The Downfall of the Stock Show Industry

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I must admit that I am somewhat of an oddity. I stand with my feet in two completely different worlds. I am a born and raised city girl who lives for 4-H, horseback riding, and stock shows.

DSCN0736This gives me a unique perspective on the livestock industry. When I first got into horses, one of my 4-H leaders taught me a very important lesson. He taught me to always question everything. There are a million different training methods out there and none of them are necessarily better than any of the others. You can achieve the same result hundreds of different ways. The important thing to ask yourself is, “How does this work and why?” As I crossed over into the world of market and dairy animals, I applied this knowledge to just about every new experience. Why should I use this specific feed? Why do we slick shear market animals and lightly clip breeding stock? What are the pros and cons of bracing? At times, I was frustrated that I did not know as much as the farm kids who had spent their entire lives showing. Other times, I felt beyond blessed that I could view practices with the eyes of an outsider. When you grow up with something, you rarely, if ever question it. This is where I had the advantage. At the beginning of last year, I may not have known how to milk a goat or clip an udder, but I could certainly see how people might be concerned about things such as too many supplements and changing animals’ hair color with dye.

As I continued to immerse myself in this new world, I discovered perhaps the most shocking thing of all. Stock shows may be all about raising the best animals, but the definition of best is not what you think it would be. Since these are food animals, shouldn’t “best” be the animal that can produce high amounts of good quality milk or meat? After all, that is why stock shows were started, so people could choose the best breeding stock to improve their herd and thereby produce more food. Unfortunately, that could not be farther from what goes on today. Instead of continually seeking to improve our food supply, we have built a multi-million show industry on the quality of a steer’s hair. And yet we wonder why people have such low opinions of agriculture.

One look at the #farm365 on twitter will reveal a huge struggle between those who raise our food and those who actually consume it. The gap between the country and the city has grown so big that even a high school student in Rexburg, ID, an area known for its potato production, dairies, and beef ranches, had no idea that milk came from cows. Instead of seeking to educate the public, we dress livestock up like poodles and parade them around a show ring.

Before I continue, I have to make it clear that I’m not condemning livestock shows. I love showing livestock and 4-H was a huge part of my life growing up, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. I think that it’s important to make an animal look their best. However, when you’re spending hundreds of dollars on supplements, special feeds, hair products, and treadmills, you’re doing yourself, your animal, and the entire country a disservice. No one is going to spend that much time and money on the lamb raised for your Easter dinner. It’s not practical, and I’m even going to go as far as to say that it’s not ethical.

IMG_20140809_195535240Animals need time to be animals. They should not spend their entire lives being coiffed and coddled in an air conditioned barn.  If your goat never has the opportunity to run through a pasture and roll in the mud simply because eating grass would keep him from being the lean show animal of your dreams, then why are you raising animals? If you really feel the need to deprive your animal of his needs so you can win a purple ribbon, you should find a new hobby. You may argue that your show animals are loved and have the best of the best and I don’t doubt that, but is this really the way animals were meant to live? I don’t think so. The show industry needs to wake up and look around at what they are doing. Yes, that champion steer may sell for thousands of dollars, but would he really even be worth much of anything at the butchers?

Perhaps even more importantly, what are we teaching our children? A quick look online proves that today’s farm kids are very passionate about showing, but is what we are teaching them right? I’ve seen things such as, “It’s ok to dye your steer, because he’s already black. We’re just making him darker.” and “We drench with a cocktail of items from our kitchen cupboard and expensive supplements to add more to their topline and loin.” The sad thing is that these are perfectly acceptable practices in the show world. Thankfully, my county fair had very strict rules and often kicked participants out for questionable behavior. While there were always those cheaters who slipped through the cracks, for the most part, our county was free from potentially unethical actions. But my county is just one of thousands. The surrounding areas do not have the same rules that we do. By placing showmen with dyed calves and expensive clip jobs higher than others who clip and fit their own calves, what are we teaching our 4-Hers? Like many sports, showing is no longer about learning to be a better person and showman. We are raising an entire generation that thinks the most important part of an animal is how many ribbons they win. It does not matter what they do to get there. So what if their heifer’s narrow hips cause her to have trouble calving? If the judge likes that look, then you can bet that more children will start showing animals that are built like that .

When people are more concerned about the quantity and quality of their steer’s hair than its carcass, we need to ask ourselves, is this really the view we want people to have of agriculture and is this really helping our future? Farmers and ranchers have long been known for their work ethic and honesty. As we continue to award ribbons to animals that have no place in an actual meat market, are we really promoting these ideals? The number of people involved in agriculture is dwindling. One of the few things that keeps people in the business is the lifestyle and all it stands for. If we are no longer emphasizing these values when we teach our children, then why would we expect them to continue to build an industry based on hard work and family? When I look at the stock show industry, I no longer wonder why people are leaving farming and ranching and the media has such a terrible view of agriculture.

