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.

A Holiday: Fourth of July Memories

From the “Around the Kitchen Table” Guest Blog Series

Guest blogger: Alvina Valencourt

(Alvina is the cousin I mentioned frequently in Ira’s Farm. Her dad was Uncle Mike who brought the Monopoly game on New Year’s Eve in 1937.)

A Holiday

It’s getting around the 4th of July time of the year, taking me back to a childhood memory of the one time of the year when we did anything together as a family.

Dad was a hard-working farmer, often bragging that “the day wasn’t long enough or the work hard enough” to suit him. Consequently, a day of leisure together as a family was rare. The 4th of July was the exception. So, with his brothers and their families who lived nearby, we would all converge on Green Lake near Interlochen for an all-day picnic.

We would scurry around getting ready which necessitated I go upstairs into the attic to retrieve my bathing suit from a large black trunk that reposed there. The attic was dark (no electricity then) and smelled strongly of mice. But thinking of the treat looming before me, I opened the trunk and retrieved the green knit moth-eaten bathing suit inherited from my cousin and ran downstairs to help Mama with the food,

The family piled into the Ford and our holiday began! Upon arriving at Green Lake, Dad would treat us kids to ice cream cones, a real treat in those hard times. Then into my bathing suit, plunge into the sparkling green lake. It was cold to my skin at first, but soon became pure joy as we splashed about.

At noon we had the picnic lunch and later in the day made ice cream the old-fashioned way – turning a handle on the wooden freezer. So delicious!

And so, back to the farm, never knowing that some eighty years later the memory of that simple pleasure would remain with me.


I am sitting in the spacious dining room of the Senior Independent facility where I have lived for the past five years. It is a beautiful sunny day. I’m looking out the window which faces our pond, a pond often teeming with nature’s activities. A mourning dove sits quietly perched on the patio railing, perhaps wanting to be sure he is mentioned in this review.  Redwing blackbirds nest in the high bushes there. If you are watching, you can catch glimpses of cardinals and goldfinch and robins and doves and chickadees flying around. Ducks come and go, landing at will on the pond for a swim. Frogs and snakes and butterflies live among the cattails and bushes. A Canadian geese ‘family’ strutted around the area in late May with five little goslings trailing along behind them – hatched in a nest well-hidden in the brushy areas around the pond. Occasionally a muskrat is sighted swimming there, and a skunk delivered her offspring among the cattails close to the walking path this spring, which caused a flurry of excitement for a few days! A red fox was sighted running across the lawn last fall. Black squirrels and gray squirrels fearlessly roam across the outdoor patio where coffee and local gossip are enjoyed around the wrought iron tables on many a summer morning.

In addition to the animal life, plants and trees of every sort abound in the pond area. There is a mature sugar maple tree across the way that resembles a large mushroom and its round sphere is a sight to behold in the fall when autumn colors appear. Vibrant green pines and flowering crimson ornamental trees, flowering shrubs and a few tulips planted in a small flower bed tended by a resident add to my window view with shades of colors as varied as crayons in a Crayola box… All is well with my soul.

Last week, an unusual incident happened near the patio, witnessed by the morning coffee hour regulars — usually ten to twelve of us. We had noticed a redwing blackbird laying very still on the patio and realized he must have hit the window so hard it caused his death. We became aware almost immediately of a number of blackbirds flying back and forth from nearby trees, flying directly over the bird on the patio in a distressed manner. They continued this commotion for an hour or more before leaving. They must have been aware that the bird on the cement patio was no longer alive. Could this have actually been happening? Have any of you witnessed a ritual of this sort with birds?

But I must move on… (My friendly mourning dove still sits atop the railing, as I turn my thoughts to other news.)

