Ira’s Farm: Growing Up on a Self-Sustaining Farm in the 1930’s and 1940’s

By Virginia Johnson

A WWI veteran with a young family, Ira bought a sixty-acre farm in the rural community of Harlan Michigan just ninety days before the October 1929 stock market crash and its ensuing financial crisis.

He fashioned a living with a team of horses and a never-give-up work ethic on land his wife often called “sand banks” when a harvest failed. This memoir covers a thirty-year span of farming through the eyes of Ira’s daughter who went from a bare-footed carefree girl to a “hired hand” when her older brother joined the Navy in 1942. She drove horses, hauled hay, picked up stones, bagged milkweed pods and a myriad of other tasks. For senior citizens it may bring back childhood memories. Young readers will perhaps experience a tinge of fantasy or a scene from TV’s Walton family. An easy read about rural farm life in the thirties and forties.

You can buy my book, Ira’s Farm: Growing Up on a Self-Sustaining Farm in the 1930’s and 1940’s on Amazon.

Holidays in Times of Tragedy

Perhaps those of you who were not around in 1943, are experiencing some of the heaviness of these tragedies in the same way Americans felt during World War Two.

Christmas 1944 in the small community of Harlan, Michigan, seemed quieter to me than previous ones. I was thirteen years old. The winter had been a cold one and this night was blustery, snow swirling and drifting. Dad had cut a small pine tree from the back woodlot and we had decorated it with the usual stringed popcorn and colored paper chains. Mom and Gene and I made taffy candy, the kind you pull until it gets stiff.

But there was no way we could keep from thinking of Dean, serving in the Navy and the last we knew he was somewhere in the western Pacific Ocean area. Margie was home and because she had a job in Traverse City, there were pretty wrapped gifts under the tree for us all. Dad had kept the farm going but it had been a difficult year. Rationing was affecting every part of his farm life. Stringent requirements to purchase gasoline – one “rationing calendar” entry in the Cadillac Evening News dated July 31, noted “Use #7 stamps good for four gallons through September 21.”

Mom’s rationing book was no simpler: “Stamp 13 good for 5 lbs. thru August 15; stamps 15 and 16 good for five pounds of canning sugar up to October 1, Stamp 14 valid for 5 lbs. from August 16 thru October 1.” The war effort with its constant news on the radio and battle reports in bold letters almost daily in the newspaper– it was a subdued time for families all over the country.

As I sat here in my apartment a few days ago, I thought of this past year and how Covid-19 has seemed to permeate all of our lives almost hourly for the past nine months, much like the war effort in past years. The stunning increase in deaths due to this virus is sad.

Perhaps those of you who were not around in 1943, are experiencing some of the heaviness of these tragedies in the same way Americans felt during World War Two. We are a resilient people. We are a free people and our resources are being used to fight this coronavirus even as we did in those war years. I wish for each of you a time of peace and reflection during these beautiful days of Christmas. May we look to the year ahead with hope and believe in its promises.


Winter in a Pandemic

From the “Around the Kitchen Table” Guest Blog Series

Guest blogger: Mallory DeVries (my granddaughter) of Woodside Acres in Charles City, Iowa

It’s that time of year again. The Fodder’s in the Shock and farmers in the Midwest are ready to rest their aching bones. What a season it has been. At Woodside this year, we had a large garden for our own consumption and focused on crafting tasty, pastured poultry. I’m happy to report that we sold every last bird before they were even mature.

Meat and grocery shortages were not exactly what the country had in mind at the beginning of 2020, but here we are again, weathering a third peak of a deadly pandemic. It’s feeling quite dire here in Iowa. The kids have been home since March and we’re all getting a little irritated with one another.

A great source of entertainment has been our laying flock. When the crops are all out of the garden, the laying flock goes from “free-range” to “walk to town if you want”, meaning we open up their already large enclosure and they go to work, cleaning up the garden, fertilizing it, terrorizing the dog and the mailman, and entertaining the entire family with their antics.

