Changing Works

"This good book opens a door on a proud and private and admirable people, the dairy farmers, and a gentle way of life now disappearing. There are new things to learn on every page and what a privilege to hear it told in their own voices. My Uncle Jim used to put his forehead against the flank of one cow after another and milk them into a pail, morning and night, and he would have admired this book too."—Garrison Keillor

"For a quarter century, Douglas Harper has been a crucial, distinctive voice in American ethnography. Now he gives us Changing Works, a painstaking study of historical change in a dairy farming community. It is a methodological breakthrough and a deep, wise portrait of rural America."—Mitchell Duneier, author of Sidewalk

"You would never guess the terrible war going on against small and medium dairy farmers. This is why the extraordinary and appreciative portrait of farming life in Changing Works is not only a brilliant achievement, but an important statement. It's the vision of a lost agriculture that we don't actually have to lose."—Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of The Time Bind



An interview with
Douglas Harper
author of Changing Works: Visions of a Lost Agriculture

Question: You begin in your book by harkening back to the benefits of an older system of dairy farming—called "changing works." What were they?

Answer: From my perspective, the primary benefits of the older system of agriculture were several built-in balances. Farms remained at a size where a family could manage most of the work but they needed their neighbors to complete some of the most important tasks. This is what they called "changing works." The cooperative work integrated the rural communities and got the work done efficiently. The size of the farms led to taking care of farm animals in a more individualized manner, which means, I believe, a much more humane system. The ecological balance of the earlier system was one of its most important aspects. The cows produced approximately the amount of manure that was needed to fertilize the fields needed to feed them. There was some need for non-organic fertilizer, but not a great deal.

I was impressed when I studied farmers in France and Switzerland that they put a great deal of effort into farming in a way that preserved rural environments (both social and material) and in a manner that produced nutritious, varied and very tasty food. French farmers spoke specifically of being constantly aware of the need to counteract individualism that would lead farmers to make decisions that might advance their interests over those of the group. That kind of thinking is rare among the farmers I studied in the U.S.

Q: The average size of a dairy farm in 1850 was 112 acres. A hundred years later, it was essentially the same. But after the Second World War, the size of farms grew dramatically. Why this enormous leap in size?

Paul Blake, a hired man on the S. B. Moore farm, at Skowhegan, Maine, cuts a field of clover, August 1944. (Photograph by Gordon Parks. Courtesy Standard Oil of New Jersey Collection, Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville.)
A: For many reasons WWII brought a revolution in farming. Most of the machines, bigger tractors, combines, and so forth, had been available before the war but the Depression had kept farmers from adopting them. But I think that for many people the older ways of farming had lost some of their lure by the end of WWII. The society was in a frame of mind where "bigger was better" and mechanization was understood to be the best solution to most all problems of production. There were some key inventions or developments of earlier machines, such as the mobile corn chopper and the bulk tank storage systems that made it possible to harvest corn without changing works crews, and to milk more cows and store their milk more efficiently (and in a more healthy way). There was eventually the development of freestall barns that allowed a farmer to house several times as many cows in a similar square footage of barn space than had been possible in the older system. So it was a combination of a mentality of growth and mechanization, and the availability of new machines and technologies that made it possible. So when a farmer went out of business it became more customary for a neighbor to buy the farm and add it to their own, rather than for a new farmer to take over what had been for so long a standard-sized operation.

Q: And yet, while farms grew in size, the actual number of farms out there dropped. And in turn, so did the total acreage of land in agricultural production, right?

A: In the region I studied there has been an increase in the size of farms and a drop in the number of farms, AND a drop in the total acreage in farming. Taken as a long view, the drop in the number of acres in production have been dramatic.

Q: So did dairy farms remain as productive and profitable as they expanded?

A: This is a complicated question! So much of the profitability seems to depend on the management skill of the farmer, and the complicated matters that balance into productivity and profitability. They are often not the same thing. A farmer can make a good profit, for example, with a herd that is not as productive as a neighboring farmer, because the costs of increasing the production may well be greater than gain in income from increased production. For example if you cull a dairy cow the first month she misses a pregnancy you will increase your yearly herd average (every month she does not become pregnant there is a loss of perhaps 10% of her yearly milk production) but the cost of replacing her may well not equal what it has cost to keep trying for a successful pregnancy.

