July 28, 2010 11:15 AM

Another Very Lucky Generation

Civilization has been described as the unending struggle against tribalism. For most of us, tribalism is vaguely linked to Third World politics and socioeconomics. But it has an American aspect as well.

The basis for tribalism is the supremacy of kinship. Early social groups were necessarily organized around family and extended kin. Our famous selfish genes proved to be a winning evolutionary strategy. The concept of an identity based on the nation-state (I’m an American!) is a recent invention.

Lately, reverence for family in the U.S. has been vying for status with national and even religious commitment. Admiration for successful families is woven deep into agriculture as well, partly because the idea resonates so positively with the public. Right now, we are stretching the "family farm" label to cover just about any operation where two people are related, to exploit public approval.

Family persistence, then, has likewise become a significant selling point. In fact, as I was updating my own bio on my Web site, this routine allusion to long-standing family ties struck me anew: I’m a "sixth-generation farmer."

I have always been proud of that appellation. Using it freely, I have seen the effect it has in social and professional settings. But in the cold light of day, this is hardly a personal accomplishment. 

I joke about choosing your parents carefully, but having a successful farmer father is the single best predictor that you will be a successful farmer. Rare and growing rarer are bootstrap stories in our industry. Factors such as land ownership, rental culture, capital-intense production and the replacement of labor combine to frustrate most industrious, competent wannabes.

The nth-generation conceit testifies mostly to luck, I would suggest. As sociologists have pointed out, long-standing operations primarily fail for lack of a successor. Even as family size has shrunk, education has opened options previously discounted by farm children. With the average number of children per family now barely more than one, many farms simply run out of people. Then too, female successors are still atypical. Now factor in the problem of too many possible successors, which could slice the farm too thin or divide the family. The result is a narrow demographic window for a smooth succession that is essentially beyond human control.

The Privileged Class. More troubling is the echo of aristocratic elitism resembling a came-over-on-the-Mayflower attitude. Despite our history of class resentment, it would appear we are not immune to "worth-from-birth" reckoning in agriculture. 

The landed-gentry mentality emerges from benign beginnings in young nations, such as ours. Recall too, the famous admonition from "Godfather," "Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family." Is this evidence of a deeply committed family man? Indeed, in an admittedly unfair hypothetical, how would we rank loyalty to God, family, country, principles, etc.?

Family loyalty cannot be superior to moral or legal codes if we wish our form of civilization to avoid reversion to tribalism. Moreover, deferring to heritage necessarily must be balanced by a commitment to meritocracy if we are to keep alive much of what has propelled American agriculture. Reciting pedigrees may reinforce an exaggerated importance of birthright.

In addition, as more family operations succumb to reproductive bad luck, geographic coincidence (even a 1031 jackpot can end a multigeneration land connection) and the rise of enormous competitors, an imagined generational "failure" adds undeserved remorse to otherwise respectable careers.  

So for my part, I will continue to be grateful for the efforts of those who came before me, but I’m going to drop the "nth generation" pretension. I’m just another very lucky generation. 

John Phipps is a farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of "U.S. Farm Report." Contact him at For local station listings, log on to

Top Producer, Summer 2010

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