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Gratitude


Anyone who doesn’t know anything about the cost of college or rising tuition must have been living in a cave for the past fifteen years. Veterinary school in particular is known for its very low income to debt ratio. Much to the annoyance of my dad and his Masters in Finance, this is what I have desired to do for as long as I can remember. It’s probably a good thing I haven’t told him about my plans to own a cattle ranch yet. He’d probably have a heart attack. Anyhow, due to my big, expensive plans, and my financial upbringing, I’ve applied for just about every scholarship possible. Which actually isn’t very many scholarships but still.

dywLast year, I participated in the Distinguished Young Women scholarship program. It was technically a pageant, just with grades factored in. Don’t tell anyone that I said that because they are adamant that it’s not a pageant. I honestly could care less as my family has always done pageants. I have grown up watching my cousins compete in everything from Jr Miss to Miss Idaho. Going back to the original point, the only thing I won was ironically a scholastic scholarship because I had really good grades and test scores. I often joke that school is the only thing I’m good at and this basically proved my point. It was a small scholarship of only $450, but hey, every penny counts.

DSCF3711So naturally, when I wanted to raise a market animal for what was potentially my last year of 4-H, I totally played the scholarship card. After informing my parents that our state fair offered scholarships that I could receive only if I showed at the state fair, and not county like I had always done, they agreed to let me raise a market goat. That slightly crazy decision to let their city turned country child with little goat knowledge raise and show a goat was probably one of the best things they’ve ever done, aside from signing me up for 4-H in the first place of course.

This is the only picture I have of myself bottle feeding. My friend snapped it when he was annoyed with me, so it's pretty blurry. The black and tan thing in the bottom corner is a MIni Sable Saanen.

This is the only picture I have of myself bottle feeding. My friend snapped it when he was annoyed with me, so it’s pretty blurry. The black and tan thing in the bottom corner is a Mini Sable Saanen.

Over the course of the summer, between all of my various escapades, I had the opportunity to meet and work with what I believe to be some of the kindest, smartest, and most selfless individuals on this planet. I made countless new friends and despite being a totally clueless city girl, my goat club took me under their wing and made me feel as comfortable as they possibly could. I hold them in the highest regard and now consider them to be my second family.

This past year, I grew more than any other year of my life. I went from the absolute lowest point I had ever reached to some of the best days of my life I truly believe that I needed to live through every moment of last year, every tear and bloodstained day, to get to where I am today. If last year had never happened, I doubt that I would have been ready for college, especially because I graduated early and started at the young age of 17.

With all that being said, I feel that I really lived life to the fullest last year and got as much as I could out of it. I was happy with the way things went and ready to move on with my life. My mom wasn’t so sure. About a month ago, she reminded me of the scholarship deadline, and even went so far as to mail me a newspaper clipping about it. As I reluctantly flipped through the pages,  I saw something that more closely resembled my college application than the short, simple application I’d been expecting.

DSCF3231My mom kept nagging me, so I took another trip home, got all of the school information filled out, and then asked two people to write me letters of recommendation. One was my old English teacher and Student Government advisor. The other was my beloved goat club leader. Unfortunately, in my rush to finish errands and work with my market goat while I had time, I didn’t fully explain the details of the letter. By the time I finally emailed them out and then called to check up on them, it was about a week before I needed to mail the application in. In my defense, I had asked them early, and I had been extremely busy with midterms.

IMG_20150117_170155018Just a few short days later, my 4-H leader emailed me to tell me that she had been surprised with  last minute trip out of state and barely had time to pack, let alone write a letter. I began to panic. Who else could I call and ask to write me a letter in the next two days. After some anxious phone calls with my parents, I finally decided to call one of my church leaders, who was also my neighbor and technically my distant relative (She married my great-grandma’s cousin. I wasn’t joking when I said we were all related here!). Despite being on vacation in Hawaii, she agreed to write me a letter. Both of my letters of recommendation arrived just in time and I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. That next morning, I mailed the application and prayed that it would get there by the deadline.
Despite all of my worry, it must have made it there on time, because my parents received a letter from the fair board yesterday. I was about to take a nap because I had a raging headache, but they wouldn’t stop texting me, so I finally sucked it up and called them. By some miracle, I was chosen as one of the six recipients of the scholarship.

My amazing 4-H Club President and friend of over five years.

My amazing 4-H Club President and friend of over five years.