Smaller farms with modest technology can be profitable. Larger farms usually amass such debt that their profitability may be reduced to the particular interest rate they are paying. I'm more concerned with what happens to a farm neighborhood when a small number of farms replace many smaller farms: what happens for the animals, the land, and the people living there?

Q: After World War II, the Amish were urged by the Federal government to use tractors to produce more grain for starving peoples of the world. But they refused, arguing that they you can grow more food with horse power. Is this true?

A: Their argument was that horses took very little energy compared to tractors, and that while they were much less powerful than tractors, they had less impact on the land. Horse-drawn implements can harvest corn during the wet seasons that would make tractors almost unusable because they are relatively lighter and able to maneuver in small fields.

Q: The tractor, of course, takes more financial, or what you call "caloric investment," as represented in the amount of resources required to obtain the machine, and then in turn, to produce the energy needed to power it. And yet, most would scoff at a return to the use of horses. Why is that?

120-horsepower tractor pulling disc, 1983. Photograph by Douglas Harper.
A: Let's talk about the scale of production. Mostly people won't return to horses because they simply are not powerful to run the machines that are considered by most people to be the minimum necessary to run a farm. But there are levels and levels of technology, each with different energy needs. If we look at the whole farm, and this is very complicated to do (and there is much argument about how to figure this), most would assume that if you house cows hundreds or thousands of miles from where their feed is grown, you are producing a system that is ultimately irrational because you must grow the feed, store and move it and fertilize it from something other than manure. Most would agree that 200 HP tractors or combines can harvest the grain of the Midwest efficiently. So there are places where huge machines do efficient work. But those same tractors in the small fields of North Country farms from Maine to Minnesota make a lot less sense. The ultimate formula must take into account ALL the resource costs and that calculus is seldom considered.

Q: Of course, increased mechanization did more than displace horses from the process. Cow food not only has to be planted, it has to be harvested. And this used to be done manually. How did industrialization change the way farmers made hay?

A: Hay was first cut with hand scythes, stacked to dry and moved by hand. It was an incredibly inefficient and back breaking system. But it was easy on the land. Mechanical cutters developed in the late 19th century made cutting easier but it still had to be moved. In the era the book describes hay was cut manually but moved and stored by hand—a lot of work in a hot July! In today's world there are machines, notably the circular baler that allow farmers to cut and store hay very efficiently. These machines, which are not, comparatively speaking, very expensive, could be shared by several farmers since they cut and bind hay so quickly. So modern technology could, in this instance, be applied to the principles of "changing works."

Q: Was this change in the way dairy farmers made and stored hay what accounted for the shift from cooperative labor and the use of hired hands?

A: Mostly hay was harvested by the family and their hired hands, so this question is not really relevant. It was the small grains (oats/wheat and corn) that relied on changing works crews.

Q: Of course, with World War II drawing more than five million men from agriculture, there was a real need for a more mechanized way of growing and harvesting crops, wasn't there?

A: Farmers were able to win draft deferments, as I recall. I think that our agricultural production during the war was not threatened by the draft. Of course many of the hired men were drafted; the "surplus" workers that were so important to agriculture. So, yes, it was necessary to replace them. But I think that this is not the core reason that mechanization took place.

Q: And in the wake of that war, there wasn't a greater symbol, really, of American strength—of the American dream, really—than growth through industrialization, modernization, and new advances in technology.

A: Yes, here I think you've got it. The old ways were seen as obsolete. America won the war through our fighting spirit, but also, and probably more importantly, through our amazing productive capacity. A new generation of farmers—encouraged by schools of agriculture at major universities—came to accept that the traditional ways were obstacles to overcome rather than carriers of knowledge and wisdom.

Q: You make a point of arguing that the end of cooperative dairy farming or changing works can be attributed to the increase of corn production. Why did farmers make the switch to corn from oats and hay?

