these lands are consolidated into a relatively few corporate farming entities of thousands of acres each.  Instead of the idyllic, small farms that raised cattle and hogs and chickens in some combination with grain for feed, and a truck patch for vegetables, and did so powered by a Farmall "C" or a Ford "N," these behemoth operations are worked by gigantic and expensive articulated tractors, and huge farm machines that prowl the fields like monsters from an old science fiction movie.  Gone is the old windmill pump by the barn, and in the fields, huge irrigation booms, fed by an increasing demand for groundwater caused by heavily fertilized and thirsty GMO crops, draw so much from the aquifers that the wells in many places are running dry.  Feedlot operations called CAFO's (concentrated animal feeding operations) jam thousands of head of livestock into what is essentially an animal concentration camp, and the stench from the mountain of manure and waste that is produced destroys the quality of human life for miles around, almost as an extension of the way the operation itself destroys the quality of life for the animals involved.  And when you listen to the farm report at noon on the country station, this is what they are selling as "sustainable agriculture."  In an earlier day, farming was an art and a way of life in which God was your partner.  Today, it is a science and a business in which the government is your partner, and the difference is striking.

Newer still is another kind of farming operation: wind "farming."  Since 2011, Gratiot County, where we live, has sought to shore up a local economy ravaged by the loss of what was once a booming industrial base by becoming, in essence and in fact, the wind power capital of Michigan.  The Gratiot Wind Project, which consists of 133 turbines covering 30,000 acres around Breckenridge, in the eastern part of the county, is the largest such facility in the state.  The Bebee Community Wind Farm, which currently has 34 turbines on line, 19 more in production, and expects to erect a total of 125 over the 35,000 acres currently under contract, is located just east of Ithaca.  And in the southwest corner of the county, the Gratiot Farms Wind Project is still in the planning stage, with a yet to be determined number of turbines covering some 16,000 acres of the southwestern corner of the county.  Once completed, these projects represent an area that is nearly a quarter of the total acreage of the county, and a rural landscape further transformed into that of an uncertain future.  And perhaps this future would be a little more certain if more emphasis were placed on weaning ourselves from the electrical teat, and less on creating an increasing thirst that leads to an uninhabitable countryside. 

My point here isn't to argue either the pros or cons of wind power.  However, in my opinion, the potential for wind energy is overstated and I do not see it as the panacea for an ever rising demand for electricity that those selling the idea would like us to believe.  While not an issue here in Gratiot County, at least not yet, the health issues that have made the erection of wind turbines a controversial subject in other places are real, and pose a liability question that has yet to be fully addressed, let alone answered.  An adverse impact on individual property values and taxes would seem obvious and unavoidable, while at the same time the townships are provided a literal windfall in tax revenues that shifts local political support from the people to the capitalistic developers and energy companies now paying the bills, and better represents the landowners who are profiting by simply having the structures sit on their property.  That's some easy farming.  And while largely embraced by Gratiot County for its as of yet unrealized economic benefits, citizens in nearby Clinton County have formed an organization called Clinton County Wind Watch for the express purpose of preventing the development of wind farms across their rural landscape.  Seeing what wind farming looks like so far in our backyard here in Gratiot County, my inclination is to wish the good folks in Clinton County well in keeping it out of theirs.

Our home here in Alma places us in a rather unique geographical and historical position.  On one side lies the rural future: a horizon haunted by the surreal specter of titanic windmills that loom over a landscape of mega farms and CAFO's, which join together to make life in the country something to escape from rather than to—unless your farm now has the letters "LLC" or "Inc." after it's name, and your bank account shows that agriculture has indeed become sustainable (and more) for you.  On the other side lies the rural past: driving up and out of Gratiot County, past the huge cattle feedlot that fouls the air for miles around what used to be the pleasant little village of Forest Hill, and heading west on Blanchard Road, we soon find ourselves meandering down the back roads in western Isabella County, driving past old farmsteads that look like time has stood still for the past few generations. 

