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The Rearview Mirror

Some may say it is a sign I am in my dotage, but lately I have been thinking and writing more than ever about agriculture, farming and ranching. You see, I was never supposed to be a farmer. My eldest brother was that guy, and thanks to him and his capable wife, and the others gone before them, as well as the cohort coming on, I believe I will see the family farm into the seventh generation.

I grew up during the Last Picture Show generation on the prairies. You may need to google Larry McMurtry to get the reference I am making here. The gist of it is, while the rest of the country was baby booming, the Great Plains were going into decline, economically and demographically. If you remember when the movie theater closed in your home town, you know what I am talking about.

It was seldom possible for multiple children of a farm family to stay on the farm. Something else was in play, however. In 1980 the country-pop singer Mac Davis declared that for his peers, “Happiness was Lubbock, Texas, in the rearview mirror.” It was the old story of rural-urban migration, with most of my generation rolling downhill to the city.

Well, the objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. Perhaps they are not even behind me. I just signed a contract to deliver, for a major publisher, a chapter for a new book--a history of American agriculture. My assignment: agriculture on the Great Plains, in 8000 words.

The editor of the work is R. Douglas Hurt, another refugee of the Last Picture Show generation who grew up about seventy miles from where I did. He, like I, was a 170-pound tackle on his high school football team, from which experience he moved on to a career in academic life.

The book is one of those deals that will not be read much by the general public, but is intended to set the agenda for what historians will think and investigate about the subject. The influence will be indirect, but not insignificant. Doug says I am supposed to “define the state of the field.”

There is a mantle of responsibility in telling this story. It feels like I should convene a focus group about the message, except I realize I have been doing that all my life.

What to say? In the first place, in my history, our history, farmers will do things, not just have things done to them. They will do good things and bad things, smart things and dumb things, and there will be consequences, often unexpected, to deal with. For you history wonks, this is what is known as the doctrine of agency.

In the second place, I will bring to bear some ideas not yet present in our historical narrative of the prairies. For instance, we have been living a story of climate change throughout the settlement experience on the plains and never quite reckoning with it.

In the end, my history of farming on the plains will not be confined to the rearview mirror, but will look around 360 degrees, with the Great Plains in the center of time and space, where they belong. I’ll let you know how I think it’s going--both as to the written history and as to the situation on the land. All good history, but especially agricultural history, has to be grounded.

~Tom Isern

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