My children have the usual component of children's books and toys, and I cannot but notice how central to their world as these things present it is "The Farm." One of the first things my son, Eli, knew for sure was that a cow said, "moo," and Isaiah's first word was "quack." All of which simply suggests the centrality of this imagined farm in the world of small people. It is always the same farm, a kind of diversified small farm that barely exists any longer, one with a house cow, a small flock of sheep, a few pigs in a sty, a barnyard full of chickens and ducks, and a cat with kittens. In stories, in imaginative play, through their toys, even regularly on the otherwise urbanized Sesame Street, my children visited "The Farm" more often than anywhere else, and I do not think that they are in any way alone. Every child I know grows up with these images, and on some level, "The Farm" is the dream of our collective childhood. Whether or not you actually had a farm to visit or live on, at some gut level we know that this is how children are supposed to live, milking cows, collecting eggs, growing food, running through open pastures, playing with animals, being part of a productive life, doing the ordinary work of sustenence. We represent to our children the possibility of this kind of life, take them on field trips to farms to pet the animals and give them the experience of picking fruit because the nurturing of other lives and the production of food is the most basic and essential of human activities, and as far removed as our adult selves can be from this work, we recognize its necessity in childhood.
The farms in my sons' stories have not kept pace with modern agribusiness. None of our library's portrayals of chickens shows debeaked, manure soaked chickens crammed into tiny wire cages that mechanically collect eggs. Nor do they include in their farm word lists, "hog manure lagoon," "Round-up ready soybeans" or "soil erosion." One of my son's books claims to be about tractors, but even it cannot resist adding, "On the way to the field he passes a wooly sheep, a brown cow, a hungry pig and her piglets and a noisy goose." The gigantic tractor with enclosed cab that the book shows probably works on monocropped fields raising a few thousand acres of corn, but there is so little to write about the tractor itself that the book must return to the (almost certainly absent in real life) pleasures of animal noises and barnyard diversity to have something to say. The actual living farms that resembled those portrayed in my son's childhood are in a very real danger of disappearing altogether, and becoming an imaginary places, like Fairyland. It is frightening to realize that Dorothy's Kansas where she walked the boards of the pig's fence and helped her aunt with the farm labor, for all its black-and-while dustbowl sorrow, is now a place as imaginary and lamented as Oz itself.
I am just old enough to remember an older-style farm. My great-aunt and uncle were truck farmers in (then) rural Connecticut, and I remember picking and loading produce in summers, and chasing my cousin Amy in and out of the cool, dark chicken house, collecting eggs, petting hens and wreaking havoc as we dared each other to crawl into the more spidery recesses of the barn. My father took us to pick apples at a family farm in New Hampshire, where we visited pigs kept not for agri-tourism but for meat, and where I chased farm kittens in the hay loft and climbed old standard apple trees to find the nicest unpicked specimens. No pick-your-own orchard I know of now permits children to climb into haylofts or trees, if only for insurance reasons. Both those farms and their owners are gone, as are most diversified small farms in the United States. The ones that remain are far from land that might be seen as desirable, or even reachable by cities and suburbs, so the majority of American children will never see them. If they visit a farm at all, it will be a farm designed for tourism, with a petting zoo and animals who are pets rather than livestock. We have one such farm near us, which showcases 2 baby goats, a single pig, a pair of turkeys (both male) and half a dozen other single animals who are there because they draw families to the farm's stand and apple trees. The animals disappear (without any explicit acknowledgement of their final destination) each autumn, keeping children firmly apart from the realities of farm-animals-as-meat.
I do not deny the virtue of a place that connects children, however tenuously, to the real feel and smell and taste and value of livestock and a farm, but if we truly believe (and I suspect we do) that contact with our rural past and future is necessary for children (and adults!), and that children should live in both the actual and imaginary life of the farm, then we need to make certain that such farms are real and available to them, and that we as a community are fully connected to them. That is, we need to patronize those farms, support them, make them possible, encourage laws that support those farms and discourage industrial agriculture, which has nothing at all to do with farms. And those of us so inclined need to live on farms, or small homesteads that resemble them. Even those in the suburbs can make a little life with a few hens, rabbits and a garden.
Eric and I have taken it upon ourselves to remake the farm, not out of nostalgia, but simply because the farm makes sense. There is a logic to diversification that no industrial agriculture can match - sheep and cows and geese can share the same pasture, each eating a different part of the grass. Chickens root worms and fly eggs out of manure of larger animals. The garden provides waste and extra to supplement the feed of an animal, the animal provides manure for the garden. And the child enjoys the tomato never touched by a chemical, the brush of silky feathers against his cheek when the hen nestles in his arms, the dog to play with, the apple trees to climb, the cornfield to hide it, the kittens to pet, the goat's milk that feeds her young and him, and the lamb to love and nurture. The diversified small farm is the world of childhood. That does not mean it is wholly innocent, or wholly pure, but at times, it is as close to those things as anything we can conceive or create.