#745 – In farm children, I see virtues that one sees too rarely these days

Posted on | The Agurban

We love this piece by former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels that appeared in The Washington Post. We’ve been saying for years that the rural work ethic of our young people is second to none.

In farm children, I see virtues that one sees too rarely these days
by Mitch Daniels | Post contributing columnist, President of Purdue University, and former Governor of Indiana | June 11, 2019

Along with the rise of women and the expansion of civil rights, the most important social transformation of America’s first quarter-millennium has been the triumph of modern agriculture over famine and the ceaseless, backbreaking effort simply to feed one’s self that had been the dominant fact of human life throughout history. Most of those who preceded us lived their entire lives on the farm. A little more than a century ago, a third of all Americans were farmers.

Successive revolutions in mechanization, horticulture and biotechnology have been an enormous blessing, enabling a tiny percentage of Americans – today fewer than 2 percent – to feed the rest of us and much of the world. Incalculable human talent has been liberated to invent all the other miracles we enjoy. We spend less of our income on food than any society ever.

But this blessing, like most, is not an unmixed one. Other valuable talents, and much precious social capital, have diminished with the share of Americans living and working on the land.

During a decade in elected office in Indiana, I made it my practice while traveling the state to stay overnight in Hoosier homes rather than hotels. Because of geography and, candidly, personal choice, probably a third of those 125 overnights were with farm families. There I witnessed virtues that one sees too rarely these days – hard work, practical manual skill, a communitarian ethic – woven tightly into the fabric of everyday life.

I saw teenagers and even younger siblings rising at 5 a.m. to feed animals or do other chores before cleaning up and heading to school. If was fun to return home and tell those stories to four suburban daughters whose idea of a tough assignment was clearing the table and washing the dishes.

At county fairs, I would always ask that the 4-H officers be the ones to take me around. Every one of those young people had raised animals for competition, and they showed me projects – artistic, scientific or community service – with special pride that comes from creative, arduous individual effort.

After shooting the breeze with some Future Farmers of America members in their northwest Indiana town, I was musing to a local friend about what fine characters and purposeful attitudes farm kids seen to have. “Absolutely,” she said. “Our circuit judge has been on the bench here for 20-plus years. Once I asked him, in all that time, how many FFA or 4-H members have come before you? He said, ‘Uh, none I can remember.’”

The cultural fiber that an agricultural upbringing once brought to society will of course not return through numbers. But there are ways…to expose modern young people to (the) value and virtues (of rural living). One-third of today’s 4-H members now live in urban areas. Summer jobs de-tasseling corn or baling hay are still occasionally available as an alternative to “Fortnite” practice or soccer camp. In their constant quest for diversity, universities should not overlook the benefits that rural students can bring to their big-city and suburban classmates.

The distance that has opened between the producers of our food and the beneficiaries of their hard work, and between rural and urban Americans in general, has been sadly apparent in our politics and popular culture. More than tolerance is in order. Some true appreciation, and even some emulation, would be helpful right now. There’s a lot to learn down on the farm.