Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Family farms vs. Americanism

By Claude Fischer

Although much of today’s debates around immigration reform is, on the surface, about legalities and economics and human rights, we know that below the surface – and sometimes above it – a lot of it is about cultural assimilation. Resisters worry that recent immigrants, usually meaning those from south of the border rather than those from, say, Europe, will not assimilate to mainstream American culture. And some on the immigrants’ side worry, at least privately, that the new arrivals or their children will assimilate too much and abandon their native cultures.

Dodge County Farm, c. 1941
Dodge County Farm, c. 1941

An earlier post reported evidence that recent arrivals from Spanish-speaking nations were assimilating at least as fast as those who had come from Europe a century earlier. Now, a new paper in Rural Sociology addresses the issue of immigrant assimilation from a wholly different angle: the continuing cultural distinctiveness of German-American farmers in the Midwest.

19th Century

Sociologist Amanda McMillan Lequieu’s study of 20 German-heritage farmers in the 2000s builds on historical studies of farmers who had arrived in the region several generations earlier. The major work, by my lights (although not mentioned by Lequieiu), is historian Jon Gjerde’s The Minds of the Midwest. Gjerde describes the sharp contrasts, from the 1830s on, between, on the one side, recently-arrived immigrant farmers – German Catholics and Scandanvians mainly – and “Yankee” farmers who came from the eastern states and whose ancestors were British.

The central European farmers largely immigrated and settled in groups; they were wary of America’s Protestant individualism, seeing it “as egotism, pure and simple”; and they were slow to learn English. In 19th-century Dodge County, Wisconsin (where Lequieu did her recent study), few even in the second generation knew English. The immigrants viewed farming as a family duty; the interests of wives and children were secondary to the imperative that everyone work hard to expand and pass on the farm from generation to generation.

The Yankee families, in sharp contrast, arrived in the neighborhood as single households, carrying with them American voluntarism. They typically saw the farm as a means to an end, making a living, not an end in itself. Yankee farmers thought it perfectly reasonable that their wives would not do heavy farm work (as the immigrant women did), that their children would leave for urban jobs, and that they themselves would sell off the farm to retire in town–all world views that their immigrant neighbors found puzzling and abhorrent.

20th Century

In the early 1980s, Sonya Salamon compared two communities in south Central Illinois, one largely of German Catholic background and the other of “old American stock ancestry,” surveying about 70 farm households in each group and more intensively studying ten in the first and about 20 in the second community.[1]

A century after the period that Gjerde described, Salamon found consistently similar contrasts. The now several-generations-here German-Americans stressed the importance of maintaining the family’s ownership and operation of the farm, even if that meant financial compromises. For example, they sold farm land only to relatives or, if need be, others in their own community. Patriarchs pressured sons to take over the farms and tried to facilitate the transfer. They personally managed diversified farm operations.

In contrast, the Yankees typically treated the land “unsentimentally–a commodity to be bought and sold for profit.” They engaged in monoculture for the market and were more often absentee landlords. Yankees would rent–rather than buy as the German-Americans did–more land and did so as an economic calculation, not an effort to expand family holdings. Salamon notes that these differences were apparent to all. One German-American interviewee, for example, simply considered the “Yahoos” as neither hard-working nor devoted to farming, just as her ancestors a century earlier probably did.

21st Century

Amanda Lequieu interviewed a small number of farmers in southern Wisconsin, descendants of German immigrants. Since Salamon’s 1980s study, the conditions of farming have changed so much that the latest generation has had to alter customary practices even while still trying to keep “the farm in the family name.” Land prices have escalated from demands for ethanol production and for suburban housing and farmers find it harder to resist the pressure to sell.

Competition in this dairying region from the very large farms is stiff. A fifth-generation farmer told Lequieu, “You used to be able to grow for yourself to live, and sell the extra. Now … you’ve got to be marketable.” Fathers send sons off to learn the latest scientific farming and business methods. All the households supplement basic farming with off-farm income. They have become more entrepreneurial than their ancestors, and yet, they do it, they told Lequieu, in order to pass on the family farm. They worry that, otherwise, the patrimony would be lost “on their watch.”

The cultural distinctiveness of German- and Scandinavian-origin Midwestern farmers has lasted a long time. To be sure, they eventually traded their original languages for English and many married Yankees, but their insistence above all on rooting a lineage in the land persisted. That persistence may have been made possible by the relative isolation of the descendants who stayed in rural communities and by the homogeneity–nearby Yankees notwithstanding–of those communities.

Now, about 150 years in, structural forces and “new” ideas about market economics seem to be forcing these farm families into the last stage of resistance. But it has been a long-lasting fight against American culture.

[1] Salamon, “Ethnic Communities and the Structure of Agriculture,” Rural Sociology 50 (Fall, 1985).

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.