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A Family Farm: Life on an Illinois Dairy Farm Hardcover – 7 Mar 2014

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press (7 Mar. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1935195344
  • ISBN-13: 978-1935195344
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.3 x 22.9 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,991,908 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

Robert L. Switzer is professor emeritus of biochemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 14 reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
News release and video about the book is available 5 Jun. 2012
By D. Yates - Published on
Format: Hardcover
There is no sentimentality in Robert Switzer's modestly titled new book, "A Family Farm: Life on an Illinois Dairy Farm." Switzer, an emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University of Illinois, begins with a quote (from Victor Davis Hanson's own book on farming) that "the American yeoman farmer is doomed," and describes the internal and external forces that led to the decline and demise of his family's farm in northwest Illinois.

The story of the Allison-Switzer farm (named for Switzer's maternal grandparents, who bought the 121-acre property in 1916, and his father and mother, who took it over after her parents retired in 1946) is just one of millions of such stories, Switzer writes.

"In 1900, 42 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms; by 1990 that number had dwindled to less than 2 percent," he says in the book's prologue. This transition occurred largely as a result of economic and technological changes made possible by the aggressively optimistic borrowing, investing and expansion that some farmers were willing to embrace in the latter half of the 20th century. Many other farmers, who had stared down economic catastrophe in the 1920s and '30s, were unwilling to take on new big risks, and their farms generally gave way to the forces favoring consolidation and the mass-production of agricultural commodities.

Switzer's book is not a treatise on the evolution of American farming, however.

"The characters in this story are not statistical stick figures illustrating the decline of a Midwestern family farm," he writes. "They are my family. The details of their lives provide an intimate portrait of a once common way of life, now almost entirely vanished from the American countryside."

This portrait includes details normally left out of family memoirs: his maternal grandmother's hostility to her daughter's intellectual and educational aspirations; his grandfather's recurrent narcolepsy, a lifelong handicap brought on by severe heatstroke suffered while working in the fields as a teenager; Switzer's mother's depression and unhappiness with farm life; and his father's inability to recruit his sons to the profession.

The book also offers an account of the changes that occurred over the 76 years the family owned the farm, from the early days of kerosene lamps, hand milking and horse-drawn plows, to the gradual - though never fully realized - modernization of equipment and farming techniques.

Switzer begins with the gritty details of his grandparents' daily life. Charlie and Mabel Allison milked their cows twice daily in a drafty barn. They lived in an oversized and poorly insulated farmhouse with no modern conveniences. They grew corn, hay, oats and barley to feed their livestock and themselves. Charlie carted fresh milk to a nearby cheese factory every morning. Mabel kept a vegetable garden and orchard, and canned produce for the winter. The couple raised chickens and sold their eggs.

By the time a young Robert Switzer was old enough to know them, Charlie and Mabel "seemed rather old and exhausted to me, worn out by years of hard work and living under harsh conditions."

In 1946, the Allisons retired and Switzer's parents (Stephen and Elva Switzer) took over the farm, much to his mother's dismay. Before she married, she had had a promising start on a career in science, going to college with the help of a wealthy aunt. She had been offered a partial scholarship for graduate study at Cornell University. But her parents opposed the idea and Elva would not ask her aunt for more support.

Stephen Switzer, a World War II veteran with few prospects other than farming, benefited from an "On-Farm Training" program, part of the GI Bill. Like many other farmers of his day, he learned to test the soil; to use commercial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and hybrid seed; to plow in contours across slopes to reduce erosion; to use artificial insemination to breed better milk cows; and to test the butterfat content of the milk his cows produced. He also began to buy more modern farm equipment.

These programs increased farm efficiency across the U.S., and production soon outpaced demand. As a result, average prices for agricultural products plummeted in the early 1950s. Still, the Switzer farm, fueled in part by the labor of two young boys, held on.

The elder Switzer drafted his sons into work without evoking a positive vision of their future on the farm, however, and the small farm offered little opportunity for them when they grew up. It was "little wonder that both of us left home as soon as we finished high school," Switzer writes.

Inspired by his mother's love of science and school, Switzer gravitated toward a life as a professor. School offered an escape from farm work, and the study of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Illinois thrilled and fascinated him. His brother Steve moved on to a successful career at a builder's supply company.

