The Vanishing Farmer

Rodney LeJeune with one of his oversized melons.

Rodney LeJeune with one of his oversized melons.

Until the day he left us for that big rice field in the sky, my dad was devoted to farming, a dwindling American occupation.

Daddy’s father, his father’s father, and everyone all the way back to the 1700s, when the first LeJeune set foot in the South, was a farmer. None ever owned slaves or lived in a fancy house. On the contrary, they’d pack large families into frame homes and, from sunup to dusk, quietly work with neighbors and relatives in the fields. Some of the time they even made a middle-class living, and this was achieved mostly by planting rice.

My brother is now in charge of the plowing, planting, fertilizing, harvesting, and overall worrying. But in light of agricultural trends, I often wonder, how many more generations will ride those combines?

When our nation was young, cultivating crops was, well, just about what everyone did. In 1790, for instance, 90 percent of the American workforce was a farmer. But cities and factories gradually started attracting farm folk, and by 1840, the number of farmers was down to 69 percent.

Then came the Civil War, and in the South the sharecropping system replaced the old slave plantation system. And even though opportunities to work the land and the number of farms increased, the magnetism of cities caused the number of farmers to fall to 53 percent.

The 1890s saw increases in land cultivation and agricultural output, along with tremendous immigration (including my German relatives, who were — ta-dah! — farmers). Even so, mechanization was taking the place of muscle, and by the year 1900, farmers made up only 38 percent of the working population.

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Harvesting rice on the Otto Zaunbrecher farm, Crowley, Louisiana. (Photo by Kristine Zaunbrecher Schippers)

In the 1940s, many Southern farmers migrated to war-related jobs in cities, and by 1950, the number of American farmers was down to 12.2 percent. In 1970, that number was only 4.6 percent, and today less than 2 percent of us farm.

Advanced technology, including better machinery, healthier animals and seed stock, and state-of-the-art research and development have all dramatically increased farm production, and now, more than ever, less hands can do more. And I suppose it’s a good thing that we’re increasingly leaving the old homestead to go to college and work in cities.

But, guess what? We all have to eat!  And no matter how sophisticated America becomes, we’ll always need farmers. So here’s to daddy’s memory, to all his tobacco-chewing buddies still here, and to the youngsters who have dirt in their blood. Your way of life may be less prevalent, but don’t ever forget, you’re extremely important and appreciated.