Island Grove Afternoon

A ‘first person’ essay, Island Grove Afternoon was published in Illinois Issues, November, 2001. Alvin later told me he thought the story needn’t seem so sad. My original text, more complete, follows below.

It is the church standing alone in the countryside that first intrigues a visitor to the parish of Island Grove. St. Joseph’s is a shapely little building of red bricks whose narrow sides rise to a steep sloping roof of black shingles. Its tall tower, compact, protruding slightly from the front, holds a brown wood door within a curving portal that ascends to an elegant point. Nearby is the parish house and across the road is the cemetery, a little square of lawn on the edge of an open field. Beyond the land unfolds in fields as far as the eye can see.

My cousin, Alvin Mammoser, lives just down the road from the parish church. He works a farm where his great grandfather began in the 1870s. Alvin’s father and grandfather and uncles lay in the little cemetery of the church. And now he will be the last generation to farm here – he will not hand on the farm to one of his sons. I left Chicago on the third of July and drove 200 miles downstate to spend an afternoon with my cousin, to find out why. I learned that no farm bill will help them, if a family farm cannot survive in this place of living heritage and deep attachment to the land. And when these farms disappear, then the face of our state will irrevocably change.

The farms in Island Grove and surrounding parishes have sustained generations of families, and everywhere there is evidence of the good things the land has given. Alvin and his wife Darlene raised five children on the farm and now they are surrounded by their children and grandchildren. They live among neighbors of four and five generations in Island Grove, all descendants of frontier farmers who arrived from Germany and from Alsace. It is something one doesn’t see in Chicago, that people could be in a place for so long.

Kevin Perkins, who teaches agriculture at a local high school, has documented much of the history of families in parishes of the area. “I could drive in my truck across the north part of Effingham County and give you family names, here from when they first arrived as immigrants,” he says. “Like good Germans they didn’t spread out far, but they put down very deep roots.”

He believes the church at Teutopolis was the mother parish, and from there the Franciscan priests branched out in the 1860s and 70s to establish parishes in a close arc of territory to the north and east of Effingham. Farmers built parish churches at Shumway, Sigel, Green Creek, Lillyville, Bishop Creek, Dieterich, and others. Some are in little towns today while others, like Island Grove, stand alone in the countryside. Yet together the parishes form a core of German Catholic culture.

The early settlers placed St. Joseph church on the highest point in the land, where a grove of trees stood out like an island in a sea of prairie. Alvin’s farmland was carved from this prairie, and one must see his land to understand the way of life here. His fields tend to slope away gently to the north and east, and he knows them intimately. He knows well how water moves across them in unbroken flow, from the pounding, relentless thunderstorms that rise suddenly in the west, to the smallest streams and the great rivers. He understands the earth’s subtle dips and creases that are hidden below the rows of green corn. They carry water off his land, and he must take the most solicitous care for them as he tills and discs each season.

Few people in this day are so dependent upon the natural world, and his life is a constant wrestling with the forces of nature. Three times he has stood outside and watched tornadoes come down near the church and near his home. And every year his struggle with water resumes. His livlihood remains dependent on the region’s vast hydrology. Driving around his farm in early July, he pointed to one field: “See that corn over there, looking so green and tall, it’s good right now, but it won’t grow an ear, not a single ear, if we don’t get more rain.”

He needs some rain in springtime, in March when he plants corn, but not too much rain or he cannot get into the fields. A good wet early summer is needed, to bring the corn to tassel early. And then good rains must come through the summer and fall, to make the kernels grow long and thick in the cob. Alvin talks with a clear memory about years past, such as the notorious ’83, which was so dry the plants gave nothing, and the superb ’94, when the grain was full and perfect in the corn. It is this wonderful knowledge of nature, acquired in a lifetime of farming in Illinois, that he will not pass on to his sons.

Like all Americans, Alvin fully grasps the powers of technology to ameliorate the powers of nature. He will point to a huge field full of young bean plants, a field of genetically modified beans. “See how clean that field is, with no grass at all. Now look at the strip of dead grass along the edge of the field…those are GMO beans sprayed with Roundout.”

Before, he spent much labor pre-spraying the fields to make sure the seed bed was just right for planting, yet still he could not be sure if grass would come up. Now the seed holds a gene, a specially implanted gene that resists the poison in the Roundout, so when they spray the plants remain just as hardy as they can be. But the grass that would rise up and choke them is gone.

