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Down on the Farm: Too much neatness

"Everything is so neat," says my 99-year-old great aunt Olive as we drive across today's northwest Minnesota countryside. "Ninety years ago, it was just a mess."

Neat, clean...and empty. In the past eighty years as farms have multiplied in size, farmsteads have disappeared at an amazing clip. The countryside scenery has been streamlined into sleekness.

Because farmland is so valuable, most farmsteads fall to the dozer as soon as they are abandoned.

One area farmer studied an old plat map and estimated that the 5,000 acres he farms today once supported more than 30 families.

Every one of those farmsteads had a house, a barn of some sort, a few out buildings, a handful of cows, some chickens, a half-dozen kids and perhaps some pigs. In short, where today there are only endless fields, there were once thirty farmsteads, most of them messy and cluttered.

Look at today's farmsteads: Six acres of perfect lawn, plus a quarter mile of mowed ditch. Neat steel buildings which keep all junk out of view. A sprawling ranch-style house, perfectly landscaped.

Today, the impressive farmsteads stand alone like islands in a sea of wheat, corn, soybeans and sugar beets, crops lined up in perfect rows by satellites overhead.

Animals? You don't see them any more. Our milk comes from massive milk factories. Our pork comes from enormous mechanized pig farms. Our turkeys, poor stupid things, spend their lives in quarter-mile-long tin sheds.

The farm animals are hidden away somewhere and none of them have names.

Cats are pets in the house, not mousers in the barn. Dogs are for much-needed friendship, not for herding cattle.

Three years ago I visited an area farm with exactly one animal: a white poodle that tended to stay inside on the white shag carpet.

Times have changed. Our countryside has been simplified and streamlined.

Norman County, the most rural of Minnesota's counties, once had 106 schools, most of the one-room variety.

Today, Norman County is split into three enormous school districts which hold classes in four buildings.

Forty years ago, we had two general-store type grocery stores within four miles of our farm. Eight miles away in town, there were at least four more grocery stores.

If we ran out of milk on Christmas Day, we could go over to the Bear Park Store. Archie or Caroline ambled out of the house to open up.

The Bear Park store was bulldozed in the late 1990s.

Truth be told, the six grocery stores combined didn't have as much variety as the one store has today. The fresh vegetables were pretty limp. You had to shake the milk to make sure it hadn't thickened.

What about the country roads in the old days? Most were mud and gravel.

Back when there were people to drive on the roads, they were horrible. Now we have lonely superhighways to nowhere!

As they improve, the roads lose their adventurousness. The crooked roads have been made straight and the rough places have been made plain.

Potholes disappear. No more swamp water lapping at the tires in spring. No more tummy tingles going over a little round hill at 80 miles per hour.

For these reasons and many more, I find the recent influx of Amish in our neighborhood to be a completely refreshing development.

Who would have guessed that we would ever see a new barn go up in the neighborhood, much less a half-dozen?

Who would have imagined that we would ever again see big work horses pulling a plow? Graceful trotting horses pulling buggies to town? Subsistence-based farm yards filled with old-time machinery, animals, and flocks of barefoot children?

The countryside became neat but a bit sterile through the years as farms consolidated. It's good to see the return of some nostalgic yet productive clutter to the local scenery.