A: Corn is the perfect crop for an industrial agriculture. You essentially kill the ground with pesticides and herbicides; you plant corn with a lot of fertilizer and get a huge amount of feed produced per acre. As long as the costs of chemicals is low the system seems to make sense. You must accept the logic of chemical inputs as a factor of production.

Q: It would seem the use of herbicides would lessen the need for manual or cooperative labor too, wouldn't it?

A: Actually, farmers in the old system had time available during May and June to cultivate, which was the word used for mechanical weed control. They would ride on small tractors or horse drawn implements through the fields churning up the ground to wreck the weeds until the corn got a foothold. If you were planting 10-20 acres of corn you could fit this into your June work schedule. It was done with cooperative labor. But when you grew 100 acres of corn, you could no longer mechanically cultivate; herbicide became a necessity.

Q: One thing we haven't discussed is how the mechanization and automation of dairy farming changed the daily lives of the farmers. Not their work lives per se, but the way they related to each other, and the structure of their communities. If farmers no longer were sharing labor, they probably weren't sharing each others company as much either, be it out in the fields, or at meals afterwards.

A: You are correct. We accept this as inevitable. One of the things I learned in my limited but important research in France and Switzerland is that the quality of life of farmers there was powerfully affected, still, by a collective experience. Most modern farmers I met in the States hardly knew their neighbors at all and never worked with them. What was poignant in my research was recording the memories of farmers who so deeply missed the connection to farmers their earlier life had represented.

Q: After the Second World War, canned milk systems were replaced with bulk tanks, or refrigerated stainless steel containers that ranged from 500 to several thousand gallons. In turn, milk companies began to come to the farms for product, instead of the farmers having to go out and purvey the milk themselves. What were the ramifications of this change in the industry?

A: This was a huge change, and one that most people applauded. For one thing the milk was stored in a more hygienic manner. It was, by everybody's reckoning, a more efficient system. But like all technological change, it had its costs. There were small farms across small bridges that the milk trucks could not reach. They went out of business. A farmer suddenly had to purchase these expensive technologies to stay in business. There were incentives to do so, but not all were able to.

Stanchion barn, 1993. Notice that the cows are smiling. Photograph by Douglas Harper.
Q: There's a key player in dairy farming that we haven't even considered yet. Namely, the cow! How did the remarkable increase in the number of cows on each farm effect the relationship between farmers and their cows?

A: In my view this is a huge issue. In what I call the craft mode farmers know individual animals. They breed them with detailed knowledge of the how offspring had turned out previously. The take care of them for as many as ten years. They have a daily experience of milking them, one by one, watching their behavior for signs of health problems and the like. They enjoy this work (I watched it with some envy on several visits to farms still operating on the craft logic). Milking cows in this system involves a lot of connection to the animals and the pace is biologically set: you can't milk a cow quickly!

All this was destroyed with the freestall barns and the mass production milking systems that accompanied it. The cows mill around, crowded, in a soupy mixture of their manure and dirt in a freestall barn. Farmers seldom see or deal with individual animals. Workers—who are just like workers in any factory—milk the cows on a production-line schedule. There is not a lot of concern about their long term health because they are only kept one or two years and then culled, to be replaced by their supposedly more productive offspring. They make manure that goes to pits where it retains its liquid state. The pits sometimes overflow or a hole develops because of an inquisitive woodchuck or bad design, and suddenly the landscape is flooded with thousands of gallons of foul effluent. Runoff from these lagoons threatens creeks, rivers and the ground water from which all take their drinking water.

The issues of raising cows in what is essentially a factory are similar to issues concerning raising chickens, pigs or any other animals in these settings. There is growing public consciousness about the moral, ecological and social implications of raising animals in these ways. I want to add cows to the list. The industrialized dairy farmers are treating animals, the land and rural communities in ways that, in my view, are simply wrong.

Q: With the staggering increase in cows, comes the increased production of manure too. And yet with increased reliance on chemical fertilizer, there probably isn't as great a use for this manure. How is it all disposed of now? And is it disposed of safely?

