I grew up on a family farm. There were always chores to do. I was more interested in reading than farming. I devoured every book and magazine I could find. We didn’t have books at home or at the little country school. I borrowed books from anyone willing to loan them. My rural schoolteacher borrowed books from a bigger library in the county seat, consequently, there were books to read at school. I read when I was supposed to be doing chores. I read when I herded cows along the road, when I was thought to be weeding the garden, and at night after I went to bed. I read when tanning in summer sunshine, and when I took my younger brothers to the creek to swim. Every story was an adventure that took me on a journey away from the farm. My parents and I were all surprised that I wanted to move back to the country to raise my family.
Today I have a home library. The books I discuss in this blog emphasize the importance of farm and ranch land for its spiritual power as well as a means for people to make a living. It is not an attempt at a comprehensive review, rather it’s a consideration of how these Dakota-based authors’ works have left a lasting impression on me. The books remind me of how agriculture’s difficulties influenced my life in the past and continues to do so. The impetus for this literary comparison is an example of reading serendipity in that the books came together unexpectedly in time.
O.E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, first published in English in 1927, from a Norwegian translation, is often referenced as a seminal work about the immigrant experience in North America. Rolvaag’s book is about immigration to South Dakota. He describes the courageous Norwegian immigrants who first arrived in those vast grasslands and tried their hand at farming. It’s not too much of a leap of faith to conjecture that the immigrants who first encountered the grasslands of eastern Nebraska and North Dakota faced similar challenges to those in South Dakota, albeit with colder winters the further north one settled. This book is referenced by other authors listed below in their descriptions of the Dakota plains. When I read this book, I was struck by the foolhardy bravery of the immigrants and the unbelievable hardship of their lives as they tried to turn native prairie into farmland.
I’ve read several of Linda Hasselstrom’s books about South Dakota. Her memoirs, Going Over East first published in 1987 and Feels Like Far published in 1999 describe living and working on her family’s western South Dakota ranch. They are evocative of the demanding work of making a living from the land described in Giants of the Earth. Her poetry is indicative of her tough yet tender relationships with people in her life.
Years ago, I read Kathleen Norris’s Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, published in 1993. It is a look at faith and its connection to her life in North and South Dakota. She presents the idea that the West River area of both states is more like each other, and that the eastern ends of the states also have more similarity to each other, as opposed to any distinction between the states. Hence, she talks about living in Dakota, and lessons she learned returning from a city to live in a family home in a town located on the border between North and South Dakota.
Another author, Sharon Butala, in The Perfection of the Morning, an apprenticeship in nature, published in 1994, writes in the same vein about finding spirituality on the prairies, in this case the Canadian plains, especially southwestern Saskatchewan, just north of the Montana border, a dry country. Ms. Butala finds the solitude of walking over grassland to be an enlightening experience after she marries a rancher and moves away from the city to live an isolated rural life. I find in her accounts of grasslands numerous descriptions of place, solitude, and connectivity to the land that I feel, almost as if she was writing for me.
More recently I’ve read thee more tomes with North Dakota connections; The Farmer’s Lawyer by Sara Vogel published in 2021, The Horizontal World: Growing up wild in the middle of nowhere by Debra Marquart published in 2006, and Yellowbird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country published in 2020 by Sierra Crane Murdoch set in and around North Dakota reservation land.
Vogel’s and Marquart’s books are considered memoir. Murdoch’s is described as literary journalism. Vogel’s and Murdoch’s books include passages describing tragedies people suffer, often at the hands of the federal government. Marquart’s book is a personal journey of growing up in North Dakota. Her descriptions bring home the vastness of North Dakota’s geography necessitating traveling great distances to do practically anything. Remoteness to the Omaha metro area or Lincoln as Nebraska’s capital, are also vast for out-state Nebraskans. The western part of Nebraska is as lightly populated as the western part of the Dakotas.
Sara Vogel traveled the entire state of North Dakota as a lawyer representing farmers mistreated by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Home Administration (FmHA). Vogel’s clients included both white and Native American farmers from reservation land. She also traveled countless miles visiting clients and filing briefs in numerous courts. Her knowledge of legal precedents as a young lawyer was impressive.
I find myself identifying with these authors and people they describe. The Farmer’s Lawyer really brought this to mind as the author lays out the suffering of farmers during the Reagan administration under the guidance of his Secretary of Agriculture Block, nicknamed “Auction Block” by the beleaguered farmers and his chief administrator of the FmHA, Charles W. Shuman.
FmHA’s federal employees forced thousands of farmers off their land if they didn’t meet President Reagan’s stringent cost-cutting guidelines. Block’s mantra was “get big or get out.” He forced thousands off their land by foreclosing on their FmHA farm loans. Ms. Vogel proves in court that the federal government was not following its mission to save family farms as originally laid out by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) in his New Deal policies to help farmers during the dirty thirty’s financial crises. Vogel does an outstanding job of describing the horror those farm families faced when they lost everything. The farm crisis described in her book started in the early 1980’s and lasted into the 1990’s when Congress finally passed laws protecting farmers.
My first emotional connection with Vogel’s book concerns timing. My parents started farming when Dad returned from World War II. He and Mom got married upon his return like thousands of other returning veterans and their sweethearts. They farmed their entire life while raised five kids (I’m the middle child). After a lifetime on rented farms, they decided to retire. They held a farm sale in March of 1982 just as the farm crises intensified across the country. They got out just as things were going bad.
Inflation got out of control as the farm crisis deepened. Land prices started to fall as a result. This left thousands of farmers in the unenviable position of having borrowed more to buy land than the land was worth. Although my folks deeply regretted that they were never able to buy farmland, it is a blessing in disguise as they avoided the land value drops of the 1980s.
The second connection I gleaned from reading Sara Vogel’s book concerned my husband’s and my decision to buy an acreage in 1981. We moved from a house in a small town into our new old country house in May 1982 when our son was a one-year-old. Our daughter was born here two years later. We were impacted mightily when we sought a loan to buy the place by the high interest rates that were in effect from the deepening farm crises. We secured a loan to buy the acreage at fourteen percent interest.
A third bit of serendipity happened when Willy Nelson and Neil Young held a Farm Aid Concert in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1989. We attended the all-day concert held in UNL’s Memorial Stadium. The stadium was full of people who turned out to support farmers. The music was great too.
Sara Vogel provides an accounting of how farmers benefited from the farm aid concerts. I remember only vague reports at the time stating that all proceeds after expenses went to farmers. Vogel’s account is the first I’ve read that tells how the money was used, often in grants for farmers’ travel to national regional and meetings and to support grassroots farm organizations.
Sara Vogel’s book reminded me of our fourth connection to the farm crises that occurred in the early 1990s. We had an opportunity to buy the farmland around our acreage. Due to Congress passing laws to protect farmers, interest rates on farm loans started to come down. We were able to borrow at seven percent for this loan to buy land. Seven percent seemed like such an improvement over our first loan at the time. Seven percent loans would be considered outrageously high today, although inflation and interest rates are creeping up again in 2022.
Concerts and Farming
Although its outside the scope of books reviewed here, a modern version of a farm aid concert was held north of Neligh, Nebraska on the Art and Helen Tanderup farm to support Native American and white farm families opposed to the XL Pipeline. Neil Young spearheaded this Harvest the Hope concert held in Tanderup’s cornfield on a lovely September day in 2014. Rolling Stone Magazine reported that this concert is Willy Nelson and Neil Young’s first performance together since the 1989 Farm Aid Concert in Lincoln, NE. I was fortunate to be able to attend this 2014 concert as well.