Why Farmers Often Have Large Families

Why Farmers Often Have Large Families

Have you ever noticed some of the big differences between urban & rural communities?  I’ll tell you, I’ve noticed a few.

For example, all you need to do is look at a political map during an election cycle to see that, by and large, it’s the cities and your more metropolitan areas that tend to lean liberal, while it’s those in more agricultural places that tend to lean conservative.  Or, the fact that city life is typically known for its more “fast-paced,” “on-the-go” approach, while life in the country is known for its “slower-paced” and “its-a-good-thing-to-put-down-roots” perspective.

There are several trends that differentiate city and country life.  Some time, I may circle back and explore further some of those interesting aspects, but one of the things I thought I’d address in this post is the trend of varying family sizes between urban and rural groups.

It may be less the case today than it’s been in the past, at least in the U.S. (here I’m writing this while we’re all still waiting for the results to come back from our latest 2020 census; so I’m not 100% sure what the numbers show currently), but, traditionally speaking, farmers and those in the rural community have had more members per household than those in the city, on average.

Obviously, this point is based on statistics and doesn’t reflect every family situation.  Not everyone in the country has a large family, just as it’s true that not everyone who lives in the city has a small family.  But, proportionally and historically, the stereotype has been true.

There was a report put out several years ago by the United Nations that was tracking these numbers, not just in the United States, but around the world.  The report stated:

“Agrarian societies have typically been characterized by high fertility…Broadly speaking, urban residence is associated with [lower fertility] and smaller [household sizes]… A recent United Nations report lists more than 100 countries and territories for which distributions of households by size were available…A recent summary of [the] data shows that for the developing countries, most of which have not reached high levels of urbanization, average household size is approximately 5.2 persons, compared with an over-all average of 3.5 persons for the more developed countries, most of which are highly urban.  Broadly speaking, then, average household size in the less urbanized countries tends to be approximately 50 per cent greater than in the more urbanized countries.”

Patterns of Urban and Rural Population Growth”
United Nations Report, 1980

It’s important to clarify, which the report does, that what constitutes a “family” obviously differs from culture to culture, and that “household size” doesn’t necessarily reflect “family size.” But, “broadly speaking,” it’s evident agrarian societies have larger families.

The reasons why that trend rings true is somewhat complicated.  The report I looked at was around 185 pages long and touched on a lot of different factors.  I won’t bore you trying to unpack all of them.  Suffice it to say, a full explanation to the trends can’t be boiled down to a convenient formula.

But, for the sake of this post, I will give you three factors I think are worth mentioning:

1.  The Rate of Reproduction in Rural Communities

The first, and maybe most obvious, reason why rural families tend to be larger than urban families is because rural couples evidently spend more time in the bedroom making babies.

That may sound like an oversimplified reason, but, hey, if Occam’s Razor is true, and if the simplest explanation is likely the correct one, where there are more babies being born, perhaps, there is more reproduction happening.  I’m going to assume you’ve all heard the “birds and the bees” talk and already know that babies don’t come from storks.   They come from God’s good gift of sex.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of.  It’s simply the nature of God’s design.  And, evidently, it’s true in more ways than one that those in the country are more in tune with “nature” than those in the city.

I understand things like contraception and abortion are also factors.  We’ll come back to those in a little bit.  But if you just think about the day-to-day logistics and patterns of farmers v. corporate executives, for example, which do you think spends more time at home with their wives?  Whether it’s net hours at home during the day or net hours during certain seasons out of the year, while both are hardworking, the nature of the farmer’s work gives him more flexible opportunities at home than the executive has, who is stuck at his desk at the office for more hours, weeks, and months out of the year than he’s able to spend with his own wife.

I think that’s one reason newly married soldiers and public servants in the Old Testament were instructed to take a year-long sabbatical at home with their wives before reporting to their duties either on the battlefield or in the city.  Because, once they’d commuted off to work, there would no longer be a chance to see their wives for any meaningful time for the foreseeable future.  You see that in Deuteronomy 24:5.  It’s hard to have children when the husband is rarely home.

I saw an article by Fox Business that reported that farmers do in fact stay a lot “busier” on the farm and at the farmhouse than those in other professions, according to a British survey.

Out of the pool of 2,000 men and women surveyed, farmers reported having the most active marriages, followed by architects, followed by hairdressers.   Take that for what it’s worth.  I won’t read too much into the runners-up on the list, except to wonder how many of those architects and hairdressers ran their studios out of their home.  To quote the article:

“The lifestyle factors of our jobs such as flexibility of working hours and the environment…have an impact on all our lives [including] our sex lives.”

Stephanie Pagones, Oct. 9, 2019
“People working in this profession have the most sex”
Fox Business

The point I’m trying to make is, there is a likely correlation between having time to make babies and babies being born.  Those in the rural community—farmers especially—are afforded such time.

2.  The Benefit of Children in Rural Communities

A second reason why rural families tend to be larger than urban families, historically speaking, is because of the practical benefit children provide to those rural families.

My wife sometimes gets stopped at the grocery store as she has our 5 kids in tow, and people often say, “I just don’t know how you do it.  We stopped at 2 kids, because 2 were enough to drive us crazy.  How do you manage 5?!”

We know families with 7 or 8 kids, so to us 5 doesn’t even seem like a lot, but the questions still come.  Obviously, the produce isle at the Grocery Store isn’t the best place to explain the logistics of how large families work, so my wife usually just smiles and places the bananas in her cart.  But, if she had the time to sit down with the frantic mother of 2 who is ready to pull her hair out, what my wife would say to her is, “You know what, I don’t know how you do it without the helping hand of older siblings keeping an eye and an extra set of hands on the little ones freeing you to focus on what’s on the shopping list!”

