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I grew up on a small farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  Some of my earliest memories are of time in the barn.  My dad had a very small dairy herd, 14 cows.  In winter, the body heat from the cows would keep the barn warm and moist, and I remember the smells—the breath of the cows, wet and sweet, the smell of the molasses in the ground feed, the dust from hay and straw, the acrid smell of silage, and the smell of fresh cow manure.  Above the cows was the hay mow—one of my jobs was to pull the bales out of the stacks and drop them through a hole in the floor so they could be fed to the cows.  In summer, I helped my day bring the hay in from the fields, always on the hottest day of the summer, or at least it seemed—we didn’t have an elevator, so the hay had to be heaved up into the mow, and stacked.  In addition to the big barn, the farm also had a pig house and two small chicken houses.

 

Iowa, December 2019

 

My dad sold his cows when I was 11, and the barn was never quite the same after that.  He raised steers for a few years, but there was no twice daily milking to be done—only feeding once a day.  He tore down the pig house and the chicken houses.   After a few years, he stopped raising steers, and the barn had no animals.   The barn had a cistern to capture rain water for the cows, but it developed cracks, and the water seeped into the back stable.  Eventually the water rotted the bottom of one of the tree sized girders that held up the barn, and the whole barn began to sag.  Plus the wood shingles on the roof rotted and the roof began to leak.  By the time I left the farm for graduate school, the barn was mostly empty, though for a few years he continued to make hay and sell it to some local neighbors who fed it to horses.   After he stopped making hay, he filled the barn with discarded furniture he brought home from the local college where he worked as a janitor.  However, there were still pigeons living in the barn, and everything got covered with layers of poop.

 

Illinois, December 2019

 

For years, I was embarrassed at how the barn had fallen into disrepair under our watch.  But it wasn’t just our barn that was in trouble—many other barns on surrounding farms were also failing.   I recall talking to an Iowa farmer, who noted that the increased mechanization had reduced the physical work required for haymaking, which had previously limited the size of his dairy herd.  In response he had added more milking cows, hoping to increase his income, but found that other farmers had done the same, resulting in a glut of milk and falling prices.

The increased mechanization of hay making—making large round bales weighing half a ton—or automated gathering and stacking systems for smaller bales—made the old style hay loft and hand stacking obsolete—it was too slow, required too much labor.  Which, in turn, meant that the old barns were outdated.  Newer barns were built to house lager groups of animals and facilitate mechanized feeding and manure removal.

 

The modern barn, Lancaster County, December 2019

 

Driving across the country in December through farm country, I paid attention to barns, photographing them through the windshield.  Almost everywhere, the old barns have fallen into disuse.  Many are unpainted, falling down, or have been completely demolished, and only isolated concrete silos remain where barns once stood.  Functioning farms have become larger, with new steel pole barns for storing hay, and large grain metal grain bins for feed.  Silage is stored in large trenches covered with white plastic and old tires.

 

Indiana, December 2019

 

In Lancaster County, where I grew up, there are quite a few barns that remain in good repair, for two reasons.  Amish farmers who still farm with horses still have small farms, and use the barns to store hay and house animals.  The barnyards there are still covered with manure in winter.  But non-Amish farm barns are either in complete disrepair, or have been “Martha Stuartized”—painted and decorated to look nice, but their spotless barnyards show they are obviously are not used for any farming function.

 

Look what they done to my barn, Lancaster County, December 2019

 

I suppose I should be grateful to the affluent property owners who have the money to put on new roofs and paint the old barns—they are preserving at least the look of the old landscape—but it also makes me a bit sad.  Barns were made to be functional, and whatever is inside the newly refurbished barns, it isn’t hay and cows.  Some have been converted into storage areas for businesses, some are used as party spaces (the barn wedding has become popular), but I suspect that most are just used for storage.  Particularly sad are the old barns stranded in the middle of suburban developments or industrial parks, where they seem as mournful as shipwrecks.  How did they veer so far off course as to wind up here?

I suppose what I resent the most isn’t the disappearance of the functioning barn so much as the end of small farming as a viable lifestyle.  It seems to me that both humans and animals have suffered with the industrialization of agriculture.  I recall my father knowing the personalities of each of his cows—some were gentle, others always kicked at the milking machine and my dad—they weren’t pets, but they were part of the family.  I can’t see the same kind of relationship between a farmer and his cows when the herd size is 2000, and he hires illegal migrants to do the milking.

Of course, my father also worked extremely hard, and for very little return on his effort.  Each year when my mother returned from the tax accountant, the farm showed a clear loss.  The only way to be a “real farmer”—that is, one that made a viable living from his farming—was to get big.  Two of my uncles decided to take that path, buying big tractors, building large chicken houses and pig houses, and both of them ended in bankruptcy.  Which is, unfortunately,  the usual way farmers end their careers…

In high school, I remember reading Authur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”—the title referred to suicide by automobile, when a salesman grew too old to compete.  The old barns, falling down or pimped out, stand as monuments to the end of the small farmer.

 

Industrial Park and Barn, Lancaster County, December 2019

 

 

 

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