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Museum exhibit brings back memories of 1980s farm issues

The upstairs floor at the Lyon County Museum offers a great chance to appreciate the 20th century in the local area.

It depicts sports teams, movies, supper clubs, manufacturing plants, a typical mid-century home and much more. It speaks to me in many ways, reminding me of what I witnessed as I grew up.

One of the displays that speaks to me the loudest is the 1980s farm crisis exhibit and documentary. Visitors can hear a 16-minute program while looking at a 1980s farm breakfast table with a farm couple and a teenage daughter.

The makers of the display did a great job of capturing the difficulties that faced the farm sector. I think part of that comes from props like the magazines with farm crisis headlines. It also comes through with the expressions on the mannequins.

They seem worried. It appears as though something isn’t quite right in what should be a pleasant breakfast scene, one that shows all that’s great about Midwestern farms.

The 1980s weren’t all that great for most farm families. It’s something that in some ways flew beneath the radar screen. You almost had to have relatives operating a farm to fully appreciate the difficult economic circumstances.

To many of us, the 1980s seemed like a wonderful time to be young. America had gotten past the Vietnam era, Watergate and the widespread protests.

Life at Marshall High School was filled with school activities and times with friends. We had our music, our teen movies and our favorite television shows.

We knew what Groundswell of Minnesota and the National Farmers Organization were concerned about, yet somehow they didn’t seem to be talking about most farmers.

There was a perception that bankruptcies happened to only a few people who got financially over-extended. There was widespread thought that they just couldn’t keep up with change, that they were still trying to farm the way the previous generation did in the 1950s. It was actually much more than that, a combination of market conditions and operating costs that meant adjustments for many families.

Our friends who grew up on farms never complained. They came to school, worked hard, joined activities, and for the most part didn’t say much about issues in agriculture.

The museum’s documentary features local people describing the farm-related 1980s, noting that there was truly an upheavel.

One person, now a successful farmer, talks about how he had a back-up plan to work in the postal system. An older couple talk about how their conservative approach to farming helped in preserving the capital needed to keep a farm intact.

A current farm wife talks about how her dad’s farm went through a strategic transition from dairy farming to beef, a reflection of how small family dairy operations were disappearing from local townships.

We didn’t know it at the time, but in the 1980s we were witnessing the early years of a major shift in agriculture. It was trending away from traditional human capital to a system based on financial capital and capital assets.

The trend continued, and in many ways accelerated, in later decades. The free market has meant fewer farmers. There are still many people involved in agriculture, and it’s still a bedrock for the local economy. There just aren’t as many people farming the land.

The only way to make it different would be to structure tax codes and regulations in ways that would make it almost impossible for farms to grow past a certain point.

Some people would say we should do that because there would be more landowners shopping in local stores and sending kids to local schools. Others would counter that we wouldn’t be truly allowing people to farm, that they’d be even more tied to government than they are currently.

No matter what the future brings, it’s important to appreciate the continued importance of agriculture in our region. We should care about farm issues. We should try to change what needs to be changed, and at the same time appreciate the many examples of personal success.

— Jim Muchlinski is longtime reporter and contributor to the Marshall Independent

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