A couple years ago, at a flashy product rollout, Jeff Bezos unveiled renderings of the space colonies that his company Blue Origin might build after landing a rover on the moon. In Bezos’s scheme, gigantic glass-enclosed “orbital habitats” would circle the earth, providing homes for millions of people. In one rendering, a Seattle-like skyline shimmers in the distance while, in the foreground, an elevated train speeds into a verdant countryside of well-managed fields. 1 Next to the track is a large wooden barn, painted red with white trim. Further back, two more barns nestle amidst rolling hills planted in what look like alfalfa or soybeans. Why, I wondered, had the imagineers included traditional barns in their vision of a post-planetary future? What could possibly justify blasting all that wood siding and corrugated roofing into orbit?
Even today, when less than two percent of Americans work on farms, barns persist as talismans for a Jeffersonian vision of the U.S. as a nation of small farmers.
American barns have stood for generations as symbols of prosperity, rectitude, and sustained connection to the land. In a standard pose favored by 19th-century traveling photographers, farmers gathered children and livestock in front of the barn to sit for a portrait — extended families stiffly arrayed in their best clothes while their barn stands in the background as a materialization of hard work and success. Even today, when less than two percent of Americans work on farms, barns persist as talismans for a Jeffersonian vision of the United States as a nation of small farmers, a manifestation of the inherent virtue Jefferson saw in tilling the soil. “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God if ever he had a chosen people,” he wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). “Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.” 2
The barn’s symbolic use persists, but it is a dying metaphor, severed from the fundamental agricultural requirements once met by this building type. As barns disappear from farms, and family farms disappear from the landscape, our understanding of these structures as active worksites fades. What’s left is nostalgia for a supposedly simpler and more virtuous past. Barns remain a staple in the iconography of rural postcards and calendars, Christmas tree farms, and u-pick apple orchards. Suburban garden sheds mimic their forms. The Wisconsin license plate features a stylized red barn with a silo. Grocery packaging is plastered with barns; a random sampling from my fridge yields nine (the container of Organic Valley sour cream has two).
Not all this cultural work is productive, true, or good, though. The separation of barns as icons from the particularities of their history as an agricultural technology leaves us, as consumers, susceptible to all sorts of ploys by marketing departments who might exploit the thin, nostalgic notion of hard-working, upright family farmers to paper over troubling aspects of our industrial food system. 3 It also blurs the distinction between small family farms and multinational agribusiness. Attention to barns’ actual history as well as to their cultural value can help us reckon with the complexity of the nation’s agricultural past — and, perhaps, find a better way forward both for consumers who have lost connection to the sources of their food, and for small farmers under threat of losing their livelihoods and homes.
If the current state of our terrestrial barns are any indication, Bezos’s celestial ones won’t be worth the rocket fuel. I have a red barn that’s a dead ringer for the one in the Blue Origin rendering; mine is part of the 40-acre Wisconsin farm my wife and I bought in 2017. When we toured the property with a realtor, we appreciated the barn as picturesque and intriguing, but we had no immediate use in mind. Now, five years later, our barn contains two picnic tables, one functional riding lawn mower, one broken riding lawn mower, a small sailboat, an antique tractor blade, a couple hundred board-feet of lumber, a dozen bales of partially composted straw, three bicycles, a foosball table, and a bouldering wall. In the darkness, deep in the old livestock stalls, are six box-fans from our old house, a few sheets of plywood, and parts of a cider press, made in China, that we bought on Amazon. (Where else?) A fiberglass We-no-nah canoe that came with the barn hangs from the rafters.
Neither of us had farming experience when we bought our land, and neither of us was under the illusion that we could give up our day jobs.
I am an English professor and Kerstin, my wife, is a businesswoman. Neither of us had any farming experience when we bought our land, and neither of us was under the illusion that we could give up our day jobs and pay the mortgage by farming. We bought the 40 acres as a kind of romantic experiment, our appetite whetted by reading too many books by Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and John Lewis-Stempel. When we found this property for sale, we imagined restoring the land and using a portion of it as a social business to help members of our community. Our plan was to convert a portion of the ten-acre lawn to a test orchard and garden, to restore the fifteen acres of woods to native oak savanna, and to divide the fourteen-acre corn-and-soybean field into a commercial cider orchard and plots that we could rent for nominal fees to immigrant farmers, to help them start their own organic market gardens or businesses on the model of community-supported agriculture. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America do much of the labor on the farms just east and south of us, and several farmers’ markets in Madison offer ready access to thousands of consumers shopping for local food. Yet plots close to Madison, especially organic ones bigger than a community garden but smaller than a cornfield, are hard to find and prohibitively expensive. Our aim is to provide both land and marketing support.
