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Jack Zaleski, Published March 17 2012

Zaleski: Not every ‘homestead’ is an old farm

I am less than sympathetic to opponents of the Red River diversion who believe they deserve special status because the farm has been in the family for three or four generations. That’s nice, but as the nation’s clock goes, it’s not a long time. I went to a school where the wide pine floorboards in the hallways were hammered down in 1835. My scoutmaster lived in a house that was occupied by British redcoats during the American Revolution. My uncle’s liquor store was on the street level of an 1859-vintage two-story.

You want old? That’s old. And all are gone – razed for urban redevelopment or highways or parks.

The demand that a farm – simply because it is an “old” farm – should be insulated from dislocations caused by progress has become a nostalgic creed among some farmers and their absentee offspring. It is instructive, nonetheless, that when the money bag is sufficiently fat, all the generational worship of the land, the family heritage and cultural roots fade in the glow of a big check. They sell out.

I once asked a 40-something farmer why he was selling off the farm his grandfather had homesteaded. It was a prosperous operation – beautiful house, huge machine shops and sheds stuffed with new equipment, dozens of grain bins. But the place was within spitting distance of the city’s urban sprawl. His answer? He said he could make a “helluva lot more money growing houses than soybeans.”

It’s a common story. All the noble talk about taking the “world’s best farmland” out of production plays second-fiddle when the money is right.

I don’t mean to dismiss genuine emotions attached to a place like a multigenerational farm. But when farmers and their grown children (often having left the farm for jobs in academia or anywhere but the farm) paint their situations as unique or special, it’s fertile ground for cynicism. Who the hell do they think they are?

My uncle really never got over losing his liquor store. He was compensated and lived a comfortable life, but the pain of losing his “homestead” was with him until the end.

I knew families whose grandfathers, fathers and sons worked in the same factories in the same jobs from the day the patriarch stepped off the boat at Ellis Island until U.S. manufacturing collapsed, when those third- or fourth-generation skilled workers lost the security of good jobs. Often they had to move on – sometimes losing a modest house, the “homestead” of their parents or grandparents that might have been in the family for 100 years or more. No farm safety net for them. No disaster program when their version of Mother Nature – the industrial economy – went bad.

Maybe diversion opponents can make the case that the project is flawed. That’s a legitimate debate. But their argument won’t be convincing if its foundation is the Red River mud of an old farmstead.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at jzaleski@forumcomm.com.