We get a friendly wave from the Amish folks who amble up and down these roads in their black, horse drawn buggies, and we drive by their farms, impressed with the champion caliber draft horses working out in the fields, the homemade clothes hanging on the line, and the general peace, contentment and well being that permeates this atmosphere instead of the stench of a mountain of composting manure.  And if anyone doubts the true sustainability of this style of farming, I'd suggest you stop by and take a look for yourself.  Many Amish farms sell produce at roadside stands, and you'll find most of these folks to be surprisingly friendly and welcoming.  As a bonus to the best deal you've ever gotten on the most beautiful organic vegetables you've ever seen, take a look at the health of their land compared to that of a CAFO or a chemically fertilized mega farm of GMO crops, and remember that they've been doing it this way for hundreds of years.  And the only windmill you'll see here is the one by the barn that gracefully catches enough wind to pump up enough water for the more limited collection of livestock this lifestyle requires.

And this is my point: Sustainable agriculture has been here and gone, and right now it is in the final stage of passing away irretrievably and forever into history.  And when it does, the end will come for America because it won't be America any longer.  When I point to the agricultural past of this country circa 1880 to 1940, and make the claim that this is the sustainable future America needs to attain to, people think I'm making a joke or that I've lost my mind.  They point to the wind farms and the mega farms and the CAFO's and proudly say, "That's the government, and the future the world has in store for us."  I point to the Amish and say, "That’s God, and the future that saves us from the future the world has in store for us."  It already did, but we have spent so many generations now believing that this lifestyle wasn't good enough for us that it has brought us to a future that is killing the very culture that spawned us.  Like Jack, we have literally traded the family cow for the magic electrical beans represented in the gadgets, gizmos and toys that occupy our lives, minds and times with texting, talking, gaming and nothing.  My Uncle Al is the last of the truly great farmers in our branch of the Ropp family.  He's in his 90's and now sits in the Alzheimer's ward of a local nursing home.  He doesn't know who I am anymore, and I suppose most days he wonders who he is.  But the one thing he keeps saying over and over again is, "If I could just get back up on a tractor again everything would be all right."  I suppose he doesn't even know just how right he is about that, and how much that applies to all of us.

When I was a boy, one of our family traditions this time of the year was to take my Grandma for rides in the country to look at the crops in the fields.  She and my dad, who was always more farmer in his heart than he cared to (or dared to) admit, would comment on fields of beans and corn and remark as to the health and the size of one farmer's crop versus that of another.

It never took much for Grandma to begin regaling us with her stories of the old days on the farm.  One story was that of the Great Depression and how many days, while the men were out in the fields, men down on their luck and riding the rails would see their house from the tracks a quarter mile away, and show up asking if they could do some work for something to eat.  Grandpa put a cord of unsplit firewood and an ax by the house because men in those days wanted to work for any handout they received, and they had a man walk away hungry one day because he was too proud to take food without doing anything for it.  Grandma vowed that would never happen again, and Grandpa put the woodpile by the house.  And Grandma finished her story by saying, "Strange men came to my door all the time and I would hand them an ax and ask them to split wood while I fixed them a meal.  Nobody ever went away hungry, and I was never once afraid."  On this particular day, this inspired my mother into a lengthy diatribe about how poor they were, how hard her life was on the farm as a child, how hard they had to work, and what little they had in terms of comforts and conveniences.  Grandma's response was quite simple and to the point: "But we were happy then." 

America was happy then.  Take in an old engine show and take time to chat with the nice country folks who still believe in this way of life, and you'll discover pretty quickly that rural America used to be a proud and very happy place to live.  Look at the farmscape of the future; the CAFO's, the mega farms and the wind turbines.  Does this really make anybody happy?  Well, does it?

Phil Ropp

Phil is the owner of the news portal  Radio New Jerusalem