January 29, 2020

A Sense of History

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

March 30, 2012 — I’m headed to Augusta this afternoon, giving testimony before the Natural Resources Committee of the Maine Legislature.  It feels so alien.

I look around our fields.  I note that the redwing blackbirds are back, see where a skunk dug for grubs along the brook and observe that the frost is out along the eastern edges of the fields but still present along the western sides. (The western boundaries are shaded in the afternoons, when the sun is strongest.)  With so much going on here, it’s easy to forget that politics ― and politicians ― have dramatic effects on farming.

I certainly wish that I was staying home.  I trust the skunks by the brook far more.

But the Grange, an all but forgotten organization today, showed how crucial a role political activism plays in the lives of farmers.  There are far fewer farmers today than in the heydays of the Grange, but that’s not their fault.  The very success of American farms led to the decline of the numbers of people farming.

The Grange had a huge part in that success.

That’s history.

In fact, history and politics are as much a part of farming as frost and redwing blackbirds.  As mechanization made farming on an enormous scale possible, it changed the design of barns, silos and pastures.  It even changed where we farm, shifting it from a way of life in the East and Northeast into an industry and an occupation in the Midwest.

But as I look at my antique barn, neglected by political realities and outmoded by history, I wonder.   It still shelters livestock and equipment.  It’s still a crucial part of our lifestyle here today.  Can anyone protect it and guard a way of life for another generation by spending time in Augusta?

Perhaps I should rephrase that question.

How can farmers make any politician, perhaps a lawyer by training, a suburbanite by upbringing and a city dweller by choice realize that even they are tied to the land?  It’s more difficult than you might imagine.

I have an example.

I once asked my cousin, an accountant at the time and a very smart man, “Where are you going to get your food when the last farm goes out of business?”

He snorted and eyed me, aghast at my stupidity.  “At the supermarket, of course.”

I remember lifting my brows.  It seemed fruitless to press the discussion by asking, “Where will the supermarkets get that food?”

The answer might well have been, “Why from the middlemen, aduh.”  And so on, right down the line until we finally reached ― “Whoa!  You mean farmers are real?   Who does that?”

The point is that our society has evolved so far from our food sources, even bright individuals such as my cousin, have lost sight of the connections between what they do for a living and the sources of their nourishment.

That’s why I’m going to Augusta.  That’s why I’m testifying.  Because farming cannot be simply supplying food to a blind consumer.  Especially in farming we cannot assume that planting the seed, growing the hay, feeding the cows, supplying the milk, selling to the middlemen, feeding the populace who live in the house that Jack built is obvious to everyone.

It isn’t.

I met a woman in Hannaford’s who thought that liver was a brown, furry animal raised commercially ― somewhere.  Truly.  It shocked me so badly that I forget how we ever got into the conversation.

Now, more than ever, we need the Grange ― or its replacement.

We need that sense of history to remind us of how we got here.  That’s crucial, too,  lest history is what we become.