I felt a mixture of shock and relief, but mainly gratitude. Gratitude that I’d had the wonderful opportunity to be part of this wonderful organization. Gratitude that my parents had decided to take the cheap way out and sign me up for a horseless horse club instead of letting me take lessons. Gratitude that I’d pushed for so long, always continuing to fight my parents instead of quitting and moving on like they’d wanted me to. Gratitude that I’d pushed on and kept going this year, even after my favorite 4-H horse died and my horse club leader committed suicide two weeks later.

Shadow_ One of those horses that you never forget. This girl taught me a lot more than just how to ride.

Shadow- One of those horses that you never forget. This girl taught me a lot more than just how to ride.

Gratitude that I’d pushed myself to try something new, something I knew nothing about, something that scared me to death and caused me sleepless nights of anxiety. Gratitude that I’d had the chance to be a part of something so incredibly wonderful. Gratitude that I’d found my one true passion. Gratitude that all of the blood, sweat, tears, mud, late nights, early mornings, sore muscles, crippling anxiety, and numbing loss had finally paid off. Gratitude that after everything I thought 4-H had to give to me, there was still something more. Gratitude that this marvelous organization had not only helped me find what I wanted to and given me some of the best experiences of my life, but that it was going to continue to fuel that crazy desire to learn. Gratitude that so many leaders took a chance on that scrawny city girl. Gratitude that someday I may be able to give back to the very thing that helped me find myself. I have so many thoughts and emotions tumbling through my head right now, but they can all be summed up in that one word. Gratitude.

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There’s No Place Like Idahome

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“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

My family moved around a lot when I was little. I was born in Utah while my parents attended college. We then moved to Michigan so my dad could go to grad school. He started working there and we kept moving between apartments and houses until he was transferred to Kansas. We didn’t stay long– only two years, but it was the longest I’d lived in one place. I started elementary school there, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was home. After those two years, we moved back to Michigan with every intention of staying there for the rest of our lives. Sure, most of our family was back west, but my dad’s brother and all of his kids lived just a few hours away. They were the only family that I knew well at the time, and I couldn’t imagine life any different. But of course, before long it was time to move again. My dad had taken a new job in Idaho in the same town where he and my mom had grown up.

12401a76cf613b3c8b4d3d60b21c2d18I had only been to Idaho for holidays and my aunt’s wedding. To me, moving to Idaho was as good as leaving the country. We had all assumed that Michigan was where we would stay, but the impending market failure suggested otherwise.

Upon moving to Idaho, I struggled to make friends. We bought my grandparents house, so I at least the house was vaguely familiar. I didn’t know any of my cousins very well and I didn’t know anyone at my school. This was my fourth elementary school in five years. I had been reluctant to leave my friends behind, and each new day in this strange state made me long for home, although I didn’t really know where that was. It certainly wasn’t Michigan. We had moved too much. Kansas had felt like home, but we hadn’t lived there for quite some time and I was starting to forget it.

Luckily, by the end of the school year, a group of girls had taken me in. They were an odd bunch. Malarie was basically your perfect, preppy blonde. Sam was tall, thin, and tan like a model. Shaina was the crazy country tomboy. I completed the peculiar group with my glasses, pasty pale complexion, and scrawny limbs. How we all found each other, I’ll never know.

missyOver the years, we changed quite a bit. Malarie left the group and eventually moved down South a few years back. Sam’s dad was laid off in the recession and they moved down to Utah at the end of sixth grade. We added another girl, a crazy blonde named Brianna. Shaina, Brianna, and I had a bit of a falling out in Jr High, but we made up in high school and I still consider them some of my best friends. They were a vital part of my childhood and made me who I am today. In fact, Shaina and Brianna were probably the main reason I got into horses. I ended up in 4-H, and that started me down the track that I’m on today.
Over the years, I’ve learned just about every nook and cranny of that little town. Actually, I’m not sure little is the best word to describe it. My hometown has a total population of 58,000 and a metro population of 136,108. By other people’s standards, it may not be a big city, but for Idaho, it’s huge! The best description I’ve ever heard is that we’re “a big town with a small town feel.” That’s my hometown to a T.

IMG_20141226_170752582_HDRAs a child, and especially as a rebellious teenager, I wanted nothing more than to leave. I didn’t have any real ties to our town. It was just a roadblock, preventing me from getting to where I wanted to be. Whenever my family went to our cabin North of Boise, I asked why we couldn’t move to that small town or any of the others tucked away in the mountains? My parents replied that they liked our hometown. After all, they had grown up there and a lot of our relatives still lived there. I would roll my eyes and go back to staring out the window and daydreaming of my future outside of our little town.

