What’s the future for the thousands of real-life Maggie Steeles living on family farms? The answer has dramatic implications for the future of rural America.
The future of family farms is the topic of a recent article posted at NPR.org written by Jessica Stoller-Conrad, titled, “Future Farms Of America Might Not Include Much Family.”
The article quotes a professor of agricultural economics who says the tradition of passing farms from one generation to the next, for the sake of tradition, has run its course. He disputes the belief that farm parents owe it to their children to reserve a place for them in the farm business. Because, he says, “The other side of that coin is that then your children owe it to you to stay home, even if they don’t want to.”
“Should I follow my own dreams or stay home and save the farm?” was the most-asked question author Grant Overstake heard from rural teens during his years as a newspaper reporter embedded deep in Kansas wheat country. That question becomes the dramatic question in the author’s teen novel, Maggie Vaults Over the Moon, in which a gritty farm girl, Maggie Steele, is confronted with the life-changing choice faced by thousands of farm teens and their families.
In the article, a representative from Farm Aid argues in favor of generational family farms, saying, “That [the] process of farmers passing down their life’s work and traditions to the next generation is… important to the fabric of our food production system and culture. There’s something beyond experience and skills at work when a family farmer can involve the next generation.”
While the two experts debate the question of who should take over food production in America, the reporter points out the enormity of the stakes: “Family farms are an iconic American institution,” comprising nearly 96 percent of farms in America.
Caught in the middle of this shift are farm kids, like Maggie.
And, like Maggie, many of them feel conflicted about their futures.
As editor of the Hillsboro Star-Journal, Overstake chronicled life on these changing family farms. His articles earned the Kansas Farm Bureau’s Golden Wheat Award for excellence in agriculture writing two years in a row. As a result of his experiences in rural America, the author’s new novel has been praised by readers who see themselves and their vanishing lifestyles accurately portrayed on its pages.
“From the road, many of the farms I visited during my years as a reporter looked like Norman Rockwell paintings,” Overstake said. “But many of those same houses were often filled with stress — from the uncertainty of the weather, and the banks, and the markets, and the rest of it.
“One farmer kept a bottle of Tums on the dashboard of his pickup. He had teenage children who were capable of keeping the farm going, but he didn’t want to pass all those worries along to them. Many farm parents I met were, like him, conflicted about the issue.”
As the only surviving child on the Steele family farm, Maggie is forced to become more involved in the harvest operation. But the toil and danger soon take their toll on hardworking Maggie, forcing her to think hard about her future as she begins her senior year of high school.
The dilemma Maggie and her parents face in the story is the same dilemma that real farm families are trying to resolve.
“There are many high school seniors, like Maggie, who have big decisions to make,” Overstake says. “Some are eager to take over the farm and have prepared themselves through programs like FFA. Many of them will study agribusiness in college and then come back to take over the farming operation. But there are more and more farm kids who want no part of it. As soon as they graduate from their own Grain Valley High School, they’ll motor off to the city; leaving farm life in a dust cloud behind them.”
At the story’s climax, Maggie Steele and her family find themselves at the same crossroads.
Maggie Vaults Over the Moon is available in paperback and e-book at Amazon.com.