The truth of the matter is, in many ways, larger families are easier to manage than smaller families, especially smaller families that still have young children, because of the help older siblings provide in larger families, not just keeping an eye on the younger children but in all aspects of family life.

Whether it’s mowing the yard, taking out the trash, or building that shed, a capable young man helping dad (or a few capable brothers tag teaming to help dad) makes all the difference.  Or having a capable young woman helping mom (or a few capable sisters tag teaming to help mom) prepare dinner, dusting the shelves, or lending a hand at the grocery store, again, makes all the difference.

So has it been for generation after generation on the farm.  If you can imagine the benefit older siblings can offer while grocery shopping, just imagine the benefit they provide in managing the garden, or the barn, or the market.  In many ways, farm life is easier with a larger family.  On a farm, an extra child isn’t just another mouth to feed.  He or she is another set of hands to help mom and dad produce an even greater bounty for the family to enjoy.

I admit, in less productive contexts, when an impoverished family has more kids than they’re able to take care of (requiring the taxpayer and the welfare state to fit the bill), yes, children can sometimes be viewed as a drain.  But, in productive contexts, the opposite is true.  Rather than being a drain, children become an asset.  Rather than being consumers depleting society’s resources, children become contributors helping to supply them.

It also used to be true on farms, when households were multi-generational (you know, when grandma and grandpa lived on the property?), that the more kids you had the more stable your retirement.  Why?  Because there were more hands on deck to share the task of caring for grandma and grandpa.  It didn’t fall on the shoulders of one or two children, but care taking could be spread out over what eventually becomes multiple branches of extended families.

So, having more kids provided a practical benefit, both short term and long term, to the families that had them.

3.  The Conservative Values of the Rural Community

A third and final reason I’ll share for why rural families tend to be larger than urban families is because of the old-fashioned values that were, and I think still are, held by so many in the rural community.

When I look at the census data for urban v. rural households, there are a few interesting things that jump out to me:

One is the increasing median age of those getting married in the city.  That is to say, those in urban areas are putting off marriage much later than those in the country do.  And, naturally, what happens as a result is the the window of time and fertility for women to have children is shortened, resulting in less children being born.  That makes sense.

Closely related to that, I think, is the increasing number of women in the workforce now splitting their attention between work and home.  More and more families in the city are choosing not to have children so as to not allow children to interfere with their work.  Granted, the number of stay-at-home moms is close to the same in both the city and the country, except for that prime childbearing age of 20 to 35.   In other words, during that natural window of fertility, there are less women participating in the work force in rural areas.  No doubt, that affects the number of children being born.

Not only that, but I mentioned earlier that contraception and abortion are also likely factors.  The degree to which access to these kinds of things are available is more concentrated in the city than it is in the country.  But, far more relevant than access to such things is the difference in overall attitude toward them.

There is a fundamental difference in worldview, by and large, as relates to children and family between the two environments.  On the one hand, in the cities, there is a widely more liberal, progressive, feminist attitude that tends to place a stigma on having too many children, or on having children at inopportune times—referring to them as “unwanted pregnancies.”  As a result, there exists a societal push to prevent or outright abort, as the case may be, children from being born.

On the other hand, in the rural culture, there is a widely more conservative, fundamental, faith-driven attitude that tends to embrace the gift of children in whatever time and quantity God chooses to give them.  Not only that, but the entire idea of aborting a pregnancy is understood to be murder for most conservatives—which I wholeheartedly agree with—while the idea of preventing a pregnancy by contraception is just as “contrary to nature” to many other conservatives.

Such fundamental differences in worldview, understandably, has a huge effect on the size of families.

Therefore, while we can all learn a lot by the number of red and blue ballots cast on election day between cities and the country, you know what?  We can also learn a lot by the number of red (or pink) and blue sippy cups that are sitting at a family’s dinner table.

Again, to be clear, I’m just speaking in generalities.  Not all conservatives live in the country and not all liberals live in the city.  In the same way, not all conservatives have large families and not all liberals discourage having large families.  In fact, I know many God-fearing conservative evangelicals who don’t have any children, either because of circumstance or choice.  I also know many liberal feminist atheists out there who absolutely adore kids and who have more place settings at their table with kids eating at them than I have at my own.  So we have to be careful we don’t overgeneralize.  But, the census data does tell a story, just as the red and blue political map tells a story.

If there’s a takeaway I’m trying to convey, I guess it’s to appreciate the longstanding tradition and values of the rural community in general in their giving attention to things like the priority of marriage, to the value and contribution of children, and to a fundamental belief in a biblical worldview that bears witness, in my opinion, against so much of the “social progress” (which I hesitate to call progress) happening in the secular world.

I’ll end with a quote by Voddie Baucham:

“The size of our families has become a matter of income and convenience.  Our attitude toward children is, ‘A boy for me and a girl for you, then praise the Lord, we’re finally through!’  I am amazed at the number of people I meet who live in two-thousand-square-foot homes with two cars parked outside and argue that they can only ‘afford’ to have one or two children.  Amazing!  Our forebears successfully raised houses full of children in homes that we would now consider meager at best, but we can’t afford it.”

Voddie Baucham
“Family Drive Faith”

Folks, children are a blessing from the Lord, not a burden.  As the psalmist says, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.  Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!” (Psalms 127:4-5 )

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