I recently visited the newly-opened Blue Vase book warehouse in Interlochen, about ten miles from Traverse City. And found a treasure! Have you ever looked at a book cover and known you had to get this book before you even opened its pages? Turn Here – Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works by Atina Diffley had me hooked. Published by University of Minnesota Press, Atina Diffley wrote a 335-page book in story form of her passion for the land, the soil we walk on and plant gardens in, the soil that constitutes acreage for farming and forests and beaches and gopher holes. Soil often pocked with stones and rooted perennial grass clumps. This woman loved soil. Loved it enough to endure drudgery, crop-destroying storms, fifteen-hour work days, years with no profit as she and her husband put all available resources back into healing the land on their farm. What a teaching, compelling page-turner Diffley created as she told of her honest endeavor to live the dream and, in reality, answer the urgent call of her heart and soul. I learned in the most elemental terms of the almost impossible demands of creating a certified organic farm. It is an incredible tale.

At approximately the same week that I ‘had my nose in that book until late in the night’, I received an invitation to a writing workshop June 27 at Providence Organic Farm in Eastport to speak about my efforts of writing, self-publishing and marketing the book Ira’s Farm: Growing up on a self-sustaining farm in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Have a good and productive summer, friends. Happy gardening. I’ll write more later.    Ginny

Photo by John Duncan on Unsplash

From Suburbs to Soil

From the “Around the Kitchen Table” Guest Blog Series

Guest blogger: Mallory DeVries of Woodside Acres in Charles City, Iowa

The year was 2013 and I was deep into learning how to cook. I’d been learning for a few years, mostly through practice and America’s Test Kitchen cookbooks. Growing up, we lived out of Hamburger Helper boxes, bags of cereal, and Nutter Butters. But I was determined to feed myself and future husband something more satisfying and complex. It wasn’t until I watched Food, Inc., however, that I really began to think about where our food was actually coming from. I began grocery shopping in an entirely new way: by seeking out food. Real food. Local food. Ingredients rather than ready-made meals and condiments.

It was in this same documentary that I was first introduced to Joel Salatin and his work on sustainable agriculture and holistic management of livestock. I very quickly began questioning every aspect of food; not just what was on my plate, but what was on America’s plate and why. I found some answers to the “why” a few months later when I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by (my now favorite author) Michael Pollan. This book impacted my life and future in ways that I couldn’t begin to fathom.

Having grown up in Iowa, you would think that I would have been exposed to lots of farming, but I was not. It wasn’t something young people really talked about. We knew that the combines driving down the highway were a huge inconvenience to us and that there were cornfields EVERYWHERE, but I didn’t even know what that corn was used for. I just didn’t care. But just before my husband and I turned 30, we made the decision to “go back to the land” and purchased an 11-acre property in Northeast Iowa.

Fast forward to now, Spring 2019, and our very first large-scale gardening adventure is in full swing. Our fifteen Wyandotte hens are busy preparing and fertilizing our garden area just to the East of our new home in Northeast Iowa. Our flock is also tasked with converting our food scraps into compost. An entire room in our home has been converted into a “garden room” filled with very eager tomato, pepper, onion, herb, and flower plants. The asparagus patch and rhubarb have sprung into production. There are buds on the existing apple, pear, peach, and cherry trees. Two new pear trees just went in the  ground. There are beet greens popping up in a large tub near the front yard. The most wonderful time of the year, indeed.

It is my hope that other “young” people will begin this journey with us and start questioning everything around them. I hope the next generation will be drawn to the land. To care for it and receive care from it as well.  I see it working when our toddler asks to go dig for worms or help daddy mulch the fruit trees. And when she laughs at the chickens doing funny things. She wants to be outdoors, rain or shine. It is working.

If you want to follow our journey to sustainability, follow Woodside Acres on Facebook!

Whatever Happened to the Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalog?

Ah, how I miss that Sears & Roebuck Winter catalog when November rolls around! It was the one time of year if I just happened to show my mom a doll I really liked, or the black shiny shoes with the neat silver bow attached, then I might, just might, find it in one of the Christmas packages I opened. Wonderful toys and dresses filled page after page in that thick book. Each tissue-thin leaf jam-packed with photos of everything a family could want.

Well, almost everything…There was no book section. Oh, there were so many good books on shelves in book stores and libraries. Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, Girl of the Limberlost – the choices were endless. But none could I order from the Sears & Roebuck catalog.

