A few summers back, as my wife and I were traveling by car from our farm in western Iowa to Santa Fe, N.M., we stayed overnight in La Junta, Colo.
Early the next morning, I arose while Marilyn was still snoozing and found my way to the nearest local restaurant where I noticed farmers had gathered around a table for coffee.
When I asked if I could join the group, a man in jeans and wearing a bent cowboy hat said, “Pull up a chair.”
After introducing myself and mentioning I was an Iowa farmer, I asked the standard opening question, “Have you had any rain lately?”
A husky graying fellow in overalls answered, ”When it rained 40 days and 40 nights everywhere else, we got a quarter inch.”
Another silver-haired man wearing a seed company cap summed up his philosophy: “I wait for everybody else to go broke and then I buy up what they can’t afford.”
“Yeah, I don’t mind if I’m the only one left,” a fourth fellow opined.
These comments in our first minute of conversation illustrate behavioral factors Drs. Marilyn Shrapnel and Jim Davie of the University of Queensland in Australia documented as characteristic of successful farmers: Capacities for hard work and perseverance, confidence in making their own decisions, ability to tolerate adversity, and comfort with solitude and self reliance.
I would add two observations of my own about these men that depict successful farmers: Underneath their humor there was considerable openness to talking frankly with others who share their culture, and substantial wisdom and intelligence.
Research conducted by Dr. Joyce Willock and her colleagues at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland yielded similar findings. Successful farmers were conscientious, self-reliant and willing to take risks.
What drives these farmers and other farmers and ranchers to pursue this way of life?
In a 2010 article (The Agrarian Imperative. “Journal of Agromedicine,” 15, 71-75), I proposed agricultural people are motivated by a basic human instinct I called the agrarian imperative.
Like most animal species, humans have a basic drive to acquire sufficient territory with adequate resources to produce the food and shelter required by their families and communities.
This genetically programmed instinct inclines farmers to hang onto their land at all costs. The agrarian imperative instills farmers to work incredibly hard, to endure unusual pain and hardship and to take uncommon risks.
The drive for people to acquire territory is demonstrated in the way we mark our land, homes and workspaces. We build fences around our property, post signs that declare ownership and signify that we reside in this domain.
Even in our work cubicles we display favorite photos and decorations that send the message: “This space is mine.”
There aren’t a lot of farmers in the United States and Canada, but about a fifth of the world’s population is farmers. About 4.5 million people in the United States and another 680,000 Canadians are actively involved in farming.
Another 3.5 million or so farm workers help produce food, fiber and biofuels in the United States and Canada.
I include Canadian farmers, because our two countries are integrally entwined. Several Canadian papers publish this column.
The remnant population of people involved in agriculture in our two countries represents intense selection of the fittest over multiple generations during the past 1-1/2 centuries.
These people exemplify the characteristics mentioned earlier as keys to survival as farmers.
It is interesting to observe how domestic animals revert back to the wild.
Pigs that become feral develop elongated tusks, long hair and wary behaviors when they escape or are deliberately released from their pens. They carry these survival capacities in their genes.
In a similar fashion, we humans enjoy tilling many acres of land or just puttering in our gardens. Something about these activities makes us feel useful and gratified.
Emerging research is beginning to uncover information about where in the human genome various behavior predispositions or tendencies are located.
It will be interesting when we learn where the drive to work extra hard to hang onto agricultural land is located in the human genome!
This exciting scientific work has a lot of potential to add to the knowledge of why people farm.
Additional information on this topic is available in Dr. Rosmann’s book, “Excellent Joy: Fishing, Farming, Hunting and Psychology,” which recently received the silver award from Foreword Reviews as the 2011 book of the year in the nature category. Especially see the last chapter.