Children of the Land, by Glen H. Elder, Jr., and Rand D. Conger, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. ISBN: 0226202666.

This book asks whether traditional observations about farm families strong intergenerational ties, productive roles for youth in work and social leadership, dedicated parents, and a network of positive engagement in church, school, and community life apply to 300 Iowa children who have grown up with some ties to the land, in contrast to 150 children from nonfarm households. Born in the late 70s, these children grew up during the agricultural crisis of the 80s amid farm bankruptcies. The authors followed these young people from the 7th grade through high school graduation, and found that youth with ties to the land were remarkably successful, both academically and socially. And their accomplishments continued into the post-high school years, as they pursued further education, entered the labor force, and started families of their own.

The book is based on data from the Iowa Youth and Families Project.

American families and young people continue to leave agriculture as they have over past decades. A century ago, most Americans had ties to the land through their own lives and those of immediate kin. Now only one in fifty is engaged in farming and little more than a fourth live in rural communities. Exodus from the land is not new, as the famous photographer Dorothea Lange once observed, but it represents one of the great social movements of our age. It is also symptomatic of an unparalleled transformation of society and of who we are.

The loss of farming families represents an economic cost to local communities. But perhaps more importantly, their departure threatens the social fabric that makes communities a desirable place in which to live. In the American Midwest, these families commonly assemble to achieve shared goals, whether a stronger school system or improved roads. They provide leadership and resources. Farm parents and children do more activities together, both in the family and in the community, than do members of urban generations. Farm children may also be counted on to a greater extent than other young people; they are more involved in activities that families value and rely upon. Out of such environments come the disciplines for a successful life.

In Children of the Land, we ask whether these observations apply to over 300 Iowa children who have grown up in families that have some tie to the land such as full-time or part-time farming to some experience in farming, and farm-reared. Over 120 children had no farm experience and thus form a comparison group. We examined whether "family ties to the land" increased the developmental competencies of the young (in academic success, peer relations, self-confidence, the avoidance of trouble) through related experiences, such as shared activities and mutual support between parents and children, strong family ties to kin and community institutions, the productive roles of children, and their social involvement in both school and community.

In the rich farming country of north central Iowa, we followed these children's lives from the seventh grade to the post-high school decisions of education, work, and family. The seventh graders were indeed "Children of Hard Times," a generation of the agricultural crisis of the 1980s. They were born at the end of rural prosperity, in the 1970s, and grew up amidst farm bankruptcies, the closing down of industries and commercial establishments in their communities. A large number were under heavy economic stress as they left grade school. Despite such adversities, a good many children seemed to fare well by the time they entered high school, especially children with farm origins.

In high school, these young people tended to be successful in academics and in social relationships. Apart from other considerations, their success continued into the post-high school years. They were most likely to be enrolled in four-year colleges. This success has much to do with the distinctive life style of Iowa families that have connections to the land. They tended to establish resourceful pathways to adulthood through strong intergenerational ties to parents and grandparents, productive roles for youth in work and social leadership, parental and youth engagement in community life, and the developmental social activities of young people in school and church. For most members of this generation, life opportunities will take them to cities, both near and far. Few will enter farming, and yet the agrarian culture of families has prepared most young people for the challenges of their future, wherever they may be.


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