Plains Folk

Farm Life


Quickly now, tell me, is leafy spurge a perennial, an annual, a biennial, or a semi-annual? And can you name a breed of cow that produces a high volume of milk low in butterfat content?


I’m reading to you from an examination in agriculture administered to seventh graders in North Dakota in 1958. Every student was to take the exam, with results to be compiled by county superintendents.


And before I go any farther, the answers are, leafy spurge is a perennial, and the breed of cow is the Holstein.


At about the turn of the twentieth century, reformers in what was known as the Country Life Movement led the charge to insert agriculture as a subject of study in the public schools. This was important for the sake of practical knowledge, they said, but also for the sake of the prestige of farming. As you might expect, North Dakota joined in this cause and made agriculture prominent in the school curriculum.


The printed, standard examination I am talking about is one I found in the one-room country school that sits alongside the Dunn County Historical Museum, in Dunn Center. I scored myself on it, and I did pretty good.


The exam comprises a set of multiple-choice questions about plants, both crops and weeds; a set of fill-in-the-blank questions about livestock; and a set of short-answer questions about farm economics. The farm economics questions are based on a reading selection describing a visit to the farm of Mr. Brown, who is quite a good farmer. He runs a diversified operation, implements sound conservation practices, and reads the circulars put out by the agricultural college.


The question I really like in this section is, “Why did Mr. Brown go to the Production Credit Bureau?” I mean, doesn’t that sound like a question that’s going to lead to a good punchline? Why did Mr. Brown go to the PCA? Just try to say that with a straight face!


And then there is the most interesting part of the exam, a set of essay questions on “farm life,” which I will read to you now.


How can we improve a farm so that it would be a more pleasant place to live?


How the city man is dependent on the farmer.


How the farm of today differs from the pioneer farm.


Why I like or do not like to live on a farm.


The question about how the farm today differs from pioneer times invokes the idea of progress. The one about how the city man is dependent on the farmer is resonant with farm fundamentalism. The other two questions go to the heart of what the Country Life Movement was about, that is, how can we keep our kids on the farm? In their own words, what do they like, or not like, about farm life? And how can we make the farm a place they will want to live?


I wonder in what attitude the county superintendents read the student essays on farm life. Were they read in a manner critical of the students, with the assumption they must be instructed in the right attitudes toward farm life? Or were they ever read in a manner critical of farm life itself, with the sense that what the students said might be actionable intelligence, that we might actually do something according to what they said? I would love to get hold of a set of these exams filled out by students in 1958. Surely they lie sleeping in a courthouse annex, somewhere.



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