To some of my neighbors, these cultural uses and social aspirations seem hopelessly bourgeois. At the beginning, even my daughter Nora — who was two when we bought the farm — understood this. One October evening in our second year, as she and I were riding back to the barn on the John Deere mower, she remarked, unprompted: “Dad, we’re not real farmers.” I instinctively agreed, but was curious about her logic, so asked her to explain. “Because we don’t grow stuff,” she said. Nora wasn’t exactly right; we had planted a few things — a couple rows of flowers, some vegetables, a dozen apple trees. But what we didn’t do then, and still don’t really do, is grow food or forage for market as my neighbors do. We hope to one day make enough money from our farm to support our family, but for now, our off-farm jobs maintain us and fund the agricultural work. 4
Still, I submit that our barn’s agricultural inutility is pretty typical for Wisconsin barns these days. Our neighbor, Christian, who lives across the road, is unquestionably a real farmer. Together, he and his father plant hundreds of acres of corn and soybeans, including the 120 acres their family has cultivated since the 1880s. They drive eight-wheel tractors and self-propelled sprayers we could park our Corolla under. Christian’s red barn is almost identical to ours. Yet his equipment is too big to fit, so he stores it in corrugated-steel machine sheds. Christian uses his barn primarily for inclement-weather batting practice by the Utica Home Talent baseball team, which he manages. He keeps halogen lights, an L-screen, and a full-size net batting cage set up year-round in his hayloft. Below, a few dozen storm windows are stacked against rusting dairy stanchions.
Drive any county road in Southern Wisconsin and sagging, tumbledown barns are ubiquitous. Sometimes all that’s left is a fieldstone foundation.
In this part of Dane County, my neighbor’s barn and mine are notable less for their non-agricultural uses than for their passable states of repair. Our barns have dry roofs and relatively plumb timbers. Far more typical is the decay visible in my other neighbor’s barn. The roof caved in long before my family arrived in the area, and the wood siding has mostly fallen away. A few posts still stand, and some truss-work frames out the original volume, but otherwise, the building has collapsed. Jerry Apps, an historian and former county agricultural extension agent (raised on a dairy farm in Waushara County) observes in Barns of Wisconsin (2010) that height makes these structures natural targets for wind and lightning. “I will never forget the year the barn on our home farm was blown off its foundation,” Apps recalls. “Part of the barn was toppled, burying calves, injuring cows, and creating a scene seldom captured in even the most vivid horror movies. One windstorm changed our farming operations forever.” 5 Decades ago, the destruction of my neighbor’s barn would have been a catastrophe. But no cows were injured and no harvest lost when their roof finally fell in. The barn and farmhouse sit today on just an acre of lawn; the 80-acre field to which they were originally attached was long ago split off and sold to a corn-and-soybean farmer who lives somewhere else.
Sagging, tumbledown barns like my neighbor’s are ubiquitous in southern Wisconsin. Drive any county road and you will see their weathering remains; sometimes all that’s left is a fieldstone foundation, where a barn-wood salvage company or a fire has taken everything else. Now that I own a barn, I know why they rot and sink into ruin. Barns are large as well as tall, and 19th-century wooden ones were made of old-growth timber that’s no longer readily available. More importantly, because these kinds of assets don’t much matter to the contemporary agricultural economy, no immediate financial interest warrants their maintenance.
