When I was in high school, I was a member of the Math Club. Yes, you heard me correctly, I did not lose my virginity in high school. One year we traveled to Monahans, Texas, about 250 miles away, for an academic competition. It was probably more than just a math competition, because we went in a school bus. On the way back, after a long day, I stared out from the bus into the darkness of the west Texas desert, listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s Concert in Central Park on my Walkman knockoff. When the song “Homeward Bound” started playing, I was suddenly swept up, listening to the lyrics, by a feeling of incredible melancholy. To this day, when I hear that song, especially when I am traveling, I still feel those strong emotions—there is something in that song about a desire to be rooted, to be anchored, to belong somewhere, that to me is very powerful. It may speak to me so strongly because it sometimes seem to describe my entire life rather than merely an episode in it.
I grew up in El Paso, Texas, and went to college at Trinity University in San Antonio. There’s 550 miles of Texas between the two cities. Over the years of driving back and forth, you come to learn things—traveller’s things, at least—about the places in-between: Van Horn, Fort Stockton, Junction, Kerrville, etc. You’d know where you can get gas, which towns or villages had a place to eat—which town had the Pizza Hut, which had the McDonald’s, and which had the “Dairy King.” That was all driving on I-10, I should note, the same drive, every time, which gave me a very limited view of half a thousand miles of Texas. Though I drove near it many times, I never once saw the village of Iraan, Texas (“the second largest town in the second largest county in the second largest state”). Of course, when you have half a thousand miles to cover, minutes become precious.
That’s one of the things I like about being in Ohio and taking my little excursions. I can explore and see all the things you can’t see from the freeway. I feel “invested” in Ohio, because of this, more than I ever felt invested in Texas.
Ask two people about farming in America and you are likely to get two different answers. Or, somehow, even three. America’s farm economy is booming, but the family farm is in steep decline. Except when it is not. So here are some quick facts, or generalizations. First, the amount of American farmland has been relatively stable for many decades—it has had a steady but slow decline of acreage, largely due to development, which has been more than compensated for by increased production. There are around 2.2 million farms in the U.S., but there are more bus drivers than farmers—and farmers are aging, though there are signs that a new generation of farmers is emerging. Analysts often talk of “corporate” farmers and indeed a relatively small number of farmers account for the majority of farm production, but most farmers themselves are still family farmers, with many of the so-called “corporate” farms still being run by families that have incorporated for business purposes. The size of the average farm is about 440 acres or so, triple that of a century ago—and this is a good thing, as it illustrates (among other things) the disappearance of tiny sharecropped farms. In any case, 440 acres is still a pretty modest average.
In mid-July 2015, I had an opportunity to take a drive through southwest Ohio’s farm country at the height of the growing season and it was a pleasant journey indeed.