If I were still working the Smith family land, I’d be a fifth-generation Montana rancher. Instead, 628 miles, countless pairs of skinny jeans, and one internet job separate me from the family profession. Even after nearly a decade away, though, it doesn’t take much to take me back.
About a year ago, my boyfriend and I were clutching hands and whispering sweet nothings in a dive bar’s midnight air. When the jukebox switched to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” the crowd and smell of stale beer faded away as I sat back, invisible hat in hand, to gaze at a hidden Montana horizon. My boyfriend glanced up from his beer to see his love-filled girlfriend transformed into a wistful, weatherbeaten Clint Eastwood squeezing back a horse-turd tear. “You’ve got to make me a mix of old country songs,” he said. “You don’t make mixtapes of songs like this,” Eastwood growled, squinting and drifting back to Hank Williams, Sr.
I’m gruff and conflicted when it comes to agriculture. While I love the farmers markets and food scene of Seattle, I miss our family cattle ranch, and the wheat farm my grandparents recently sold. I’ll dim the lights, massage my kale, and devour stories about food, but I feel a gulf between the world of the food movement and that of the mid-sized farms I grew up on and around. I watch countless cool-but-teeny urban ag projects pop up in cities across the U.S. that inspire but grapple with problems of scope. Meanwhile, Big Ag strengthens its hold and swallows up everything in the wide miles between — where much of our food actually comes from, where I come from. And so, whenever classic country comes on, I get dust in my eye thinking of the red dirt roads and the disappearing, simpler life they lead to. But was it ever really so simple?
My music-induced nostalgia has international company. In a Radiolab segment on music, Columbia University anthropologist of music Aaron Fox explains that, counterintuitively, country and western has roots in American urbanization. The first hit country song popped up in 1927, the year the U.S. population majority transitioned from rural to urban. “Country music is born when the country becomes a nostalgic ideal,” Fox says in the Radiolab segment. The crying steel guitars and vocalizations conjure up feelings of migration and regret, he says. And now, classic country is popular in developing countries, where everyone from Australian Aborigines to Zimbabweans (who fill soccer stadiums to see Don Williams play) understands the language of leaving the land behind afresh.
Drawing inspiration from Ben Adler’s mixtape love letter to the parks that birthed hip hop, I planned on writing about the waning of the family farm and accompanying it with a mix of my favorite old, nostalgic country songs. Combining Patsy Cline and sad stats about disappearing U.S. farmland proved too depressing for me, though, and the story stayed stuck until author, farmer, and chef Dan Barber visited the Grist office. Beyond being a third-plate philosopher andfirst-rate raconteur on food issues, he caught my ear and surprised me when he skipped the farmers market to argue for the plight of mid-size farms like the one I grew up on.
Constituting about 45 percent of our agriculture, these farms are “too big to pack up a pickup truck and sell at a farmers market, but they are increasingly much too small to compete in the Walmartification of the food system,” says Barber. “They’re literally stuck in the middle.”