As we settle in for perhaps the longest winter of our lives, we take time to reflect on the season and prepare ourselves for the next in a different way: by storing up on the feel-goods! We spend a lot of time preparing our homes and pantries for the cold; why not our minds and hearts as well? A winterizing of the mind, if you will. I’ve brainstormed a few questions to get us started:

  1. What habits can I create right now that will get me through the gloomy dark days of winter? 
  2. What promises will I make myself? 
  3. What can I get rid of? 
  4. How can I be more present during the holiday season? 
  5. What brings me happiness? 
  6. How can the rest of the family participate?

How are you preparing for winter? Leave me a comment!

And don’t forget, my Grandma’s book, Ira’s Farm, makes an excellent gift for the upcoming holidays! Buy it on Amazon and have it delivered (no-contact) this year!

Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

Stewards of Northwest Lower Michigan

Northwest lower Michigan farmers are among the growing number of concerned and committed stewards of the good earth. Organic farms are spreading and thriving in the counties of the area—Benzie, Leelanau, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Antrim.

Northwest lower Michigan is located globally within the 45th parallel and is a part of the Great Lakes area of the United States. Being in the temperate weather zone, the growing season is fairly short, extending roughly May through late September, a period of five months. In recent years, hoop houses have extended the growing season.

Hoop houses, sustainable land use, polyculture, regenerative farming, micro-sprouts, green manure, portable pens, hugelkultur, foraging, ugly fruits, CSA’s and community gardens—just a few phrases noted in recent articles about land use and crop farming—phrases which describe current farming techniques.

Numerous educational and community action groups now tout the environmental problems being addressed. Professionals, school children, food pantries and programs for the elderly are among the beneficiaries of these efforts. Local sources in northwest lower Michigan for a more in-depth exploration of today’s fine farming techniques can be found at Crosshatch Center for Art and Ecology in Antrim County, Grow Benzie, Leelanau Land Conservancy, Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities based in Traverse City. All are based in within the 5-county area mentioned earlier.

The majority of these and other subjects of today’s farming techniques could be explored under the all-inclusive title of Sustainable Land Management or by visiting an organic farm in the region. Find a market near you:


Photo by Shelley Pauls on Unsplash


Will there one day be a time when the food demands of billions of people is greater than the available farmlands to grow crops? In the midst of consumerism, will a concerned world recognize the need to keep our land healthy for food and drink?

How long has it been since you have held a clump of rich black soil in your hand How long since you have felt the soft warm earth squishing between your toes? Or walked barefooted in the sand and felt the freedom it brings? When did we decide that it was unhealthy for kids to play in the dirt and get a little under their fingernails?

The heart of earth – ‘tis a magnet, a tug, a fragrance when a breath of fresh air touches your face… Sense its hunger to heal…its beauty…if it stirs your imagination, let it…
The planet Earth and its constant turning relationship with the sun sustains mankind with water, air and soil. Air to breathe, water to quench thirst for all living things and soil to provide sustenance and dwelling space. One third of the earth’s surface consists of a land mass which accommodates billions of humans and countless species of animal life. Free-flowing saltwater oceans and seas cover the larger area of the planet.

A century of industrial growth brought dramatic changes to the world’s habitation space in the 1900’s. Cities, railways, super highways, airports, agribusinesses, amusement parks, major league sports complexes, factories, pipelines and housing developments covered the lands. Prosperity brought a new style of living to the average households with modern conveniences. Concrete driveways and sidewalks brought a separation from daily contact with the heart of earth – the soil beneath our feet.

Yet, the relentless growth of sprawling cities, ribbons of highways that crisscross nations and concrete-covered lands continues. Will there one day be a time when the food demands of billions of people is greater than the available farmlands to grow crops? In the midst of consumerism, will a concerned world recognize the need to keep our land healthy for food and drink?

Healthy soil is without doubt an invaluable commodity of this global sphere, as necessary to life as the air we breathe and the water we drink. We could not exist without it. And, so, who will ensure protection of these resources so freely available to all?