This was the beginning of the end of the Switzer family farm. The younger Switzers' dislike of farm life, and Stephen and Elva Switzer's unwillingness to go into more debt to hire help, expand or improve the operation in significant ways spelled its eventual end as a stand-alone farm.

Elva Switzer died in 1977, and Stephen lived on in his "senescing farm" for another 14 years. After his death, the family farm shared the fate of millions of others in the late 20th century. The contents of its house, barn and other outbuildings were sold at auction, and the land went to a neighboring farmer who wanted to expand his holdings.

To see a short video about the book, go to YouTube and search for "Switzer family farm"
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Midwest farming 30 July 2012
By BarbR - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I loved this book from the beginning to the poignant ending. What a great summer read--that's not fiction. It's hard to believe that Robert Switzer, a biochemist at the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana, has previously only written scientific articles and books. In A Family Farm he has written a personal, yet informational book about farming in Illinois from 1910-1991. He does this by telling the story of his family side-by-side with the history and sociology of farming in Illinois and in the United States. His grandparents bought the farm in 1910 using horse power to do all their work. When his parents take over in the late 40's, their farming techniques are still in the nineteenth century, children attend one-room school houses, and electricity is a new to the area. This charming book is also graced with watercolors by his wife and etchings and photographs by his son. I look forward to a novel and stories by this gifted author.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Revisiting the Past 15 May 2012
By Mary E. Baim - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found A Family Farm, Life on an Illinois Dairy Farm to be sensitive, well written and informative. I think the author, while giving us the framework of small farming in the midwest, also gave us a rich portrait of ancestors, parents and children. The inclusion of artwork by both his wife and son as well as the voices of his children made it personal and real in a very thoughtful way. This book is much more than a story of life on a dairy farm in Illinois. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is thinking about their personal family history and how it impacts their current family relationships.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Insightful and detailed. A thoroughly rewarding read. 7 Jan. 2013
By JOCo - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
People come and go, economies boom and crash, lives begin and end, but always the land remains. And so it is with the Illinois family dairy farm that Switzer chronicles in this thoughtful account of where he was raised.

As one might expect from a renowned scientist (Switzer recently retired from an illustrious career as Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Illinois), the material is well researched and clearly written with helpful supporting data included to give the personal narrative a broader context. The hardships endured by the pre- and post-war generations, their resolute work ethic and steely aversion to debt as they applied themselves with their limited technology to working the land and raising a family, are in stark contrast to the way we live our lives today. These along with his own hardships, the troubles of growing through adolescence into adulthood on the farm, and their impact on family relationships are respectfully told through the eyes of one who has lived an examined life and carefully observed the lives of others. Also included is an account of the underlying emotional distance that Switzer sees between his parents despite their outward appearance of spousal devotion so much expected in the time and place. His love and care for them as they each pass from this life are unmistakable.

Even though he decided to move away and live a more urban and scholarly life, Switzer keeps himself and his growing family connected to the farm and his parents. As adults, his children return on several occasions to visit their aging grandparents and develop their own relationships with them and the land, detailing this with richness and sensitivity in their own words in portions of the book.

Near the end of the narrative, Switzer gives a moving account of finding himself sobbing uncontrollably in an empty upstairs room of the farmhouse on the day it was sold. He experiences a profound sense of loss, one that cannot be undone but only observed and coped with like the many other currents of life that sweep us along without our knowing until one day we look back.

I thoroughly enjoyed this suburb generation-spanning story.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
A Family Farm 2 July 2012
By Earl Creutzburg - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I lived in a large city most of my life and never knew anyone who lived in a rural area until I was an adult. Nevertheless, I found A Family Farm a compelling account of 20th century farm life which held my attention throughout. This was a very personal and warm account of 4 generations of the Allison and Switzer families on a northern Illinois dairy farm. Nicely researched, the book does a fine job of weaving together the agricultural and economic events of this country with the day to day reality of managing a small family farm. Richly illustrated with paintings by Bonnie Switzer, the author's wife, and with art work and graphic design by his son, Brian Switzer, the book is a beautiful memoir, tastefully written. It does not romanticize farm life but rather tells it like it was - relentless chores, day after day, year after year. This farm was yet another example of an endangered species with did not survive. Even if you have no connection with farm life, readers will enjoy reading A Family Farm's rich and personal story of a small piece of rural America that has come and gone.
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