I still had that attitude when my senior year of high school rolled around. I was graduating after the first trimester and leaving for college. Freedom was so close I could almost taste it. Before I knew it, I was done with high school and on my way to college. The first few weeks, I didn’t even think of Idaho. I was finally where I wanted to be. Then I began to notice things. You would think that at a large college, there would be more eligible guys. Maybe for most people, but not for someone who only goes for country boys. The lack of boots, belt buckles, wranglers, and hats began to get to me after a while. There was also hardly any camo. I hadn’t even noticed when people wore it back home. It was just part of daily life.

idahocrainI shrugged it off and said that it must be the fact that we were in a bigger city. But it only got worse. During class introductions we were supposed to something interesting about ourselves. I decided to just say that I showed livestock. Nice and simple, right? Wrong. I got everything from blank stares, confused looks, and some chuckles until people realized I was serious. I decided that might be a bit much for all of these city people. Although, to be fair, I was technically a city girl as well. So I switched to saying I rode horses. I still got some fairly interesting looks. I finally concluded that my mixed city/country life was apparently a concept they had never been introduced to .

As the weeks wore on, I became continually bored with the people surrounding me. Once, when we were giving examples of a concept, I used a story of an incident that occurred a dairy show. This led to more blank stares and people asking “Where are you from again?” Then one day, in one of my American history labs, the TA had us draw our idea of a cowboy on the board. I sat there laughing hysterically as others drew images of heavily muscled guys with huge belt buckles, tons of guns, holding huge whips, wearing massive spurs, and holding their ropes in the stereotypical movie/trick roping style. As I laughed, I commented that “real cowboys” don’t look like that. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends back home.

DSCF3329Later, I called one of my best friends, who is also a farrier, horse trainer, and former ranch hand. He listened to my story and chuckled a bit before becoming more serious. He remarked that cowboying really is a dying art and we sat there for a moment in silence. The cowboy is such a huge part of our history and he is still a vital part of the beef industry today. Yet in most people’s minds he has been reduced to nothing more than an cartoon. As my writing teacher had us begin our first papers, I felt inspired to write mine on The Elusive American Cowboy. The more I researched, the more concerned I became. Cowboys definitely don’t make up the bulk of my hometown, but it’s common to see an old rancher driving in a cowboy hat or to run into a whole family of ranchers in Chik-Fil-A, like I did last week. I’ve yet to see so much as an actual pair of muddy boots off campus here. Who would have thought that living four hours away would completely change the dynamic of a town?

I checked up on my friends on Twitter the other day and was surprised to see a bunch of tweets about how terrible Idaho is and how they can’t wait to leave. I read them with a sad smile. It’s funny how we often have to lose things before we really appreciate them. The first time I went home from college, I had been there for nearly two weeks. It was a three day weekend and I thought that I might as well go home and see my friends. I hadn’t been away from home for long, so it didn’t seem all that special. The next time I went home was roughly six weeks later.

dont-laugh-at-natives-400x285Somewhere, somehow, in those six weeks I realized something. I had spent all of these years chasing a dream, constantly looking forward to the next big thing. I hadn’t ever really taken the time to just slow down and live in the moment. As we pulled off the highway onto the main road and passed through the car dealerships that line the exit, I was hit with this incredible wave of emotion. While this little town is far from perfect and not at all where I want to end up, for the first time in a long time, I really, truly felt like I was coming home.

26Every town has its flaws. Mine has tons. But if you always focus on the little reasons why you don’t like something, before long you’ll forget all of the big reasons why you love it. I did that with my hometown, and I think a lot of other people do that as well. In the end, even if you never grow to like it, your hometown was a huge part of your life and it had a lot of influence over who you are today. You have to at least give it credit for that.

As for me, well, I’m definitely not moving back to hometown any time soon, but I have been blessed with a greater appreciation for the little things. That’s why I’m trying really hard to love this new town and my time at college, even if it means dealing with crazy people from big cities. After all, there’s nothing more satisfying than to say that I may have had a hand in getting that steak and potatoes to your plate. If not me, then probably someone I know. People often assume that Idaho is so small that everyone knows everyone. At first, this seems totally illogical, but if living in Idaho has taught me anything, I’m probably related to the one Idahoan you know. If not, then I’m sure one of my friends is. And if they’re an Idaho transplant and unrelated to everyone, well, I promise you that we know each other somehow. That’s my favorite thing about Idaho. We may be very untrusting of strangers  (mainly liberal Californians), and we’re gun toting, conservative, redneck, and very, very Mormon, but we’re all interconnected in the web of mountains, sagebrush, and lava rock that makes up this beautiful state. Everything may be a bit different in Idaho, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Summer trip to the local dairy with a few of my siblings and younger cousins.

