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As farming changes, we all change


Take a drive through the countryside these days, and it looks as if not much has changed in farming except the size of the equipment. The planters are still being filled with corn or soybeans, and the tractors still pull them across black dirt that has powered the state’s economy for a century and a half.

But one of these years, the Legislature should peer into the future of Iowa agriculture and steer us away from a cliff that’s just starting to become visible.

Those $100,000 tractors driving across land worth $3,500 per acre are still en route to a harvest of crops whose value never changes much. The modest profits that result do more than create debates in Congress and complaints at the coffee shop.

They build a fence that potential young farmers can’t climb over. And that translates into empty storefronts in the state’s small towns. And that affects property taxes, schools and so forth.

You can follow this row a long distance, picking up all kinds of items to worry about along the way. If you want to stare at a really big picture, consider how the character of the state is destined to change.

We used to be a state where most kids grew up with firsthand knowledge of manual labor and real-world familiarity with the workings of the marketplace. Before long, the government and the economy will be in the hands of people who think the world can be experienced quite adequately on a computer screen.

Paul Lasley, a professor of sociology at Iowa State University, told an agricultural forum last winter: “The inability of young people to enter farming raises important issues about the long-term sustainability of the current agricultural system.”

He’s not suggesting that crops won’t be produced, but he is talking about a radical wrenching of Iowa traditions.

He’s talking about the disappearance of an ideal that stretches back to Thomas Jefferson’s dream for this nation, and wondering how it will alter the character of the people.

“The evolution from a nation of independent entrepreneurs and business persons on Main Street and on farms to one of employees is likely the least-studied change in the American workforce,” Lasley said.

A lot of farm kids think a steady paycheck with benefits sounds pretty good. But some want to pursue relative independence on the land. If there’s a way to help them through tax policy or progressive financing plans, we’d better get to it.

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