Is your closest contact with the farming community your latest Instagram of a picturesque barn, or an occasional haul from the local CSA? If so, you’re not alone. Our day to day existence relies heavily on farming, but from Americans’ increasingly urban vantage point, the lives of farmers themselves can seem remote. In his forthcoming book, In the Blood, Princeton University sociologist of culture Robert Wuthnow offers a moving portrait of the changing lives of farm families. Recently Robert took the time to talk with us about what prompted him to write the book, the misconceptions he discovered, and how his new research spoke to his extensive body of work in the sociology of religion.
You teach at Princeton University and live in a largely urban state. What prompted you to write a book about farming?
RW: I grew up on a farm in Kansas, spent most of my spare time until I graduated from college farming, and figured I would follow in the footsteps of many generations in my family who farmed. Things didn’t turn out that way. But I still have friends and family who farm and I’m intrigued, shall we say, by the path I didn’t take. I wrote about the changing history of agriculture in the Midwest in Remaking the Heartland and about rural communities in Small-Town America. After working on those projects I began reading the literature on farming. I discovered that most of it is written by agricultural economists and historians. As I sociologist, I wanted to hear from farmers themselves. I wanted to know what farming day-to-day is like, what it means to them, how it influences their values, and why they stay with it from generation to generation.
Why do you think people who don’t know much about farming might find this book interesting?
RW: Everybody – whether we live in a city, suburb, or small town – depends on farms for the food we eat. We know about problems with fast food, slaughterhouses, pollution, and the like. We also hear discussions every few years about farm policies. But for the most part, farming is out of sight and out of mind. In part, I wanted to give farmers a voice. I wanted people who know very little about farming to at least have something to read if they did happen to be interested.
Apart from questions about food and farm policies, the reason to be interested in farmers is that our nation’s culture is still the product of our agrarian past. Correctly or incorrectly, we imagine that today’s farmers represent that heritage. In one view, they represent conservative family traditions, hard work, living simply, and preserving the land. In that view, it is easy to romanticize farming. A different view holds that farmers are country bumpkins who couldn’t do anything better than continue to farm. In both these views, farmers are actually serving as a mirror for us. I wanted to hold that mirror up to see what it showed – about the rest of us as much as about farmers.
You say farmers think the public doesn’t understand them. What misperceptions need to be corrected?
RW: One of the most serious misperceptions is that farmers are out there mindlessly ruining the land. That certainly was not how they saw it. Of the two hundred farmers that form the basis of the book, nearly all of them described the reasons why they do everything they can to preserve the land. I was especially impressed with the extent to which science is helping them do this. Farmers today have a much better understanding of soil chemistry, microbes, and ways to minimize water use and pollution than farmers did a generation ago.
Another misperception is that farmers are the problem when it comes to questions about tax dollars spent on farm subsidies. My research included farmers with large holdings as well as small farmers and it dealt with wheat belt, corn belt, and cotton belt farming as well as truck and dairy farming. Farmers spoke candidly and many of them were candidly critical of farm subsidies. They did benefit from crop insurance and appreciated the fact that it was subsidized. But they were doubtful that government bureaucrats understood farming and they were pretty sure farm policies were being driven by corporate agribusiness rather than farm families.
Much of your work has been about religion. What did you learn about religion from farmers?
RW: I wondered if farmers whose livelihoods are so dependent on forces of nature over which they have no control would somehow attribute those influences to God or be superstitious about them. Would they consider it helpful to pray for rain, for example? What I found is that hardly any of them thought that way. Some were devout; others were not religious at all. The most common understanding was that God somehow existed, was ultimately in control, but was also beyond human comprehension. Those who were the most devout prayed, figuring that whether it rained or not, God was real.
Churches are still the mainstay of farming communities, but vast changes are taking place in these churches, just as in cities and suburbs. Small churches in declining communities are dying. The ones that remain struggle to attract members and employ pastors. Increasingly, farm families drive twenty or thirty miles to attend churches in large towns and cities. That is also where they go to shop and where their children go to school.
You argue that farmers are deeply loyal to their families but are also ruggedly independent. How so?
RW: What I found about family loyalty and rugged independence is that both are changing. The basic values are unchanged but their meanings are being redefined. For instance, farmers say that farms are good places to raise children. But they rarely mean that children drive tractors and milk cows. They mean that children gain an appreciation of living in the country. Farm families continue to be examples of family-operated businesses. But gender roles are changing and informal relationships are being replaced by formal contracts. Being independent means making your own decisions, not having someone looking over your shoulder, and not having your daily schedule dictated to you. But all of that is constrained by government regulations and by having to depend on markets over which one has no control.
What did you identify as the main challenges facing farmers today?
RW: Farmers face a challenge that has always been part of their lives and is becoming less predictable. That challenge is the weather. Climate change is bringing extremes in temperature, storms, and rainfall unlike anything farmers have known. In addition, farmers with small to medium acreage are being forced to expand or quit. Whether large-scale farming adds efficiency is still debated, but farmers worry that if they do not expand they will be left behind. And competition to expand necessarily influences relations among farmers. As many of the farmers we spoke to explained, they enjoy seeing their neighbors but they also view their neighbors as sharks in the water.
Of all the topics you explored in your interviews with farmers, what surprised you the most?
RW: Technology. Spending my days, as I do, tethered to a computer and the Internet, I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn the extent to which farming has also changed as part of the digital revolution. But I was. My research assistants and I conducted interviews by cell phone with farmers on their tractors while a GPS guidance system drove the tractor through the field within a margin of three inches, an on-board computer monitored the soil and adjusted seed-to-fertilizer ratios accordingly, and the farmer in turn kept track of fluctuations in commodities markets. Technology of that sort is hugely expensive. Farmers acknowledge that it is not only labor saving but also enjoyable. But the digital revolution is influencing everything about farming – from who operates the machinery to how often farmers see their children and from what they depend on for information to what they have to do to qualify for financing.
The farmers we spoke to were deeply committed to family farming as a lifestyle. They hoped it would continue and that some of their children would be farmers. But many of them expressed doubts. They worried about the corporate takeover of farming. And they were preparing their children to pursue careers other than farming.
Read the introduction here.
Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including Rough Country, Small-Town America, Red State Religion, and Remaking the Heartland (all Princeton).