Number 7 Night Editor: Daniel Zwerdling
September 7, 1969
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At the same time Americans walked on the moon this
summer, other Americans were threshing wheat with their
hands and feet the way Babylonians did 3,000 years before.
Hippies are moving back to the land on communes where they
farm primitively and naturally. The return to nature could
move America into a new folk-agricultural society. But the
movement has opposing forces. The farmer, especially the
small general farmer, faces extinction.
This is the first of this year's "sunday daily" features, a
weekly tradition on the editorial page.
HARDLY HAD the beans dried in their pods when the
tornado winds attacked.
We scrambled into the old Ford pickup to survey the
damage. The bean plants had been pulled out by the
roots early in the morning and lined the field in windrow
Suddenly swirling pockets of air picked them up and
blanketed them against the fence. In less than an hour
the beans were rolled into knitted piles and the crop
This was nine years ago, in September, 1960.
I1ANY BEAVER, Township farmers, who walk a narrow
ledge along the poverty divide, were toppled by the
winds of 1960.
To recoup losses from the bean crop failure, they went
to work at Monitor Sugar Beet
Factory, the largest sugar re- text by
finery in the Midwesth
Beaver Township is in Bay howard kohn
County, a top farming district photos by
in Michigan. The U.S. Navy andrew sacks
buys most of its beans from
Several parttime farmers and former farmers work at
the sugar beet factory, despite the working conditions--
like the 110-degree boiling rooms with no ventilation.
Some of them are Beaver Township farmers, who
stayed on after 1960 and put their farms in the soil bank
Beaver Township farmers are small general farmers.
unlike the -big bean and beet farmers in other townships.
Though Monitor pays little more than minimum wage, it
offers them security. Their farm incomes can become
IN THE PAST decade the number of farm residents in
the United States has dropped from 15.6 million to 8.7
million--a 50 per cent plunge.
Price controls on crops haven't offset burgeoning
If you want to farm today, you have to be either a
capitalist or a communist.
Business farms, dealing in produce rather than crops,
are $100,000-750,000 operations. As an alternative to
them, existentialist hippies grub for their board on farm
But the individual farmer has no future.
Fred Kohn, my father, is one of the last Beaver
Township farmers. He owns 120 acres and rents 40 more.
He raises wheat, oats. rye, white beans. soybeans, corn
and alfalfa. He runs a dairy
earns less than $7.000 a year.
"Nobody can fire me." he]
can tell me when to quit."
herd of 16 cows. And he
likes to say. "And nobody
EVERY MORNING he's awake by 5:30 a.m. milking the
cows. He and two of my brothers milk them by hand.
They squirt the milk into shiny stainless steel pails and
then pour it through strainers into old metal milkeans.
A truck comes by every day to pick up the cans.
Grade-A processors won't buy the milk because the
cows drink, and sometimes sit, in a dry-gut creek which
runs through the farm. The Michigan Dairy Association
frowns on this for sanitation reasons. So he sells to a
nearby cheese factory.
Beaver Township has a network of creeks which help
drain the fields. As a kid I'd go moonlighting with my
friends and brothers-- using long-handled, double-spiked
spears to stab suckers, carp and an occasional pike as
they spawned in the muddy waters.
The creeks are tributaries to the Kawkawlin River.
But the dairy association wants farmers to dig in huge
tiles and cover up the creeks.
My father doesn't like the dairy association. But, he
doesn't like farming unions either.
TJWO YEARS AGO the National Farmers Organization
(NFO) organized a strike against the dairy associa-
tion. Dairy farmers dumped their milk into creeks rather
than sell it.
The strike called for more money for Grade-A dairy
farmers, none for milk-cheese farmers.
But when the Teamsters joined in. truck delivery for
my father's milk stopped. He couldn't haul the milk him-
self because the Teamsters had thrown up picket lines
around the cheese factory.
So two weeks worth of milk curdled and spoiled
(though my mother used some for cottage cheese which
After the strike my father (vent back to selling his
milk at the same price.
"When factory workers co on strike they can stop
working," he points out. "But a farmer can't stop milking
the cows. He has to work ,just as hard."
Because my father couldn't afford migrant labor. we
did all the work ourselves--my parents. my grandparents.
my four brothers, my sister and me.
Work is hard on a small general farm. We couldn't
afford chemical spraying, so we hoed the crops.
We couldn't afford a baler or a corn picker either. So
we slung the loose hay into the mow and shocked the
corn for husking. The inbaled hay and the corn husks
were favorite nes ing places for racoons, who stole into
the barn through the hole cut for the dog.
Now my father owns a baler. a corn picker and a
grain-bin combine- -an investment he had to make be-
cause his children were growing up and going to college.
SLY FATHER and mother attended only eight years of
school. My father worked two years in the sugar
beet factory and five years in the military, and my
mother worked seven years as a nursing aide, so they
could buy the farm from the grandparents.
My great-grandparents moved to Beaver Township
in the 1870's after the lumber barons had cleared the
forests. They were part of the Middle European immi-
gration into the Midwest farm belt.
They used groundaxes to hack off brush. In some of
the woodland pockets they left, the second growth of
hardwoods is just reaching maturity.
My father has been cutting down maples, oaks and
elms with an old cross-cut saw and selling them to be
made into cheeseboxes. He should have them cleared off
in another 10 years.
SOME OF THE nearby farms have been bought by
speculators who are waiting for the inevitable sub-
division ticky-tacky to jack up land prices.
Small ash and willow clumps are starting to grow
back on these farms. Most are deserted, though a few
retired farmers live in the old houses and attend tidy
gardens-on a lease-option which lets them live there
until they die.
When they do die, the barns and sheds are torn down
and sold for scrap lumber.
I don't know what will happen to our fatm. I don't
know if my brothers or I can preserve it.
I visited the farm a couple weeks ago. My father had
just finished combining wheat and baling wheat straw.
He was taking a short break before bean harvest. We
talked about the beans. The summer has been dry and
the pods didn't fill out.
He said he was thinking of geing back to the sugar
beet factory parttime. He worked there two years ago
when the strike and bad weather put him in a financial
"A couple more years and I'll probably sell the cows,
too," he added. "Working at the factory isn't so bad."
He was mad because the cows had just broken into
the cornfield and stomped down some stalks. But he was
serious, too. My youngest brother will be starting high
school in two years.
And one man can't run a farm alone.