I have long been a savage critic of modern agriculture, because it poisons the environment, wastes water, exploits workers, tortures animals, demands billions of dollars in subsidies, and eagerly serves up cheap raw material for the glut junk food that fuels our the national obesity epidemic. Supersize farms, supersize servings, supersize guts.

On the other hand, if it wasn’t for modern agriculture I’d be knee-deep in pig shit, or popping a hernia hoisting two-bushel bags of grain, or inhaling clouds of dust in a hay field instead of sitting here sprawled in an ergonomic chair tapping out criticisms of it on a laptop. I’m one of the hundreds of millions of people liberated from a relentless cycle of hard, dirty, dangerous, often underpaid labor on farms, thanks to the vast progress that has made it possible for a farmer to feed about 50 times as many people as he could a hundred years ago.

This thought doesn’t make me forgive the social and environmental crimes of today’s agriculture, but it does put things in perspective. In general, we have a far, far easier life than our ancestors, and we ought to appreciate that fact. We ought to honor their memory by appreciating it.

This rare (for me) insight occurred a few days ago, when, in this very laptop, I came across a PDF of a clip from an old country newspaper from Wisconsin. It was the obituary of one of my great-grandfathers, who died in 1929, sent by a distant cousin who is doing genealogical research. I’d read it before, but it struck me very differently this time, like somebody had knocked me down with one of those two-bushel grain sacks.

The headline of this obit is LIFE HISTORY OF A RUGGED OLD PIONEER. And what a history. What a mountain of tribulation the guy and his parents suffered. Forced to emigrate because of horrendous political conditions in Germany (the rugged old pioneer’s father was a farmer who did time for his part in the 1848 revolutions). The obit says. “The terrible burden of taxation and severity of officials was too much for the family to endure, and the father disposed of his farm and stock and with his family boarded an old sailing vessel at Rotterdaman and set out for America. Leaving Rotterdam in November 1851, they reached New York . . . after a perilous journey lasting 116 days. Two terrific storms were encountered. Twice the entire rigging was destroyed. They ran out of water to drink and provisions were so low food was handed out in rations. Nearly two weeks were spent after the storm, finding their course and waiting for favorable winds. When the voyagers were within 200 miles of New York a second storm struck them and they would probably never have reached land had not an outbound vessel met them and given them provisions.” After stopping in Pittsburgh, where “the baby was taken seriously ill and died,” the family settled in southern Ohio—but they had to move again because their house was burned down by pro-slavery zealots after the old man had become an Abolitionist.

Among the some of the tribulations not mentioned was the fact that after the rugged old pioneer got married in 1876, he had to deal with his father-in-law’s bankruptcy. If that was not enough, his family almost starved during a dismal failure at homesteading in Nebraska.

Yet, of this man who had been through so much, the obituary said: “He was widely known by many friends, possessed of a genial disposition, pleasing personality and a keen intellect. He had little chance for schooling, he received little education in the academic sense of the word, but possessing a wonderful memory and a lot of good reading, he obtained an education in the real sense of the word and became the possessor of stores of knowledge. . . . Having been a member of the town board, the school board, and president of the Farmers Telephone Company for many years, he became acquainted with many people.” Clearly, the man had no time to waste moping, becoming an “early adapter” to a technology that helped ease the isolation of rural life. (The telephone company was grass-roots enterprise, organized by local farmers themselves, for the simple reason that established phone companies were not willing to invest in stringing out lines in rural areas.)


The writer went on to say how kind this rugged old pioneer was. But the real tear jerker for me came when he got to the actual funeral service, where, he tells us, “Clarence Nuti sang those beautiful hymns: “Face to Face,” and “Savior, Lead Me Gently Home.”

It wasn’t just the scene, but the mention of Clarence Nuti, who I knew from toddlerhood, and who I worked for as a teenager. Clarence was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known (and he lived to be 104, dying in 2002.) Clarence was so amazingly genteel that when he had to cuss about some calamity or other, he’d go off to a different part of the field and let loose a surprising string of dams and shits, and maybe even a few goddams, I’m don’t recall exactly. My girlfriend and I discovered this one time working in the corn test plot he ran to experiment breeding new kinds of corn. The corn is full height by this time when you’re fooling with its ears and pollen, and once my girlfriend and me snuck quite a way off in the field for a bit of our own experimentation. Very near, but not visible, we heard dear old Clarence cussing a blue streak.

Now Clarence, too, could have become a bitter old man, and yet when he told me the part of the story that could have made him bitter there was no trace of anger or regret. He sang those hymns in 1929, in December, after the stock market crashed. Before that, Clarence had actually left the farm, gone to a music school, and was touring with a light opera company. When the Depression hit, he explained, there just wasn’t any work in music, so he had to go back to the farm.

A lot of people would have sat around for the rest of their lives whining about how their careers were ruined. But Clarence took up corn breeding, and by the mid-30s was winning prizes in exhibitions, and of course singing locally. He became a Catholic and sang in our church and at church events. There was never once a hint that he thought he was too good to be doing a show for us hicks and singing some corny songs, even though he was still a connoisseur of classical music. (One time I asked him what he thought of the violinist Isaac Stern, and he said, “Oh, he’s quite a fiddler, that guy.”)

How can I not love such people? And how can I not say, when I’m inclined to self-pity, “Get over it, dude. Think about Anton and Clarence, and grow up.”

July 29, 2007