Farm Progress

Knowing stories of our past can help shape future decisions

VIEW FROM THE HILL: Studying the trials of ancestors can help us avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

Paul Penner

September 4, 2018

3 Min Read
MAKING DECISIONS: Examining the lessons of the past can help us make the right decisions for the future.z_wei/Getty Images

"The past is prologue."

At a wheat industry stakeholder conference, an executive began his talk by paraphrasing a line from William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. This set the stage for a challenge to attendees regarding agriculture and the role the wheat industry might have in shaping the future.

For the uninitiated, a prologue is an introduction to a story. It establishes the setting and place. The things in the past merely set the stage for the story that is yet to come.

This is how I view my ancestral story and how it shapes my perspective and role as my immediate family adds to that story to this day.

On my father’s side of the family, our roots can be traced back into Prussia. My ancestors fled from the Netherlands to escape religious persecution, then moved into Poland and eventually emigrated to America in 1874.

On my mother’s side, my relatives left the Netherlands for Prussia as well, and later, by invitation of Czarina Catharine II, settled in the prairie lands of South Russia near the Dnieper River and the Molotschna River, in 1786. They also emigrated to America in 1874. The political unrest that would lead to the civil war that would later engulf Russia was already beginning. It eventually resulted in an estimated seven to 12 million lives lost and destroyed the region’s agricultural and economic infrastructure.

Fast forward to today, and not only can we still see the devastating effect of that revolution in the people who remain, but also in the country itself. Recently, a small group from our church traveled to Ukraine, where our ancestors lived. They report the combined effects of the revolution and an ongoing war with Russia continue to destroy the valuable resources of the region and also has a tremendously depressing impact on the population.

The Ukraine region is rich in resources. Topsoil is bountiful, up to 6 feet in depth. Farmers there can grow vast quantities of crops with this fertile soil, and though it is productive today, it is not up to its full potential due to war and intruding political turmoil with Russia.

Today, while looking at our recent history in America, seeds of political unrest have been at work for nearly two decades. No longer content to sit down with our political opponent and engage one another in rational conversation, we insist on "my way or the highway," and are moving closer to the time when dialogue comes through the barrel of a gun. As a nation, we already know how devastating that can be. Let’s not forget that.

The upcoming month of November is election time. Democracy is at a crossroads. Which route will it take? Will we give democracy and all its imperfections the benefit of the doubt, or will we allow those who want to further erode confidence in it to rule the day?

It is time for every American citizen to step up and make his or her voice heard as we decide who will represent us in government, on all levels, in the days ahead.

Questions arise as uncertainty regarding our future remains. Will we take the easy road to get what we want, or will we make a choice to back someone who will make a difference for the better good?

American agriculture has a big stake in the future of this country, and our democracy matters for the world as well. How we set the plate today determines the outcome of tomorrow. Our past truly is prologue, and one we cannot ignore.

Penner is a Marion County farmer and past president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. His email is [email protected].

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