Alvin becomes incensed at the critics of genetic modification: “These people, they don’t know what they’re talking about. We’re trying to grow crops here and they are getting everyone worried, they are harming our markets, now the Europeans are not wanting it. In Africa, they can modify the corn to have vitamin A, and the little kids there who don’t have vitamin A in their diet, now they have what they need. This is based on science. Farming is a science.”

So he understands the forces of nature, and he has applied all kinds of technology to deal with it. Still, he cannot hand the family business on to the next generation. But the reason begins to emerge in discussions of a man-made creature with which he must struggle with each season of the year. The problem lay in the marketplace. It’s been figured that a farmer, with his capital tied up in land, and factoring in the economic opportunity cost, loses a considerable sum on every acre. Alvin still farms because his land and equipment is long paid off. But the prices for grain are low now, and they’ve been in the dumps for the past four years. He has not seen it so bad.

Alvin is a little baffled and cannot explain precisely why the prices are low. He will not accept that the technology itself may be a cause, constantly pushing up the cost of doing business. Perhaps it is overproduction, which threatens all the more now with new fields opening in Brazil. Maybe, he thinks, the big commodity companies are paying more over there, keeping the price low here, but he is not sure. “It’s not technology,” he says, “it’s the price of grain…the problem is with the price.”

Whatever the cause, the farm that once suppported his father and two uncles and their families is now not enough for one of his sons. His ground covers nearly a half-section, some 280 acres of land that has never changed in dimension. But what was once a large farm in Island Grove has become very small. Alvin is now just grain farming, and today a farmer needs at least 1,000 acres to make a living with grain, and probably more like 3,000 acres. He sold his livestock in early 1980s, at a time when many families in the area chose to make a transition to large dairy or hog operations. These farms have tended to remain intact as family operations, getting by with less land while their sons have remained to continue actively working the farm.

Burt Swanson, at UIUC, does not pinpoint a particular moment when small farmers faced the decision to grow big or leave. “It’s been incremental,” he says, “and people have been getting out of agriculture for the last 50 years. When an inter-generational transfer occurs, then all families must make a decision. They will look at the resource base of the farm.”

Yet he doesn’t see great reason for hope even for the families that chose to go into large-scale livestock raising. He points to the example of 247 farmers who are now expanding from production into the processing part of the market just to stay viable. They will form a co-op to build their own pork processing plant in the state. He says: “They are still up against the question, still needing to move further down the production chain. An independent producer (a family farm) may be very big and efficient, but the livestock industry has become more integrated. So the independent producer is selling into the market now, at very low prices.”

Kevin Perkins laments the way the smaller farms have been rendered economically unsustainable: “It was rough here in the 80s, but the 90s were a real turning point. We just could not come out of it. Through no fault of their own, these families have watched the farms become unviable. There are no livestock on many of the farms now. We went into hogs, and 1,000 head was not enough, then 2,000 head was not enough. A family can’t do this anymore, not this large.”

Yet the farmers around Teutopolis face the same intense market pressures that have afflicted all farm families in America. What explains their particular steadfastness on the land?

“It’s good land,” Alvin says. He admires the flat land of north Effingham County, with its rich soil far superior to the more broken up ground in the southern part of the county. In fact the area is a kind of transition zone, between the wide open flat lands of Champaign county to the north and the much smaller fields with more difficult soil to the south. Alvin will point to the steep dips in the road between I-57 and Highway 40, just north of Montrose. These idiosyncratic hills, he believes, mark the point where the glaciers halted. Thus there is a landscape here that favors a smaller farm on very good soil, and the explanation comes back to nature.

But an explanation must go deeper, and ultimately it must come back to culture. My cousin states the cultural factor plainly: “We’re Germans, and we’re Catholics, so we have that sense of fidelity,” he says.

A drive through the countryside around Teutopolis shows the depth of that fidelity. There is the parish church at Dietrich, set in a little town, and another at Bishop Creek, which is out in the countryside. It has the same neat compactness, the same elegant little façade as St. Joseph. In Lillyville the church looks much the same and, like the others, is set upon the highest rise in the surrounding land. These parishes, still surrounded by the close fabric of farm families who’ve been on the land for generations, make a strong contrast to some surrounding areas. According to Alvin, there are no farmers out in eastern Jasper county now, or just a very few who run huge farms and are distantly spread out. But the land feels empty.