My barn is not the iconic gambrel-roofed shape that shows up on packaging and in the Blue Origin renderings. Mine is a “banked gable-roof barn,” so-called because it was built, or “banked,” into the side of a hill so that a wagon could be driven right up to the hayloft to be unloaded. The basement, which once held cows, was insulated from bitter cold and sweltering heat by the surrounding earth. On the broad side of the building, big central doors open onto what was once a threshing floor. Gospel readers, agricultural historians, and artisanal bread bakers know that wheat germ — the part of the seed that gets ground for flour — must be separated from the indigestible papery chaff that encases it. From the dawn of the agricultural revolution, farmers accomplished this by beating wheat stalks with a nunchuck-like tool called a flail. After the chaff was loosened, the pre-industrial farmer would open a small door that stood opposite the big doors, creating a cross-draft that would blow the chaff away while the germ fell to the floor. A board laid across the central doorway — a thresh-hold — would keep wayward germ from blowing into the barnyard. In the late 19th century, horse-powered threshing machines replaced flails. Laura Ingalls Wilder narrates this machine-in-the-garden moment in Little House in the Big Woods (first published in 1932). It’s the end of the day, and Pa, who has just used a horse-powered thresher for the first time, tells Ma:
It would have taken Henry and Peterson and Pa and me a couple of weeks apiece to thresh as much grain with flails as that machine threshed today …. That machine’s a great invention …. Other folks can stick to old fashioned ways if they want to, but I’m all for progress. It’s a great age we’re living in. 6
In the 1880s, a decade after Pa’s experience, steam engines would begin to power threshers. Today, diesel combines “combine” the once backbreaking work of harvesting, threshing, and winnowing into a single automated process.
Wheat was Wisconsin’s main cash crop in the mid 19th century, and in 1860, the state’s harvest was one of the largest in the U.S. 7 But the boom didn’t last. A decade of overplanting depleted the soil and diminished yields until farmers could no longer make a profit. An infestation of chinch bugs decimated what was left, and many farming families, like the Ingallses, pulled up stakes and moved west, to Minnesota and the Dakotas. Those who stayed switched to other crops. In Dane County, most started to grow tobacco, and many succeeded for a time. The sturdy brick warehouses and spacious Queen Annes that line Main Street in towns like Stoughton and Edgerton are legacies of the tobacco era. But while tobacco farming overcame the threat of chinch bugs — which feed only on cereal plants — it couldn’t solve the problem of soil exhaustion. As had earlier generations of wheat farmers, tobacco farmers cultivated their highly profitable crop so intensively that it pulled nutrients from the fields faster than they could be replenished; the tobacco boom, too, eventually went bust.
Steam-powered machinery was poised to replace the hand-threshing and winnowing that my barn was designed for in the era of wheat farming.
By the turn of the 20th century, Wisconsin was well on the way to becoming — to cite the state license plate — “America’s Dairyland.” The switch from cultivating row crops to pasturing cows was neither intuitive nor easy. Many still considered the labor of dairy farming — milking cows, churning butter, making cheese — to be women’s work, distinct from the plowing, planting, scything, and flailing done by men. But an entrepreneur named William Dempster Hoard began to promote the fledgling industry with a well-organized advocacy campaign that included a dairy association, sponsorship of a dairy convention, and a dairy magazine. (Hoard’s Dairyman was founded in 1885 and is published to this day.) Hoard parlayed his prominence into a successful run for governor in 1888, and used the gubernatorial bully pulpit to further expand the industry. A decade after he took office, more than 90 percent of Wisconsin farms were raising Jerseys, Holsteins, and Guernseys.
The farm I now own was one of those that changed over in this period from wheat to dairy, and the barn’s threshing floor and side bays were repurposed as storage for the hay that fed the cows. Decades later, most farmers had switched their herds from hay to silage, and the tall round silos that flank red barns in the familiar images were built to store this fodder of fermented corn stalks and grass. The silo on my farm, made of poured concrete, dates to the 1930s, and — sadly — has proven remarkably efficient at directing rainwater from the barn’s roof to its stone foundation. The obvious sag in the roofline is a direct result of this undermining process, which began when my barn was already half-a-century old. Farmers who scraped together the money for timbers and siding in the 1880s were unlucky. Steam-powered machinery was poised to replace the hand-threshing and winnowing the barn was designed for, and Wisconsin farmers’ abandonment of wheat had begun. My barn was an obsolete agricultural technology almost from the moment it was constructed.
