Yeah. I don’t know what he did either.
What I do know is that his character and moral foundations resulted from the sweat, tears, and joys of ancestors who broke ground and cared for livestock all their lives to raise their family and provide a nation with food. Dr. Switzer is the proud product of a dying culture…the family farm. In an age where corporations are steadily redefining the concepts of agriculture, keeping the voice alive for those who worked sunrise to sunset for little to nothing is gaining more importance with each passing day. It is quite probable a generation is being born who may never see a family farm that doesn’t include the word “incorporated” at the end of the name.
Switzer’s book “A Family Farm: Life on an Illinois Dairy Farm” is his own family’s rich history and loving devotion to the life they chose. Within the pages live four generations, from the start of the farm in 1916 to its heart wrenching dismantlement under an auctioneer’s gavel in 1991. “A Family Farm” isn’t just the journey of the Switzer farm, it is our own odyssey as a civilization, and a warning that if we do not tend to the strengths, labors, and devotion that provided our foundations, we too could become an interesting exhibit in a quaint museum.
Readers won’t just learn about the rigors of farm life, but about the people themselves as we follow the author’s mother filled with dreams of a scholarly future, only to see the Great Depression snuff those dreams, and her return to the farm with her husband who performed his chores and taught in a rural schoolhouse as well. The story is an emotional rollercoaster, because that’s what small farm life is.
Buy this book. Treasure the lives that will continue to live because of people like Robert Switzer who refuse to let them be forgotten. By the way, it won’t be available until April 15th, but readers can preorder now either through Amazon.com or your local bookstore. Publisher: Center for American Places at Columbia College, Chicago
Q) You and your brother Steve left farm life to pursue other careers, thereby unknowingly dooming your family’s farm. Is this book a strand of conscience cleansing as well as the documenting of a rich history?
A) Near the end of his life Dad coaxed Steve and me to keep the farm in the family, even though he knew that neither of us were free to operate it. It was a painful moment, but we wouldn’t lie to him—we intended to sell the farm after he was gone. Economic and practical factors overrule sentiment in the passing of small family farms.
On a more personal level, I think the decision hurt Steve more than it did me. I confess that I was happy to leave the farm, and I was fortunate to be able to pursue a career in scientific research and education that I loved. Brashly, I never looked back until I was much older.
Q) I have to ask. Just what did you do – in lay terms, please?
A) It gets buried in technical jargon pretty quickly doesn’t it? I studied the ways in which cells regulate the activity of their genes and enzymes in response to nutritional and environmental signals. They are amazingly good at this, and through evolution they have developed a large array of remarkably clever mechanisms for doing it. My students and I uncovered quite a few new ones. We worked with harmless laboratory strains of bacteria, but the strains we used were close cousins of bacteria that are important in disease and commercial processes, so our results applied to all of them.
Q) What do you believe first inspired your grandparents to choose farming in NW Illinois, especially considering they primarily utilized outdated methodology for their time?
A) They were like many rural people of the time: they stayed where they grew up and they did what they knew. Neither Grandpa nor Grandma had an education beyond the eighth grade, and they had grown up on farms. They were slow to adopt new methods and equipment because they were always cash-poor. Grandpa had an additional handicap: he suffered from narcolepsy, so he was afraid of falling asleep while operating motorized machinery.
Q) As your parents’ early dreams had involved scholarly pursuits, how instrumental were they to your decision to bring your academic dreams to fruition?
A) Their influence, especially the influence of my mother, can hardly be overstated. She had been an excellent student, completed a college degree with honors in 1931, and had an opportunity to pursue graduate studies in biology at Cornell, but was frustrated by the Great Depression. In some sense, I was acting out her dream in becoming a university professor. I think Dad’s feelings were more ambivalent; he was proud of what I accomplished, but hurt a bit by my rejection of the farm life he had chosen. In his own way Dad was something of an intellectual, though. He enjoyed discussing history, politics and literature. I recall him reciting fragments of French poetry while we were milking cows.
Q) You wisely elected to include photographs and artwork in your book. How supportive has your and your brother’s families been to this project?
A) My family was more than supportive—this was a family project. Our son Brian, who is a professor of design in Germany, did the graphic design for the book and contributed the woodblock prints of his grandfather’s farm. My wife Bonnie, an artist, added four of her watercolor paintings insipired by the farm. The older photographs were in my parents’ collection, which passed to us after they died. The photos from the ‘70s onward were taken by several family members, including my brother Steve. All read early drafts of the text, and both Brian and our daughter Stephanie wrote beautiful descriptions of their memories of their grandparents’ farm.
I doubt that my grandparents or parents, who are no longer living, would be been happy with some of my unsparing description of their lives, but I was determined to present a truthful and unsentimental story. My love and respect for them is obvious.
Q) Any parting thoughts to share with potential readers?
A) This book is intended for the general reader who would like an intimate picture of life on a small family farm throughout the twentieth century and an understanding of how so many such farms ceased to exist as separate farms. Millions of these family stories—often sad ones—could be told, but they are rapidly being lost. This is just one of them.
Although it is intended for the general reader, the book integrates a gentle scholarly shell that documents general trends in US agriculture and rural life throughout the period with end notes and references tucked in the back for those who want to dig deeper into the great decline in family farming. There is also an appendix that details the story of the farm from 1857 to 1911 written by Frank E. Barmore, the great grandson of N. J. Barmore, the patriarch who built the 1860s buildings that still stand and acquired adjacent land for his many children. The appendix includes beautiful architectural drawings of the old house and barn. So, A Family Farm is also a resource for specialists, but not obtrusively so.
DA Kentner is an author and journalist. http://www.kevad.net/