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New Hope for Old Farmers: Americans Long For Life 'Down on the Farm'

Imagine my surprise when I read an article in the April 2005 edition of Reader's Digest informing me that membership in Future Farmers of America (FFA) has hit a 22-year record high.

Since 1994, the number of farmers' markets around the country also has more than doubled, the article said.

I find these two bits of information especially interesting because small family farms have been disappearing from the countryside at an alarming rate over the past 30 years. According to statistics from the U.S. Census of Agriculture and the American Farm Bureau Federation, since 1969, the United States has lost 85 percent of its dairy farms.

Why do I care that the United States has lost so many dairy farms? I grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, which has always been known as America's Dairyland. Except that today, in areas where there used to be farms all up and down the roads, there isn't a single farm left. During the same time period in which the United States lost 85 percent of its dairy farms, Wisconsin has lost 70 percent of its dairy farms.

So what is going on here?

Family farms have disappeared. Subdivisions have taken over what were once cornfields and hayfields and pastures. Creameries have been abandoned or converted to other uses. Feed mills have been torn down to make room for parking lots. And yet -- FFA has the highest membership that it's had for the last 22 years? And in the past 10 years, the number of farmers' markets has more than doubled?

The Reader's Digest article speculates that the reason for the increases in FFA membership and farmers' markets is that as the United States has lost more and more farms, and as more and more people live in cities or suburbs or subdivisions, farm life has become a fascinating subject for those who have never experienced it.

I have discovered through my own research that agricultural tourism is on the rise, as well. It used to be that if you wanted to visit a farm, you had to have a grandma and grandpa or an aunt and uncle who owned a farm. Now all you have to do is go to the Internet, type in "farm tours" on Google, and websites come up that direct you to farms which have been converted to bed-and-breakfasts, farms that conduct tours of their day-to-day operations, farms that have been made into museums, and farms that give hay rides and have pumpkin patches and corn mazes.

Through a series of political, cultural and social decisions, Americans created an atmosphere that forced small family farmers to go out of business. Although now that the family farmers are all but gone, Americans have decided they are interested in knowing more about life on the farm.

What's next? One-room country schools? Or how about little white country churches?

Be that as it may, the increased interest in farming could mean new life for the small farms still in existence. Perhaps the adult children who left because there was no future in farming will return -- not to farm the land and milk cows, but to turn those farms into bed and breakfasts, museums or to grow pumpkin patches, construct corn mazes and give hay rides.

Submitted by:

LeAnn R. Ralph

LeAnn R. Ralph is the author of the books "Christmas in Dairyland (True Stories from a Wisconsin Farm)" (trade paperback; July 2003) and "Give Me a Home Where the Dairy Cows Roam" (trade paperback; October 2004) and "Preserve Your Family History (A Step-by-Step Guide for Interviewing Family Members and Writing Oral Histories) (e-book; April 2004). Read sample chapters, order the books and sign up for the *free* monthly newsletter from Rural Route 2 at http://ruralroute2.com.





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