You Decide: Will we return to farm life?

Published 6:54 am Thursday, September 3, 2020

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By Dr. Mike Walden

My father grew up on a hog farm in southwest Ohio in the 1920s and 30s. In those days, farms were highly self-sufficient and independent. Most of the family’s food was grown on the farm. Fuel was first from wood chopped at the farm and then from coal purchased from a local supplier. Still, winters inside the drafty farm house were cold. My father slept with a heated iron during cold nights. Electricity didn’t arrive until almost 1940. Prior to then, food was kept cold in an “ice box.” To his last days, my father always referred to a refrigerator as an “ice box.”

For those necessities that couldn’t be made on the farm – like flour for baking bread – my grandfather and grandmother would travel the six miles round trip to the nearest sizable town (Cheviot or Miamitown, for those of you who know Ohio). It would take all day, but it did give my grandparents a chance to maybe eat at a restaurant and visit with friends.

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The lives of my father and his siblings revolved around the farm. Each had chores that were crucial to keeping the farm functioning. Their main social activity was attending a one-room school about a mile from the farm. It was not until World War II – when my father was sent to the Pacific theater of war – that he ventured more than a few miles away from the family farm.

Given the title of this article, am I suggesting many of us may be returning to this kind of traditional farm life? No. Farms today are much different. They are actually becoming high-tech operations using machinery and computer programs to guide decisions about planting, irrigation, pest control and harvesting. The number of individuals working on farms is declining as modern methods have caused productivity to soar. In other words, we are producing more and more farm output with fewer and fewer workers.

What I am suggesting is that in the post COVID-19 world, many of us may choose to live in the style and form of an early 20th century farm, just as my father did. The lifestyle of the new farm life will be more independent and self-sufficient than our pre-COVID-19 form of living. Also – and very important – the new farm life will shift the dynamics of family living to be more similar to those experienced by my father.

The biggest change prompting the new way of living will be in how work is done. In the future, more work will be performed remotely. A recent study from Stanford University estimates already 40 percent of the workforce is engaged in remote working, and this rate is expected to rise. Of course, not all occupations are amenable to remote work. But as technology continues to make advances, more will be.

This means an increasing number of people will be staying at home to work and earn income, just like my grandparents did. Some may even choose to have gardens for raising vegetables, an activity that has gained in popularity during the pandemic. The rest of a household’s food can be delivered. Indeed, almost everything we need for daily living can be sent to our doorstep. All of this will be done to avoid personal contact and reduce the chances of being exposed to today’s – or tomorrow’s – virus.

Certainly, just like my grandparents, occasional trips will be made to cities for shopping and purchases of products and services that can’t easily be chosen online and delivered, but such trips will be the exception. In the new farm life, most of our time will revolve around the home.

In fact, the new farm may add a dimension the traditional farm did not have – education. While most children in the 1920s and 30s still had to leave the farm for their education, it is possible to provide much of today’s education virtually. Indeed, we are at this very moment experimenting with massive virtual education at both the K-12 and college levels.

Anticipating the development of the new farm, in which the home is the place where work, education, child-rearing and relaxation occurs, architects are already re-thinking home design. “Out” is the open-concept where major rooms flow seamlessly together with no separation. “In” is functional separation, with designated rooms for remotely working parents, virtual learning children, exercise and even for quarantining a family member inflicted with a virus.

The adoption of the new farm style of living will also change where families live. With remote working, virtual learning and on-line shopping, gone will be the need to live at pricey locations close to work, schools and shops. Without daily commutes, exurban, small town and even rural areas, where housing is noticeably less expensive, will become more popular. Also, high-speed internet availability won’t be an issue in these more distant locations. Experts say it is only a matter of time before internet connectivity is provided by low-orbiting satellites, like those currently being developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX program.

Of course, the new farm way of living could all be a figment of my imagination if the changes we’ve adopted during the pandemic ultimately go away once the virus is history. Or maybe not, if we find we like the changes that occurred during the pandemic and want to continue them even when normality arrives.

In a few months I’ll be 70 years old. I’ve been trying to decide what event during my lifetime has had the greatest impact on our society. Each day that goes by has me move the dial closer to COVID-19, especially when I consider the implications I’ve outlined here. But – as always – you decide!

Dr. Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and Extension Economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University who teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy.