The Polk Progress was a Nebraska treasure that ceased publication in late 1989 after 82 years as a weekly newspaper. From 1955 until its last issue, the editor and publisher was the late Norris Alfred. In its last few months, the Progress had 900 subscribers in 45 states. Alfred was a remarkable Nebraskan with an uncanny eye for connecting the present with the future. Prairie Fire has collaborated with the Alfred family, the University of Nebraska School of Journalism and the Nebraska State Historical Society to locate and archive many of Norris's writings. We are capitalizing on our good fortune to present many of the Norris Alfred writings to our readership. We believe that his observations are as fresh and relevant to today's world as they were when originally written.
"How Big Will Farms Become?"
April 25, 1974
By Norris Alfred
The definitive story about abandoned farmsteads is yet to be written for this agricultural area. Perhaps it is just as one grows older the past is viewed with increasing nostalgia because the present is so different. As size of farms increase by merging smaller units into larger ones, a way of life is obliterated and the countryside littered with sets of lifeless farm buildings.
Until we took up bird-watching we had never made a continuous close scrutiny of the countryside. Our inspection of the terrain was formerly confined to hunting trips, visits or occasional drives in the country. Now we wander the roads almost daily, searching for the migrating birds making their scheduled stops in Nebraska on their urgent journey to breeding grounds far to the north.
Besides watching birds our eyes take in the landscape. The contours of hills have become familiar, as has the shape of lone cottonwoods, the look of a plum thicket or a hedgerow. We have watched fields this spring being readied for planting and even saw one (Thursday, April 18) planted to corn. An almost collapsed barbed wire fence, which we had stepped across many times for closer inspection of a bird, has had posts reset and the wire pulled taut. A winter-empty pasture has too many cattle too early for the short spring grass. Even a post-supported, leaning three-ring crib of corn has become an expected sight on one mile.
The countryside constantly changes. A long-time pasture is plowed—another basin ditched—a set of farm buildings torn down and the farmyard trees bulldozed into a pile and burned—a quarter mile of roadside junipers disappears—a fence-row hedge shows only sawed stumps—sprayed and dead plum thickets show up in the early spring as do blossoming bushes. A pleasantly curving bit of road is made monotonously straight.
Land-leveling machines are at work preparing another field for irrigation. Fields of winter stubble are being disked. Platte River cottonwoods are showing tinges of green. Cattle are moved from stubble to feedlot. A patch of snow on a shadowed bank of the Blue finally melts. Beer and soft drink cans and bottles by the hundreds litter the ditches and fields, to be hidden from sight again in summer’s long green growth. A lone tree on a property line and far from the road is a prominent, welcome sight.
From time to time we have asked farmers, “Which came first, big farms or big machinery?” Did bigger farms demand bigger machines or did bigger machines necessitate bigger farms? Probably there is no clear-cut answer because bigger farms developed from a mixture of personal incentives plus mechanical development characterized as “progress.” Probably it is the increased power available in tractors that is primarily the cause for bigger farms.
A farmer (young at the time) told us his reaction to his first tractor—“I felt I could farm all of Polk County.” A man behind a single-bottom walking plow had a more conservative view of his capabilities than does a man operating a tractor pulling a ten-bottom gangplow. With power at his fingertips, today’s farmer can push a button, move a lever, flip a switch to lift a ton, grind a hundred bushels of grain in minutes, drill a posthole in seconds and disk a field in a day.
The deceptiveness of power is in this ease of accomplishment. A farmer with horses and a quarter-section farm had not only a more conservative view of farming but also worked in a more intimate relationship with the land and (Now we are speculating.) maybe had greater respect for it. We are not advocating a return to four-legged horsepower farming, only that this observation is cause for a Great Admonition: Greater power requires greater wisdom. The ease of doing holds as readily for destruction as for production.
The danger of power is in its transference from mechanical to mental processes. The sense of power a big machine conveys remains with the operator when he is away from it. This may result, with the knowledge of a wider range of possible accomplishments, in giving the operator cause to believe he is no longer dependent on the vagaries of the natural world, but is firmly in control of his fate.
This is the treachery of power—it does not encourage humility. There are few places left in these United States where a landowner can state, “I own the land as far as I can see.” While there may be those who admire a man for being able to make such a statement, most of us are content with less. How much less is the cause for our apprehension about empty farmhouses and wonder about the local landscape’s appearance in 2074.