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Prairie Patrimony: Family, Farming & Community in the Midwest

Families cannot farm without land, and whoever controls land holds power over others in the farm family, and in the wider rural community. In the Midwest, obtaining, maintaining, using, owning, and passing on land are of paramount importance – even an obsession -- in farm families. Yet in every lifetime, control of this scarce and valuable resource must be given up to the next generation. Drawing on her decade-long ethnographic field studies of Illinois farming communities with her team, Sonya Salamon demonstrates how family land transfers serve as a mechanism for recreating the social relationships fundamental to Midwestern ethnic identities. With family land is passed a cultural patrimony that shapes practices of farm management, succession, and inheritance that ultimately determine how both land tenure and the personality of rural communities evolve.

Of the seven communities Salamon and her team studied, three were dominated by families of German descent and three by what she terms “Yankees” or people with British Protestant ancestry. The population was almost equally split between Germans and Yankees in the seventh community. These two ethnic populations are also dominant in the rural Midwest, and ethnic identities manifested by them are powerful forces shaping the social fabric of the region. Each farm community was studied using ethnographic methods for at least a year. First each place was surveyed using a randomly selected sample. Then a subsample of families was studied more intensively over a year: genealogies developed; land histories recorded; plat map analysis utilized to trace family land control since settlement; and daily observations were carried intensively. From these detailed accounts of family genealogical and land histories and daily lives -- a sense of the wider community emerged. In addition to cultural patterns shaping farming, intergenerational farmland transfer beliefs and practices, families’ relationship to their community was detailed. Intergenerational land transfer records provided a window on how the ethnic agrarian cultural systems were recreated and reenacted. Plat maps were also utilized to discover the land tenure patterns produced by each ethnic since settlement, after the frontier passed by in the mid-nineteenth century. Drawing on a decade-long ethnographic study of these seven Illinois farming communities, Salamon describes how family land transfers serve as the mechanism for recreating the social relations fundamental to Midwestern ethnic identities.

From the synthesis of ethnic family patterns Salamon determined ideal types of farming patterns for Germans and Yankees, related to underlying cultural practices. She found that Yankees treat faming as a business and land as a commodity; accumulation of land is fundamentally a means to increase family wealth and power. Their culture practices embodied an entrepreneurial family pattern in which bigger is always better. Entrepreneurs aimed to manage a well-run business that optimizes short-run profits. Their operations were larger than average and specialized. Ambitious expansion was limited only by available capital. Entrepreneurs were willing to take risks, such as taking on debt, to achieve their business goals. Farmers of German descent, however, see farming as a way of life and land as a sacred family possession that they are reluctant to lose, or sell. They hold continuity of the family’s farm ownership as the highest priority, and a sacred trust. They are averse to risk such as indebtedness or costly expenditures. Their family beliefs and cultural practices with land embodied a yeoman family pattern which prioritizes continuity of family land ownership and an agrarian way of life, in a particular ethnic community. On average their farms were smaller and more diversified than those of entrepreneurs. The commitment of ethnic Germans to act on their beliefs in this regard, says Salamon, explains why this group now makes up more than half of the Midwestern farm population.

The rural Midwest underwent a fundamental restructuring in the 1950 and 1980s, as rural populations declined. As farms consolidated, fewer workers were needed to produce the same or more agricultural products, and rural residents were lured to nonfarm opportunities in urban America. Rural family size also declined contributing to shrinking rural populations. These trends meant fewer families with children to fill schools, or customers to patronize rural businesses. When school systems consolidated, churches merged, or village businesses closed, rural communities lost crucial integrating institutions. Under these same economic and social circumstances some Midwestern rural communities maintained vitality while others deteriorated. The same family practices that produced differing land tenure patterns also had implications for differences among rural communities. Salamon looked at the core village of an ethnic group as symbolic of community social relations: vigor of central institutions is a barometer of a group’s cohesiveness, attachment, and commitment to maintenance of a collective identity.

Yeomen consistently prefer communities that derive their economic vitality from a single enterprise, agriculture. These communities are surrounded by relatively small, conservatively managed farms. Landowners are typically community residents, and the villages are heavily populated by farm retirees. By contrast, entrepreneur communities have fewer farmers and farm retirees living in the village, and the surplus housing produced by the farm population decline has attracted renters who earn their living in a more diversified economy. They are less likely to regard community continuity as important and prefer change to replicating the past. A higher absentee landowner rate means more outside capital, but often absentee landlords have little vested interest in local issues. Entrepreneurs tend to regard community well-being as best served by a strong, diversified local economy.

Overtime the core communities among yeoman have maintained or grown in population because they have retained young native families, even those not farming. In contrast, core communities among entrepreneurs have tended to lose population due to a loss of their young people, or have experienced an influx of newcomers attracted by rural life, but who resist integration. Among yeoman Germans communities a single church, Lutheran or Catholic persists along with stores, a tavern, a restaurant, a grain elevator and other businesses being supported. Among entrepreneur Yankee communities the streets are silent, the villages are in decline, school closings occurred and churches consolidated. For yeoman the meaning of life is found in the small, homogeneous, ethnic nexus of their ethnic community and they work together to sustain them. Entrepreneurs think of the village more as a commercial center than as a locus for ethnic solidarity. Their community is less important to their identity and judgements of worthiness; their lives are focused on a wider milieu. Thus, groups share a responsibility for the type of community they live in.

The book’s central thesis is that culture structures those family actions especially concerning farmland. Culture connects microlevel actions among farm family households with the macrolevel of the regional land market and the fabric of Midwestern rural society. Those who consider the continued consolidation of farms to be inevitable and the disappearance of the family farm as a consequence, assume all farmers to be consummate entrepreneurs. The yeoman model of limited expansion and conservative management is largely ignored as a force shaping the macrolevel distribution of farms. Families and culture matter to the making of economic trends. Land and ethnicity provide a window on the contribution at the household level to regional patterns. The yeoman model may be more suited to sustaining family farms and a cohesive rural society in the 1990s and beyond.