museum exhibition brings agricultural problems of the 1980s to life | News, Sports, Jobs


The floor of the Departmental Museum of Lyon offers a great opportunity to appreciate the 20th century in the region.

It represents sports teams, movies, dinner clubs, manufacturing plants, a typical mid-century house and much more. It speaks to me in many ways, reminding me of what I witnessed growing up.

One of the exhibits that speaks to me the most is the 1980s Farm Crisis Exhibit and Documentary. Visitors can hear a 16 minute program while watching a 1980s farmhouse breakfast table with a couple of farmers and a teenage daughter.

The display manufacturers did a great job of grasping the challenges facing the agriculture industry. I think part of it comes from props like magazines with headlines about the farm crisis. This also comes through with the expressions on the mannequins.

They seem worried. It looks like something’s wrong with what should be a nice breakfast scene, one that shows off everything great about Midwestern farms.

The 1980s were not very good for most farming families. It’s something that somehow flew under the radar screen. You almost had to have loved ones running a farm to fully appreciate the tough economic times.

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

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

We knew what was on the minds of Groundswell of Minnesota and the National Farmers Organization, but somehow they didn’t seem to be talking about most farmers.

There was a perception that bankruptcies only happened to a few people who were financially overwhelmed. It was generally thought that they just couldn’t keep up with the change, which they still tried to cultivate like the previous generation did in the 1950s. It was actually much more than that, a combination of market conditions and operating costs that involved adjustments for many families.

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

The museum’s documentary features locals describing the 1980s linked to the farm, noting that there really was an upheaval.

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

A current farmer recounts how her father’s farm went through a strategic transition from dairy farming to beef, reflecting the disappearance of small family dairy farms in the local townships.

We didn’t know it at the time, but in the 1980s we were witnessing the first years of a major change in agriculture. It moved away from traditional human capital for a system based on financial capital and fixed assets.

The trend continued and in many ways accelerated over the following decades. The free market means fewer farmers. There are still a lot of people involved in agriculture, and it is still a foundation for the local economy. There just aren’t that many people farming the land.

The only way to make it different would be to structure tax codes and regulations in a way that makes it nearly impossible to grow farms beyond a certain point.

Some people would say we should do it because there would be more landowners shopping at local stores and sending their kids to local schools. Others would argue that we wouldn’t really allow people to cultivate, that they would be even more tied to the government than they are now.

No matter what the future holds, it is important to appreciate the continued importance of agriculture to our region. We should be concerned with agricultural issues. We should try to change what needs to be changed, and at the same time appreciate the many personal success stories.

– Jim Muchlinski is a longtime journalist and contributor to the Marshall Independent

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