Summer trip to the local dairy with a few of my siblings and younger cousins.

Idaho Winters Just Aren’t What They Used to Be

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I have mixed feelings on Global Warming. Yes, we aren’t taking care of our  planet the way we should. Yes, CO2 is building up in the atmosphere, but I’m tired of hearing about climate change and how we need to live greener and drive less. We all know this. We’ve been hearing it for years. I find it quite interesting that one of the main things used to show the effects of Global Warming is the polar bears. Don’t get me wrong– I love polar bears and I know that they’re a vital part of the ecosystem. I simply want to focus on something more relevant to us.
weatherWhenever I tell people I’m from Idaho, the first thing that comes up is obviously the potatoes. The second thing is typically the weather. Idaho is known for its extreme weather that can jump from below freezing to 70 degrees over just a few hours. The winters are typically long and harsh. Or at least they were. My grandma tells stories of how it was quite common to get snowed in during a blizzard. I haven’t seen anything even remotely resembling a blizzard since I was about nine. After that, we had a few decent winters, although many people still commented on how much milder the winters were. These past few years, we’ve had one or two bouts of snow. We kept passing it off as just Idaho’s tendency to change things up. After four or five years of these winters, people began to wonder what was going on. It’s hardly snowed more than a few inches this year. We almost didn’t have snow for Christmas, The snow stays for a week or so before melting back into the brown grass. The consecutive years of little snow are beginning to take their toll. Even so, I was surprised when I came across this news article: http://www.localnews8.com/news/water-in-idaho-in-short-supply/32234496
cropped-img_20150117_170205351_hdr.jpgHay prices skyrocketed this year due to a freak rainstorm that ruined most of the cut hay. Even with increased cattle prices, we can’t afford to have any more blows to our hay supply, let alone our other crops. Despite several years of drought, I can’t remember a time when Idaho water had to be rationed. Knowing Idaho, it’s definitely possible that we’ll be blessed with a snow storm in the middle of June, but by that point in time, too much moisture could ruin the crops, just like with last year’s hay supply.

IMG_20141226_171314741Farmers have always had to deal with changes in weather, but these warmer winters don’t seem to be going away. Over time, the earth has definitely been warming. Instead of hoping for better snowpack next year, we need to start addressing the problem. That means living greener, wasting less, and as much as I hate to say it, maybe it’s time to retire that big diesel truck in favor of something more environmentally friendly (Although not the dreaded Prius). I know that farmers are pretty much already the definition of frugal, and most of the problem is coming from people living in big cities, but we can’t change what others do. only ourselves. So unless you want to start paying a lot more for your potatoes in the near future, take the time to analyze your lifestyle and see how you could live a little greener and be a little better. And maybe soon we’ll be back to the Idaho I know and love– the Idaho with frigid cold winters and several feet of snow.

The Elusive American Cowboy

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Everyone from around the world knows of the American Cowboy. He is rugged enough to ride through blinding storms, strong enough to move 2000 pound animals, and gentle enough to coax a newborn calf to its feet. He is legend. Once, these men were commonplace, but now just a few remain, tucked away in some hidden corner of the wilderness.

Nowadays, many may say that despite their determination, the cowboys died out as the cities grew and the Wild West was tamed. However, those of us who live here in the west know better. The elusive American cowboy still exists if you know where to look. He still wears boots and chaps, but the future of today’s cowboy is more precarious than that of his forebears. As of 2014, the average age of American ranchers was 58.5. Combine that with a decreased interest in rodeos, and it is suddenly more apparent why the American cowboy is such a rare creature.

The decline of such an icon may seem depressing, but the plight of the cowboy is so much more than that. He is essential to the food supply of this country. As America continues to grow and expand, more food will be needed, not less. America’s ranchers are not getting any younger. What we need is new blood from the younger generation, people who can continue the old traditions, but who are not afraid to adapt to new technological advances.

DSCF3357Ranching has been a crucial part of American history from the very beginning. For centuries, kids grew up knowing that they would someday take over the family legacy. However, due to the urbanization of our country and the absorption of small family ranches by large commercial operations, these children have become far and few in between. It is no wonder that there are so few young Americans involved in agriculture. The government has created programs to help aspiring ranchers, but soon there may not be any ranchers to help.

