As a college student in the early 1970s, I remember being fascinated by a study carried out by social anthropologists Barry, Child and Bacon in the 1950s. They studied 46 societies to understand how modes of food production lead to different child-rearing practices and personality traits.

They found that among hunters, fishers and gatherers, adults encouraged more innovation and independence in the young, whereas in agrarian societies there was more emphasis on compliance and adherence to tradition.

“Where each day’s food comes from that day’s catch, variations in the energy and skill exerted in food-getting lead to immediate reward or punishment. Innovation, moreover, seems unlikely to be so generally feared.”
—Barry, Child and Bacon

The researchers placed agriculture at the other end of their continuum of liberal child-rearing practices, with animal husbandry promoting the most conservative approaches. In societies based on animal husbandry, the authors conclude, assertions of independence and innovation can be highly risky.

“Future food supply seems to be best assured by faithful adherence to routines designed to maintain the good health of the herd.”
—Barry, Child and Bacon


This line of research was quite radical at the time because it took into account the material conditions of survival in explaining parenting practices and attitudes toward change.

In the course of making Milk Men: The Life and Times of Dairy Farmers, I sometimes picked up a copy of Progressive Dairyman, frequently stuck in a pile on the desk in the barn along with inspector forms, supplier receipts and tattered old calendars.

I became curious about what it means to be a “progressive dairyman” and how the producers participating in my documentary thought about this question.

For many, responses seemed to echo the research findings of Barry, Child and Bacon. Farmers described the enormous risks of adopting new technologies or departing from established traditions because, as one farmer put it, “so much is on the line. You could lose everything if you adopt a technology too soon.”

A farm supply salesman may promise better herd health with a new hoof treatment, or the insemination company may promise that perfect cow with its genetically selected breeds. Sometimes the investment pays off, but often products fail to deliver on the sales promises and the farm goes under from an unmanageable debt load. As another farmer so succinctly described it, “You have to change, but you can’t change every time things change.”

Although producers emphasized risk-taking and willingness to adopt new technologies in their definitions of progressiveness, many spoke of how they were more open than previous generations of farmers to cultural changes. These same farmers were quick to emphasize their respect for their elders and time-honored traditions.

As one farmer lamented, “When I was a young kid, I worked before school moving irrigation pipes; after school, I went and worked, milked for a guy – and you know, we’ve lost work ethic in this society.”

At the same time, many of the farmers – men and women – spoke of differences in how they relate as a family from the ways they were raised. In our various conversations, there was a sense of deep pride in producing food, caring for the land and animals, and working together toward common goals.

But many farmers spoke of wanting to spend more time with their kids outside of work as well and of wanting to be more open and communicative in handling family conflict. Farm wives also talked about generational differences in gender roles – of both honoring the history of family farm traditions and of breaking with some of these same traditions.

The meaning of “progressive” became particularly complicated around issues related to governmental regulation. One farmer described himself as very conservative, explaining that he was a strong proponent of self-reliance: “I don’t believe in handouts from the government and the government taking care of me. I know that the government offers lots of different programs, but I don’t think it’s a good thing for farmers.”

This ambivalence about government programs became a recurring motif. Many acknowledged how many government programs do benefit dairy farmers, including regulations that assure the public a safe product will be brought to market.

One producer described what he saw as different political leanings of dairy farmers versus ranchers, with ranchers being more politically conservative. He offered that ranchers are more removed from other cultural groups and geographically isolated, and more apt to view governmental interventions as an intrusion on their lives rather than a benefit to them.

Even ranchers who benefit from low grazing fees on federal lands tend to see government as a despotic and remote ruler. Dairy farmers are more apt to interact with government inspectors and regulators on a routine basis, this producer explained. While dairy producers are often frustrated and outraged by forms of regulation, particularly around manure management, they also are acutely aware of their dependency on government programs.

Although farmers are thought to be highly individualistic, emphasizing self-reliance, the history of dairy farming is deeply rooted in collective projects as well, from communities coming together to build the dikes in the 19th century to farmer unions and cooperatives that joined forces to fight processors around pricing – processors that often pitted farmers against each other in underbidding milk prices.

Throughout the 20th century, farmers have periodically spilt a lot of milk – sometimes pouring it in the streets to make a political point. Producers also have taken stands on immigration, knowing how much dairies depend on non-native workers to keep their operations going 24-7 year-round.

Although the research of Barry, Child and Bacon is still relevant, reminding us of how much the material conditions of survival shape family values, talking with farmers sensitized me to how human cultures are full of interesting contradictions and complexities. All societies pass on traditions that children are bound by, and all societies must adapt to a changing environment.

Throughout the world, agrarian communities have undergone many of the same seismic changes that have accompanied other sectors affected by the industrial revolution and global capitalism.

Beyond the technological transformations that have accompanied the modern era of farming, many people face the same challenges and problems as do urban communities, whether managing debt, working harder and harder to keep up, or feeling anxious about a world changing all too rapidly under their feet.

Younger generations of farmers, like generations in other walks of life, must decide which traditions to leave behind – those that no longer work – and which need to be honored and preserved. And they, like their urban counterparts, must work out their own visions of what it means to be progressive.  end mark

Jan Haaken is director of “Milk Men: The Life and Times of Dairy Farmers,” a documentary that follows changes in the dairy industry in the Pacific Northwest.

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Jan Haaken
  • Jan Haaken

  • Emeritus professor of psychology
  • Portland State University
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