Sonya Salamon, a professor of anthropology at UIUC, has studied the effect of ethnicity on land tenure patterns in Illinois. She has found there is something to being of German-descent, whether of Catholic or Lutheran heritage, that makes it more likely a family will strive to stay on the land. “For the Germans, once land gets in the family it is pretty sacred,” she says. “They wouldn’t want to borrow on it, and they don’t expand in land a great deal. They encourage their children to stay in farming, and fathers will retire early to set up their sons on a farm. There is real attachment to the family farm.”

In her remarkable book, Prairie Patrimony, Salamon contrasts their behavior with the mainstream “Yankee” farm families (as she calls them), who will more freely leverage their land in good times to try to control more. “The German farmers, they have a longer horizon. They want to have many generations on the land,” she says. So their tendency is to be weary of leveraging the land they own to take control of more. They tend to have smaller farms with a higher proportion of owned land and less rented land.

This sacred sense about the land is reflected in the way the landscape has been shaped by the people here. Land in the German-settled areas has remained more fragmented, with farms on smaller tracts. A drive from one parish to the next takes just a few minutes, as they are placed on the scale of a time when families went to church in a horse-drawn wagon. But they have combined the small holdings with their typically large families, leading them to the preferred strategy: go into dairy farming. This allows them to run a good cash operation that requires less land.

It worked, until the latest era of low commodity prices set in. As Salamon observes: “They were able to get by with this strategy for a long time. They’ve gotton larger, but not too large. It does seem to be breaking down a bit now, in the smaller holdings.”

Alvin concurs. Driving among the parishes that afternoon, he pointed to one large place where some men were standing near their equipment, in a yard below tall trees. A young man on a tractor pulling an implement turned in to their driveway, coming in from spreading manure. This family runs a real large dairy operation, and they were out there working away on it at five in the evening before the 4th of July. But they have just a few hundred acres, since the dairy farms concentrate their resources in the livestock. It’s the livestock, Alvin emphasizes, that requires a whole family to work and allows them to remain on their farm continuously.

We passed farmsteads at regular intervals in the countryside. Alvin knew most of the families and he related their current situation in relation to the land. “This one,” he said, “he’s gotton too old now, and his son continues working the farm alone. This one, he works the farm with his two boys. This one, he’s still going but his boy works in Effingham, so he won’t be passing it on. This one, he’s gotton too old, and he didn’t have a son to take over the land…,” and so on. Alvin pointed out the homes built by the farmers’ children, usually newer ranch-style homes on the edge of fields, about a quarter mile down the road from the main family house. They stay on the farm or return to the family’s land to build a home and live, although in many cases they do not take over the farm operations. One of Alvin’s own sons is doing the same, he noted.

Inevitably, the farms are slowly disappearing. When a farmer grows too old and a son does not take over, that’s a farm that disappears. There certainly is not anyone new coming into the area to replace them. Alvin pointed out one latecomer family, which arrived at the late date of about 1910. Now some of the townships in Jasper County don’t have towns anymore. And more young people are leaving. Alvin is quite the exception, being lucky to have all of his three sons working and raising their families around Island Grove. Most grow up on the farms, then go off to college and later head for jobs in St. Louis or Chicago or elsewhere.

The future of this area will tell the future of rural Illinois, because the signs are clear: the inroads on the family farm have reached this last bastion of stability. If, in this place, a family farm cannot survive, then no family farm can thrive in the world we have created today. Kevin Perkins forsees the area becoming a suburban corridor developing around new industries in Effingham, with the outlying farmland combined into huge corporate farms. Such operations would gain little adherence or interest from the owners of the land, who are the children of today’s farmers.

My cousin and I finished the afternoon by enjoying dinner with Darlene, who served a very good pork stew. One of their young grandsons was with us. It may be that the land is reaching its limit in what it can give to these families. Even here, in this area of   families, amidst a landscape shaped by generations of hard work and faith, the people are slowly relinquishing their hold upon the land. Through these generations they have followed the technology adventure of America, until now that technology and it’s fast-paced economy, is leaving their way behind. Perhaps the land will revert to a pastoral escape for people living here but having no dependence upon the land. Even so, for these 130 years the land has been very good, to allow families and faith. If the family farm will ever return to these prairies, it will probably need to be remade from scratch, as something totally new. We cannot now foresee what that is, but it was a very great thing while it lasted.

written by Alan
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