Members of the ranching community need to be actively recruiting and encouraging kids to join programs such as 4-H and FFA. These programs teach children valuable skills through the experience of raising and showing their own livestock. The children learn to take pride in the quality of their animal while also learning how to make a profit. These are valuable tools for any aspiring cowboy or cowgirl. Ranchers also need to step up and make themselves available to teach kids who want to learn to do things such as rope, ride or brand. Perhaps, through experiences such as showing a goat, or helping doctor calves, these children will learn to love the land and lifestyle as so many before them. The youth are the future of American agriculture, and if last year’s record enrollment in my local county fair says anything, it is that children are still interested in agriculture, they just need a way to turn that interest into a lifestyle.
cropped-dscf3328.jpgKids also need to know that cowboying is a very real and attainable career. While many visualize a cowboy as an old white male with a mustache, I can and will gladly testify otherwise. A cowboy is more than someone with an accent and a hat. A real cowboy treats his animals with respect, loves the land, and, above all, a cowboy has heart. I see these qualities in many of my friends: the professor who spends his weekends branding, the little boys in spurs and chaps who fetch my rope when it gets tangled around the dummy, the lone boy in a sea of girls at my last horse show, and, most of all, I see these qualities in my friend as he tenderly cradles a young foal’s hoof while training it to be shod. The American cowboy is a legend for a reason, and his future depends greatly on us. Will we actively recruit and strive to retain children in various Ag programs as well as rodeo? Or will we stand back and watch as the legendary cowboy fades into just that, a legend? The choice is up to us.

The Urbanization of America and Its Effect on Religion

This is the paper that I was procrastinating on when I created this blog. Since it relates to agriculture, I thought I might as well put it here. Due to my procrastination and lack of sleep, the middle is rather choppy. I felt like I had some good ideas, but in my hurry to turn my barely six page rough draft into a fully developed eight page paper, some of the pieces got mixed up and the organization is less than stellar. However, I think that the ideas in it are worthy of this blog.

The prompt asked about the trend of youth leaving churches. It wanted to know when this started, why it started, and what could be done. As I searched for sources, I managed to find a study that linked increased religious involvement to rural areas. Naturally, that piqued my interest and I based most of my paper off of that article. I mainly emphasized that certain values, such as hard work and interpersonal relationships, are more prevalent in small towns just due to their nature. I then used a variety of other studies proving that these values, particularly relationships, were extremely important in keeping youth involved in churches. That’s basically the summary for anyone who does not desire to read a boring eight page paper on urbanization trends, relationships, and religion. There are also a few random phrases in there that I had to include simly to satisfy some of the requirements for the paper. Ignore those.

Urbanization and Values in America:

Why American Youth Are Leaving Churches and What We Can Do About It

There are certain words and images that come to mind when a specific noun is mentioned. Strongly stereotyped, farmer is one of these words. While some may think of green tractors and big red barns, others think more about the farmer himself. The words used to describe him are generally positive. Strong. Hard working. Dedicated. Family oriented. Desirable as these traits are, many would agree that they are hard to find these days, just like youth who attend church. While there are many factors that contribute to youth leaving the church, some of the biggest include the change in culture caused by the continued movement away from rural America and its values, a problem that could potentially be solved by reinstating these values in today’s youth.

Over the past two centuries, the percentage of Americans living in urban areas has changed drastically. Urbanization of America increased the most during the industrial revolution, when thousands of new workers were needed to fill the jobs created by large factories. As large commercial operations bought out small family farms, Americans continued to move to cities. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s further impoverished farmers, leading yet another wave of Americans towards the cities and their promises of more stable jobs. Many argue that this shift away from rural America was beneficial to the country and its development. While this may be true, it also led to a change in the values and environment of the average American (Monkkonen).

Dr. Val Farmer, a psychologist who specializes in rural health and family relationships, discussed this in one of his articles. He wrote, “The density of population and the relative isolation from other people have a distinct effect on the way people view life and the values they espouse (Farmer).” It is often assumed that since people living in urban areas have a greater population density, they interact with others more than people in rural areas. Logically, this makes sense. However, this is not actually the case. Generally, the smaller the community, the more interaction between individuals.

In rural areas, not only are individuals more likely to be related to those around them, they also tend to be surrounded by people they have grown up with. The limited number of people for them to interact with is precisely what makes them more social than people in urban areas. It is very common for people in rural areas to know their doctors, bankers, and grocery store workers. A lot of the time, they also live near each other and attend church together. Because of this, Americans in rural areas form lifelong bonds with their relatives and friends that live around them. This leads to an entirely different set of values and sense of community in rural areas than in more urban areas. Walking among thousands of strangers, city dwellers may be surrounded by more people, but they are less likely to speak with them and interact personally with the hundreds of people they encounter on a daily basis, at least not in the same way as they would if they only saw the same people day after day like in small towns.

