When I was a little girl, Dad would occasionally let me climb into the pickup for the short ride to the DeWitt County Co-op in Clinton, Ill. He’d gravitate towards the circle of farmers drinking coffee on a cold Illinois morning after giving me a nickel for the peanut machine in the corner.
For decades following the closure of this and several other local grain elevators, Dad became a familiar face at ADM in Birkbeck, Ill. He’d grab his truck keys on the way out the door, leaving a note on the kitchen table — “Gone to Birkbeck” — for whomever might need to track him down.
Birkbeck saw one more harvest following Dad’s passing before it closed in 2018, sending drivers carrying loads of corn and soybeans down the road to larger facilities. Then in 2020, COVID-19 arrived and led to the shuttering of other gathering places like restaurants and coffee shops. Even those that strived to remain open no longer felt safe to many farmers.
If Dad were here, he’d be itching to get out of the house to converse with his peers. But I think he’d also have something to say about how industry consolidations and pandemic guidelines might be changing the ways farmers communicate in shared spaces. And why it matters.
Ag is an industry of many
Anticipating the day when I would manage our family farm from Alabama, Dad taught me the importance of understanding how much of agriculture is influenced by stakeholders located far away from those who tend the soil and corral the livestock.
“Farmers have to communicate with all kinds of people to get the lay of the land,” he’d say.
“All kinds” included ag experts from the University of Illinois, economists making predictions about the markets, policymakers anticipating global upheavals. Dad was always on the lookout for what these diverse industry representatives had to say and what it might mean to our family’s operation.
Farmers need neighbors
Closer to home, farmers have always relied on their neighbors to serve as sounding boards for everything from crop varieties and land sales to local politics and the outcome of Friday night’s high school football game.
“At Birkbeck, it was like a big family,” Bob Kuntz, one of our farm operators who frequented the same elevator, told me.
“You dad would bring in something he’d bought at a garage sale. He and Ronnie Oakley [another local farmer] would debate how old the thing was, what it was worth — just keep talking until one of them headed home.”
According to Bob, what mattered wasn’t the topic of conversation, but the “farm family” coming together.
Keep the field small, no matter how large it gets
Consolidation of small operations, including both farms and the institutions that serve them, is changing the agricultural landscape. As a result, farmers are finding fewer spaces in which to meet.
And the ways in which farmers talk have also shifted thanks to COVID-19, as we’ve been encouraged to stay close to home or wear masks while shouting from 6 or more feet apart.
Plenty of new communication technologies offering virtual spaces are available to farmers these days, but nothing quite beats gathering around a pot of coffee to contemplate what it means to farm at this moment. Those encounters are what have kept ag communities connected for generations. I’m hoping they always will.
Ryan is a farmer’s daughter from Clinton, Ill., and a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Following her father’s death and mother’s relocation to her Alabama home, Ryan manages the family farm from afar.
The opinions of this writer are not necessarily those of Farm Progress/Informa.