It wasn’t just economic and environmental forces that drove transformations and reinventions on my farm and others like it. Such smallholdings have always been projects of the federal and state government. The land that my farm occupies was ceded to the U.S. government by Ho-Chunk people in an 1832 treaty signed under duress in the aftermath of the Black Hawk War. Within a year of Ho-Chunk removal, the General Land Office, an agency of the Treasury Department, surveyed and platted the territory; the county was organized in 1839. Less than ten years later, in 1847, a man named Ole Larsen bought an 80-acre patent from the federal government, including the land that is now my farm. The property lines laid down in 1833 by a government surveyor and described in Ole Larsen’s 1847 patent still largely determine the extent of my farm today. 8
The Morrill Act of 1862 established land-grand universities throughout the western states —which then included what we now call the Midwest — and mandated that these new universities develop and teach “such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.” Hoard’s dairy-industry advocacy could not have developed without research undertaken at the land-grant University of Wisconsin and funded by the federal and state governments. Research conducted in the 1890s by professor Stephen Babcock, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Wisconsin’s Agricultural Experiment Station, ensured the quality of milk and boosted cheese production. 9 State extension agents broadcast Babcock’s findings to farmers in a well-organized campaign to boost dairy production in the first decades of the 20th century. New Deal policies saved many small farmers during the Great Depression, and then created economic conditions that allowed them to prosper: legislation like the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 supported milk production by establishing price floors, paying farmers not to cultivate and pasture fields, and holding crop surpluses to establish reserves for lean years. My fourteen acres of woods grew up in fallow pasture that had been set aside in a Depression-era conservation program.
By the 1980s, U.S. producers could no longer dump farm surplus overseas, and commodity prices cratered.
In the early 1970s, President Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz reversed many of these New Deal supply controls, and incentivized American farmers to produce as much as they could, famously calling for planting “from fencerow to fencerow.” By the 1980s, when U.S. producers could no longer dump farm surplus overseas as easily, commodity prices cratered. Thousands of small farmers were bankrupted, and their land was bought by bigger operations. The first Farm Aid concerts in the 1980s drew national attention to the plight of small farmers, but did little to change federal agriculture policy. In the 1990s, free-trade policies like NAFTA and deregulation under the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act (gallingly referred to as the “FAIR Act”) further tilted the playing field towards agribusiness, and drove still more small farmers off their land. In 1970, there were 648,000 dairy operations in the U.S. In 2020, the number had fallen to fewer than 32,000. Despite the 95 percent reduction in the number of dairy farms, American milk production doubled over the same 50-year span. A quarter of the milk produced in the United States today comes from farms with more than 2,000 cows. Farms with fewer than 30 cows — about the number that could fit in my barn — now account for just one percent of milk production.
A few years ago, I visited one of the megafarms. Rosendale Dairy is Wisconsin’s largest dairy operation; it maintains a herd of almost 8,400 cows that produce more than 80,000 gallons of milk per day. At Rosendale, milking takes places on two automated turntables, each holding up to 80 cows. The animals are trained to leave their stanchions at milking time and to line up to enter a turntable, which completes one revolution in the roughly nine minutes it takes to mechanically milk one cow; when she exits the turntable, another takes her place. The barn at Rosendale is clean and bright, but the scale of its automated efficiency was discomforting. From the exterior, the barn looks nothing like a barn. Massive and low-slung, surrounded by asphalt approach roads, the building is made of corrugated steel with a multi-bay loading dock. It reminded me of the retail warehouses you see on urban outskirts near highway interchanges.
Rosendale Dairy and megafarms like it are the future of Wisconsin agriculture. According to the USDA, farms “which frequently combine a very small dairy enterprise with other commodity enterprises or with off-farm work are disappearing rapidly” 10 To Secretary Butz, who coined the phrase “get big or get out,” the loss of small farms was simply the cost of modernizing American agriculture. 11 A half century later, in 2019, President Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, reaffirmed Butz’s position as contemporary USDA policy when he told a reporter, “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.” 12 Perdue made this statement at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, during one of the worst years on record for dairy farmers. Wisconsin was on pace to lose more than 800 dairy farms, almost 200 more than had been sold off the previous year. 14 Big increases in milk output, combined with Chinese and Mexican tariffs imposed on milk and cheese in retaliation for President Trump’s trade war, depressed the price of milk below the cost of production for many small producers. The losses devastated families and whole communities. National media outlets took note of an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and suicides among American farmers. But few of the stories discussed solutions beyond increases in funding for crisis hotlines and rural mental-healthcare. 14
Massive and low-slung, surrounded by asphalt approach roads, the milking barn of the megafarm looks nothing like a barn.