A farm which fits the profile of the factory farm, 1988. The farmer milks more than two hundred cows, which are housed in the free-stall barn (the metal Quonset hut adjacent to the three large silos). The original barn, to the right of the free-stall barn, has been replaced with a shed that may, at this point, house dry cows or calves. The original silo, which held sufficient corn to feed a herd in the SONJ era, can be seen to the lower right of the shed. Its size compared to the new silos is evident. Across the street is the farmhouse and a trailer for the hired man to the right. The defining feature of the farm is the huge manure pit. Since the pits are only slightly more than head high, they are almost invisible from ground level and only show their presence through runoff pollution, smell, and spilled manure on roadways. Photograph by Douglas Harper.
A: This is a big issue. Let's keep in mind a system where cows make about the amount of manure that can fertilize the fields that grow their feed. The manure may not replenish all the nutrients perfectly but the general system works well. In addition, the manure from farms where cows are fed and milked in place (stanchion barns) include the leftover hay and bedding, which provides solid organic matter that reproduces topsoil quickly. It is really beautiful stuff, this manure from a stanchion barn. By contrast the liquid manure from a factory farm may be spread on a field, but its liquid form leads to run-off which does the fields no good and pollutes streams and water tables. The worst form of this imbalance may be the southern states, where huge dairy operations (up to 2000 cows) are housed far away from where their food is grown. To move all that manure to the source of food production is itself a big caloric investment and a huge job.

Of course there are many good things one can do with manure: make electricity; make compost for consumers and the like. But many of these also involve energy intensive processes!

As for safety, there are finally state regulations that are beginning to oversee manure storage and distribution. I think it is a huge issue. Liquid manure stinks terribly and makes living in a neighborhood of farmers an unpleasant experience. Farmers themselves are often ashamed of their pollution of the rural landscape. The industrialization of agriculture must take place in an environment that addresses these issues!

Q: We chafe at the idea of government regulation, and live with the rough world that relative lack of regulation creates. And yet in other countries—France and Switzerland, as you mention—smaller and more prosperous farms continue to flourish under more rigid codes and guidelines. Are some of these regulations worth implementing here in the States? And is it realistic to even consider putting them into effect? Or have we evolved too far from the era of cooperative farming?

A: Huge questions. The small farm system in Europe that makes such wonderful food and such enticing rural landscapes may be threatened by the European Community expectations and policies.

But let's assume, for the moment, that they still offer an ideal. What keeps us from recognizing the logic and appeal of that system? First, I think, is the overriding focus on profit and growth as a measure of all things good. Farmers I met were almost ashamed to be proud of a farm that made a modest income (well, sufficient for a family) but that continued to do things in a traditional way. In a world where until a year ago dotcommers were making millions by creating fantasy companies, it took some doing to convince people that there is a good life in the hard work of dairy. What I am getting at is that the American way of life is less and less consistent with what it means to be a farmer. There may be fewer people willing to extend the effort and to take on the problems needed to be solved to make a farm work. But I noticed in the neighborhood I studied in New York that a Vietnamese family had taken over a failing farm and made it a terrific success. Why? They were willing to work very hard for a few years for a modest income. They kept things simple. One farmer was telling his neighbor, who had rather racist things to say about his new neighbors: "You should stop by, you could eat off the floor of their barns!" I am certain that many immigrants would thrill to the possibility of taking on the challenges of these moderate farms, and maybe it is time to encourage this alternative. Mainstream America seems less willing to do so! Several times I encountered farmers whose sons were taking jobs in one of the newly opened prison facilities of the North Country. The fathers were disheartened with their son's inability to recognize the intrinsic rewards of farming that continued to mean so much to them. They felt that if they got too old to farm their sons would have lost their knowledge and willingness to take on the challenges and pleasures of farming independently.

As for the matter of regulation and government involvement, the government now guarantees the price of milk paid to the farmer, but does not control the number of cows a farmer may raise. Thus it is natural that a farmer would try to add cows to increase income. Unfortunately the costs of these increases are sometimes hidden.


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Douglas Harper
Changing Works: Visions of a Lost Agriculture
©2001, 314 pages, 136 halftones, 7 tables, 8 x 10
Cloth $35.00 ISBN: 0-226-31722-6

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Changing Works: Visions of a Lost Agriculture.

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