Paul Nielsen

Narratives of Rural Church & Farm: The Evolving Metaphor of "Family Farm"

Paul Nielsen received a Ph.D. in Ethics and Society from the University of Chicago. As a South Dakota farmer and Lutheran minister, he became involved in the study of Midwestern farm life in light of the historical term "family farm." Nielsen presented two lectures on campus about his research, "Narratives of Rural Church and Farm: 'Family Farm' as an Evolving Metaphor." He continues his work through a project of leadership development and evaluation with the rural Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

Public Presentation Tuesday, September 12, 2000 1:30 Charter Hall 225

Abstract of Final Lecture: Narratives of Rural Church and Farm: "Family Farm" as an Evolving Metaphor

As Technological development in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries caused a decrease in the rural population and a change in farming practices and management, people began to sense a move away from the traditional small family-run farms. The term "family farm," that emerged into common vernacular in the 1940's, became a popular as the prevailing view of rural life evolved from that of a backwards eddy to a protector of the good old tradition. However, in the process family farm became a metaphor that carries much baggage, and is often used for ideological purposes. In this talk I looked at the continuing evocative power of the concept.

The broad thesis of my presentation, and of my entire work at the CRRS, was that the nature of Midwestern farming life has been both illuminated and hidden be the careless employment of the commonly used metaphor of the "family farm." My intent was to probe into the idea of the "family farm," explore its historical roots, its evolution, and its current evocative but nebulous status as a metaphor. My method was, first, to examine both contemporary and historical literature for references to the "family farm." Second, I interviewed local ELCA Lutheran pastors and farmers. I interviewed farmers in order to uncover the views of those who considered themselves "family farmers." I interviewed pastors in order to gain their perspectives of the "family farm," since I viewed church involvement as an integral part of the traditional idea of the "family farm." My own Evangelical Lutheran Church of America background, led me to interview pastors and farmers from that denomination exclusively. This fortuitous choice provided me access to willing and articulate farmers. My study was enriched and biased by my own personal rural experiences. Hence, this study is supported by the three legs of: (1) historical research, (2) contemporary interviews, and (3) my own personal experience. I did indeed find that the term is often used in a nebulous manner by a variety of speakers in diverse fields. However, I also found that farmers value the "family farm," of which they consider themselves a part, as a way of life (rather than a "job"). They see it as beneficial to the moral molding of their families, especially the children, and they attach great importance to their privilege of having a close relationship to the land.

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Last updated: March 21, 2006