The environmental, economic, and political conditions that sustained small farms in Wisconsin and the Midwest more broadly have gone, and are unlikely to return. What place is there, in this altered landscape, for old barns, the farms that surround them, and the farmers who still live with and use them? Perhaps counterintuitively, I am heartened by the serial obsolescences that my barn has survived, and the ingenuity that farmers before me have exercised. Our barn is no longer used for threshing or milking, but we have found new purposes for it. Before Covid put an end to mass gatherings (and removed the imperative to keep the space clutter free), we used it as a venue for folk concerts, a Christmas marketplace for local artists and craftspeople, and a lecture space for a lyceum series featuring the work of local writers. We charged admission for concerts and a table fee for the Christmas market, but neither netted much income after performers and expenses were paid. Still, each event increased the number of people who knew about our farm; we are building a community, and an email list.
As Covid infection rates have tapered, we have restarted some of the gatherings outside. The barn is a backdrop at the moment, but Kerstin and I have come to see it as the centerpiece of what we are hoping might be a diversified farm for the 21st century. We take some inspiration from old aerial photographs of our land that show a much more varied crop selection than the big blocks of corn and soybeans that predominate today. One 1937 photograph shows that the farmer who owned our land then was raising dairy cows, but the image also reveals a big vegetable garden, a corn crib, sheep pens, a tobacco barn, pastureland, and narrow strips of row crops where now there might be a corn or soy monoculture. 15
We named our place Pied Beauty Farm after the 1877 poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, in part because we were inspired by his description of variegated fields as a figure for beauty and goodness: “Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough.” In the second growing season after we moved in, we planted clover in what had been the soybean field, to suppress weeds and prevent erosion while we slowly converted the fourteen-acre parcel to organic cultivation. In the years since, we have set out 200 heirloom cider-apple trees that are just starting to fruit; we hope to begin pressing and fermenting cider for sale in the next few years. We also grow flowers for wedding florists, and raise some bees. We’ve experimented with hops, raspberries, potatoes, pumpkins. Results have been mixed, and progress is slow.
Last spring, we welcomed our first partner farmers, a Hmong family who grow vegetables and flowers on an acre that they rent for 25 dollars per season. We hope to work with additional immigrant-farmer partners to cultivate a larger portion of these fourteen acres in the coming years.
The patchwork of Hopkins’s English landscape, and that in the 1937 view of our farm, are beautiful. Yet simply transitioning from raising large quantities of a single crop to growing small quantities of a large variety isn’t going to solve the fundamental economic problem. Small farms will not survive by selling their produce as commodities; they simply cannot compete with megafarms’ efficiencies and global distribution systems. We are making a bet that small farms like ours might prosper if they can nest their produce in farm experiences that remind consumers where their food comes from and who produces it. Grocery co-ops, farm-to-table restaurants, and even the Amazon-owned Whole Foods have been doing this kind of narrative work for a long time with signage, photographs, and maps that invite shoppers to “Meet Your Producer” or promise “We Support These Local Farms.” But the benefits of such campaigns accrue more to the retailers than to the growers.
Counterintuitively, I am heartened by the serial obsolescences my barn has survived, the ingenuity exercised by farmers before me.
Instead of advertising farmers’ work with packaging and posters in grocery stores, we are trying to connect consumers to the food on our farm by providing opportunities for them to experience the place where that food is grown. We’ve found success renting a canvas glamping tent in the woods to urbanites who want to stay overnight on a farm. Where the tobacco barn once stood, we’ve established an outdoor picnic area where we host farm-to-table dinners. We see the lectures, dinners, concerts, and Christmas markets that we host in our barn as agricultural activities, as opposed to more generally cultural ones, because they support the tilling, planting, weeding, and harvesting that we and our farmer partners do. These events have created a few opportunities for direct sales here at the farm and we hope even more in the future. Our bet on a diversified farm may not pay off. But we think it is worth the risk, and we are willing, and able, to grow slowly. 16
When we bought our farm five years ago, the barn was a literal liability. No insurance company we met with would indemnify it against fire or other damage, although our agent did encourage us to take out an umbrella policy in case somebody got hurt in it. The roof leaked. The foundation sagged, and doors had fallen off their hinges. We fixed the roof and most of the doors, and are slowly working our way through replacing broken windows and rotten siding. Our barn is sometimes a headache, and it still requires much restoration work. Yet, because of its cultural potency and its remarkable adaptability, we have come to regard the barn as our farm’s most valuable asset. The barn remains, as it was in the 19th century, the heart of the farm. We just hope it doesn’t blow down.
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