One of the most obvious results of this is the heightened sense of community in small towns. When “everyone knows everyone,” they are more likely to participate in community activities and to support the town and each other, since they personally know those involved. Interacting with each other on a daily basis also leads to better relationships with neighbors and community members. In urban areas, people tend to have a smaller circle of friends since they are not forced to deal with the same people while completing daily tasks. They also do not have to worry about running into the people they do business with at church, or the store, or just driving through town. Thus they do not need to develop as deep of a relationship with the people around them and thus do not need to treat others with quite the same amount of courtesy and familiarity as they would if they knew local workers on a more personal basis (Farmer).

While on the surface this may not seem to relate to youth leaving the church, several studies suggest a correlation. Noticing a trend, a trio of professors decided to conduct a study to determine whether religious beliefs really differed between urban and rural populations. They chose to research even more in depth by breaking rural populations into two specific groups. The first was simply people living in small towns. The second group was made up only of farmers and their families. This subdivision actually led to very surprising results. Predictably, Americans living in rural areas were much more religious than those living in urban areas, but the real surprise came in the variation between farming families and those living in small towns (King).

The difference between the two rural groups was actually rather prominent. Farmers and their families were even more likely to be religious than people who just lived in small towns. The study then delved into some of the factors for this divide and the overall factors leading to the religious beliefs of the individuals studied. Gender played a small factor in the strength of religious beliefs with females being more likely to support religion. Higher education played a role in stronger religious beliefs as well.

In giving reasons for the increased religious belief in farmers, the article also discussed how the prime roles of a farmer are to care and nurture, values that go hand in hand with religion. The children of farmers are more likely to participate in programs such as 4-H and FFA, where they learn to care and nurture for plants and animals. They also learn how to support their fellow teammates and club members. Children often spend their entire childhood in one of these organizations. I know from personal experience that the long hours spent traveling to and prepping for livestock shows are great bonding time for family and friends, thereby strengthening relationships and bringing the community together.

Even if children in rural areas do not participate in these types of organizations, due to the small class sizes at rural high schools, it is very likely that children know all of their peers. By the time they graduate, many kids in rural areas will have spent over 12 years of their life studying, playing sports, dating, and hanging out with all of the other kids in their town. This not only leads to very strong relationships between children, their friends, and their friends’ parents, but it also adds to the sense of community.

Another value typically associated with farming and rural areas in general is the value of hard work. Raised on farms where a lot needs to get done, children spend their childhood doing chores and then eventually doing things such as moving pipe when they are teenagers. From the time they can walk, farm kids, children raised in agricultural families, learn that they need to help out in order for their family to succeed. This not only gives them a very strong work ethic, but it creates stronger bonds between them and their fellow workers, who are typically also their family and neighbors. Sweating together. Struggling together. Succeeding together. This increases the sense of community as well. A good work ethic also helps church members to better fulfill their callings and positions. They are more motivated to go out and serve and participate in and plan church events.

Another interesting aspect of the study was how the community affected youth involvement in church activities. In rural areas where church was more likely to be a part of the community, youth were more likely to participate in church activities. “As one Iowa boy (12th grade), involved in a local youth group for several years, explained. “Well, in junior high it was kind of a popular thing to be a member of your church youth group (King).”” Church activities were a community thing with certain weeknights often being reserved for such activities. They were part of the town’s culture and involvement was highly influenced by peer pressure.

Overall, the study showed that youth whose religious beliefs grew stronger over time tended to have a few traits in common; these youth were more likely to live on a farm and have parents who were both educated and religious as well as a strong identification with their parents, and not only were these youth more likely to be actively involved in church in high school, they also tended to avoid hanging out with youth who participated in reckless behavior and they also upheld values typically associated with rural youth, such as respect for their elders and increased responsibility (King). Rural values are the key. Studies have proven it, and it would only make sense that due to the relationship between activities for family, church, school and other community events, farm kids were more likely to remain involved in church activities than their counterparts. These strong ties to family and community, as well as positive home experiences were more likely to lead to youth staying religious (King).

Further studies conducted by other groups confirmed these results while emphasizing the importance of relationships in particular. Parents have a very big influence on their children’s church attendance. Children learn the most from their parents’ examples and children with religious parents are more likely to stay in the church (Hoge).

The relationship between children and their peers also plays an important part in their church attendance. Peer pressure greatly affects the opinion and attitude of youth towards church activities. If youth see that their peers enjoy the activities, they are more likely to have positive attitudes towards them. They are also more likely to attend if they know their peers will be there. Children are more likely to encourage their peers to come to activities if they view the activity favorably. Thus it is constant cycle. Luckily, in rural areas, the sense of community makes children feel more welcome at these activities. If they know everyone there, they will feel more comfortable than if they were surrounded by a bunch of strangers. Parents also typically encourage children to go to activities. If the child has a good relationship with their parents, they will be happier to attend, thereby contributing to the cycle again (Dudley).