Those questions are being addressed worldwide by a host of environmentalists, farmers biologists, researchers, conservationists, concerned young people and persons of every age, color and nationality. Advocates of soil care, healthy crops and healthy foods have fostered a promising new wave of action and awareness in agriculture today; an awareness that encompasses tillers of the soil from world leaders to Mom’s backyard flower bed. Those pebbles of sand were once a part of rock formations. They contain minerals present in solid rock; minerals that promote plant growth. Decaying natural waste provides other necessary elements needed for feeding the roots of each plant. Nature’s wonderful (natural) interaction provides and blends each component exactly as designed to produce the whole product. The soil is its own little factory of blended components and performs in its natural function of nurturing each seed embedded within its womb.

Each member of this mass of humanity we call earthlings affects a day, a space, a decision. We affect persons we touch, the care of possessions. We are individually and corporately bound in the throes of life. We create positive or contribute to lesser. We give or take from the universe daily. No one escapes their moment in time. We share a planet.


Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

The Process of Producing Food on a Family Farm

A Personal look at Labor-intensive food production – yesterday and today
In reality, my parents spent their entire working years focused entirely on farming in such a way that those sixty acres would provide food and other necessities of life for themselves and their family of two sons and two daughters. No other income in those thirty-one years, just what was grown on the farm, would qualify my mother and dad as creating a ‘sustainable farming operation’ in today’s lingo. Still recovering from the catastrophic nation-wide financial failure in 1929 commonly known as the Great Depression, small farms like my dad’s had few resources. But we had food to eat, a house to live in and clothing on our back because of their land, mortgaged though it was. Growing vegetables, fruit and meat for a family with four children was very labor-intensive in the 1930’s and I want to describe the process of producing food on a family farm in comparison to today’s food markets. Mega-size grocery stores are within minutes of our homes and most of them offer home delivery. Gas stations carry convenience foods, Pizza shops, ice cream drive-throughs. Buffets at restaurants stretch out from wall-to-wall with seemingly hundreds of food items to choose from.
A winter morning in 1936 on the Mack farm in Wexford County, Michigan begins: Even starting a fire in the cookstove means there have been prior days in the woods cutting and hauling wood for heat. Dad puts the coffee pot on to percolate so it will be ready when he comes in for breakfast after milking his herd of six cows. He brings in the milk, fills a pitcher for the day’s use and pours the remainder in the separator for cream to sell and skim milk to feed the hogs. Mom probably has warmed up potatoes which we raised, and bacon or side pork along with eggs fried in the meat grease—meat that was butchered in late fall and eggs that were gathered from the chicken coop. Before we had electricity, the homemade bread we served with the morning meal was just sliced and buttered with home-churned butter, no toast. Some days we had pancakes made from ‘scratch’ and slathered with maple syrup which had been harvested from a nearby woodlot and canned for year-round use. Probably Dad has also brought in a bucket of drinking water (pumped by hand) before sitting down to eat.
Lunch was always a good hearty meal, as well as the supper meal. After the supper meal, back to the barn to milk those six cows and separate the milk, etc. Probably 80-90% of all three daily meals were grown, harvested, and canned over the summer months. In addition, we picked morel mushrooms in the spring, and wild blueberries and blackberries in the summer. Year ‘round day after day food gathering, raising animals for meat, chickens for eggs, large garden for vegetables, a fruit orchard to care for. Cucumbers to pick consumed about six weeks of back-breaking harvest. Pickling dills, with dill from our garden, stored in crocks in the cellar and sweet pickles canned. Apple pies to bake while the fruit was ripe. Potatoes to dig and store in the cellar for the winter. Labor-intensive meals, for sure, but good, healthy foods year-round. Even as little kids, we knew where most of our food came from. Our family was raised with ‘sustainable land management’ and ‘farm-to-table’ meals before the phrases became popular!
My parents sold the farm in 1960, thirty-one years after the first field was plowed. The property was totally debt-free, a little savings in the bank, had made improvements to the house, sent two daughters to business schools, had two sons join military service, had a modern pickup truck. My mother had health problems and died nine years before dad. Dad was still in good health, had a garden with the help of his grandchildren, and walked the rows of that small garden until his death at age 83.

My book, Ira’s Farm: Growing Up on a Self-Sustaining Farm in the 1930’s and 1940’s goes deeper into my history. You can purchase it here. Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash