On the way through Tennessee this week I couldn’t help stopping by Brush Creek, the original home of the Old Time Farm Shepherds before Richard McDuffie bought the last litter and moved them to South Carolina. I found the crumbling remains of what was obviously a prosperous place at one time, as I made my way across central Tennessee on the back roads I found town after town in the same condition. It’s not just Tennessee though, here in Oklahoma there are many small rural towns that progress has moved on and left behind. Indeed across America the post-war prosperity that we all benefit from has come at a heavy price to rural communities.
The forces that have shuttered the store windows of Brush Creek Tennessee are the same as those that have wiped out the farm shepherd population across the country. As agriculture has become less profitable over the years people have taken jobs in larger towns and cities, by and large the land now sites fallow or hosts cattle or other low input agriculture, empty barns across the landscape attest to this fact. People drive into the larger towns and cities to do their shopping at large stores, the small stores in places like Brush Creek cannot compete with their prices. Places like Brush Creek and the culture and lifestyle they supported were not abandoned wholesale, it was a gradual process as the people and business just slowly evaporated, because the process was slow, nobody realized what was happening until it was too late. The same is true of the farm shepherd, everybody didn’t decide they were all going to get rid of their shepherds, they were just slowly, almost imperceptibly replaced. Then one day somebody looked around and rural America was dead, and the farm shepherds were gone.
When the Roman Empire collapsed there was knowledge lost that would not be rediscovered for centuries, at the time such knowledge was lost it probably seemed inconsequential, yet in retrospect we can see the folly of that thinking. May we not take the same approach to our own past, are we so sure that the tools and technologies of the rural life of our parents and grandparents are not valuable? Maybe some effort should be made to preserve places like Brush Creek, the rural lifestyle that powered life there and the animals that were so important to that lifestyle, animals like the farm shepherd.
How many of our grandparents were involved in agriculture? Probably the majority of Americans have at least one grandparent that was involved in small-scale rural agriculture. In less than a century things have changed drastically, most people today have no family members involved in agriculture. I don’t mean agriculture in the sense of “I run a few head of cattle on my place”, or “I have a dozen chickens out back”, but in the sense of it is your primary source of income. Maybe in another hundred years things will change drastically again and we may wish we had not allowed so much of rural America to decay, die out and become forgotten, but then it may be too late.
Today many of us are playing at the rural lifestyle, we have what are termed “hobby farms” meaning that our real income comes from somewhere besides agriculture. The real agriculture in this country takes place on massive, industrial scale and it’s just as hard for us to compete against that as it was for the country store in Brush Creek to compete against the Wal-Mart in Lebanon Tennessee. This being the nature of things, most of us don’t need our farm shepherds, not in the same sense that our grandfathers needed their farm shepherds. Yet they are worth preserving because they are unique and nobody can say if they might not be really needed again in the future. When a technology is lost it can be rediscovered, but when a breed of animal is lost, it is lost forever. We cannot allow this unique and valuable breed to disappear, never to be seen again, just because we are comfortable in our suburban homes and there is a good show on the TV tonight.