Youth relationships with church leaders are also very important. If youth feel comfortable at church and supported by their leaders, they are more likely to cotinine to come. Church needs to be a safe place and an avenue for youth to express their concerns and receive answers to their questions. If they do not feel comfortable enough to do this, they are less likely to desire to spend time in a religious setting (Hoge).

The problem of youth leaving the church is very complex. The decreased number of personal relationships caused by the urbanization of America is not a problem that can really be solved. It’s just not possible to form these same types of relationships within the community of a big city, nor is it possible to assume that things will go back to how they used to be. America will continue to grow and expand. It is constantly changing and we must be able to adapt to survive. Obviously, we cannot move the entire country back to the countryside. That is neither realistic nor logical. Instead, we need to look back at what created such high church attendance in rural areas and figure out how to implement that into today’s society. As mentioned earlier, due to the very different lifestyles of people living in urban and rural areas, different values are developed and cultivated.

Some of the values of rural areas, such as hard work and the ability to nurture, can be taught in the city. In fact, since most of the values go along with Christian teachings, they can easily be worked into lesson plans. Emphasis on how these values will help the youth succeed and activities to foster and strengthen the values will help them to be firmly implanted in children’s minds.

Even more important than these values is the value of relationships between family, church leaders, and peers. Since family relationships are one of the biggest influences on youth church attendance, churches should spend more time focusing on the family. They should teach more about family relationships and how they can be improved and strengthened. Even if the churches themselves cannot strengthen family relationships, they can at least instill the importance of this value in future generations.

Youth should also be taught to improve their relationships with their families and each other. It is surprising how much influence they can have over their families. If they desire to change, then it is certainly possible for their family to follow suit. Where there is a will, there is a way.  Loving kindness and acceptance of new people should be emphasized as well. This will help youth to incorporate their peers into more activities and to make them feel more at home at church, thereby leading to increased attendance.

Church leaders also need to be pushed to strengthen their relationships with youth. They often take their position for granted and do not realize what quite how important they actually are. Youth tend to look up to their leaders. They are older and more experienced, yet still cooler than parents. This gives puts them in a valuable position. Leaders need to fashion an environment where children feel comfortable enough to ask questions and go to their leaders for help and guidance. If the youth feel secure, then they will want to continue to attend church. Receiving answers to their questions from someone they trust can also cause their faith to be strengthened, which would increase their desire to attend church as well.

Overall, studies show that there is a strong correlation between rural areas and church attendance. This is due mainly to the values and sense of community created in small towns. While we cannot move the whole of America back to a farm, we can work on teaching and strengthening rural values in our cities. The most important of these values is relationships and that importance should be emphasized in church. If we work on implementing this research, we should see a resurgence in church attendance. Along with increasing the rates of church attendance and involvement, teaching values to our children benefits both our country and the children themselves. America may be shifting more towards urban areas, but that doesn’t mean that we have to lose the positive traits of farmers, and the religious involvement that goes along with them. Through careful teaching, we can combat the problems of lost values and decreased church attendance in one fell swoop.

Procrastination Turned Motivation

Like the stereotypical student that I am, I was running out ways to procrastinate when I came up with the idea to start a blog. I’ve had a variety of blogs in the past– mostly family based with the occasional other side project. As I continue to learn more and fully immerse myself in the agriculture industry, I am constantly amazed by the wealth of information available online. Unfortunately, not all of it is accurate. On top of this, there are some issues in the Ag industry that need to be addressed. Most people choose to ignore these, but a select few question both the traditional and modern practices. I am one of these people. For years, I mainly kept my thoughts to myself, but as of late I have been filling random word documents with my rants and questions. That is where this blog comes into play. I’m tired of standing on the sidelines and watching as others ignorantly do things without questioning why or how. This only serves to widen the gap between farmers and ranchers and those who purchase the literal fruits of their labor.

As a PreVet student and a lifelong animal lover, I will focus mainly on the animal industry, but I will post the occasional thought about the farming side of agriculture. I don’t know how often this blog will be updated, but as I always seem to find time to write and research instead of doing homework, it’s probable that it will be quite frequently. The main purpose of this blog is for me to have an outlet for my thoughts, but I also hope that any readers will be able to take something away from my writing, whether it be an increased understanding of the current and former practices in agriculture, greater respect for those in the Ag industry, or the ability to ask why we do something, rather than just accepting it. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy my Thoughts on Agriculture.