And so, I am set to wondering if those really were the good ol’ days when we waited each day for the mailman to finally deliver our mail order ‘shopping cart’.  Have you ordered anything recently from a shopping cart? Of course you have if you own one of the sleek modern black catalogs called computers, or its miniature version known as an ipad or tablet. Or even more convenient, the smartphone that goes everywhere with you, has automatic wi-fi. A compact little device that stores more information, including choices of dolls and toys, AND books than the average person could explore in his or her lifetime.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between today’s mail-order shopping cart and the leafy Sears catalog would be the time element for delivery. Next-day delivery is almost the norm. It took days for the little brown envelope complete with check and the hand-written items to reach Sears in Chicago, more time to hand-sort and package the items and then for the parcel to reach the same mailbox where the little brown envelope began its journey.

And so it’s November once again. Shopping season for those special people, including the ‘one who has everything’. Well, if you have a senior citizen friend or relative who may have grown up on a farm, I’d like to suggest my recent book called Ira’s Farm. And I have a very real reason for suggesting it. Since I published it in April 2018, I have given a number of presentations to groups of retirees and groups living in senior independent villages. The responses I receive are so heartening to me. I hear comments like “the memories brought tears to my eyes”, “I had a good laugh as I remembered the same events happening on our farm”. I really believe that the joy many received as they relived good memories brought a kind of healing to them and lifted their spirits with joy amid the problems many were facing. Smiles and precious memories keep hearts young.

I will always write a personal note when I sign a book. I keep copies on hand to fill orders for autographed copies. In other sections of my blog page, there are descriptions about “Ira’s Farm” and I am always available to answer questions through email, blog or IM on facebook.

May your holidays be filled with joy and “laugh out loud” moments. Hold tight to the wonderful gift of family that you have been given.  Sincerely, Ginny



The Fodder’s in the Shock

James Whitcomb Riley wrapped up a busy summer season succinctly with his poem When the Frost is on the Punkin and the fodder’s in the shock. Yes, it is the time of year when the local farmers can draw a sigh of relief as their fifteen-hour days slow down to perhaps a mere ten-hour day and they can have a second cup of coffee in the morning before heading off to the barn. I’m not sure, though if today’s crop growers can relate to ‘the fodder’s in the shock’. But, my dad could, because he put that fodder into shocks and I knew what it was because I watched him grab those bundles and shock them. Dried stalks of corn bunched together, tied with binder twine, produced those Norman Rockwell scenes of snow on the ground and dried shocks standing as sentinels in many a field. They were, I must admit, quite picturesque, but the raw aching muscles at the end of harvest probably dimmed the thought of capturing it on film to many a farmer. Rather, his satisfaction most likely centered on the fodder (those corn ears and stalks) that would feed his animals through the long winter ahead in his section of the upper Midwest farming country. But poets are licensed to describe the beauty of the world around us. And thank goodness, they still do.

Of late, I find myself among those who are singing the praises for local farmers who work those same fifteen-hour days to produce organic vegetables and fruit, then bring it fresh from their land to local markets and roadside stands for the local population. Packed full of nutrition with every bite and devoid of chemical absorption. Perhaps there are some around who could give poetic justice to these dedicated farmers in James Whitcomb Riley fashion? When the frost is on the punkin.

 Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

I am a Clipper

My mind seems to be churning with so many random thoughts, so I guess I’ll open another page and let the thoughts go where they will. I am a clipper – no, I don’t clip recipes or fashion notes – I cut out articles from newspapers and magazines about small farms, organic gardening, Farm-to-Table projects, Diane Connors “ten cents a meal” program. I pick up freebie papers wherever I travel, scanning those pages for interesting people or events. Finally, last week, I looked at the heap I had accumulated and organized file folders in one of those portable lightweight, cardboard accordion files that can serve as a temporary briefcase. Here are the file names: Compost information, Farm activities for children, CSAs and Small Farms in Traverse City area, Ten cents a meal, Invasive Species, Milkweeds & Monarch butterflies, and Misc.

In addition, I have a notebook of small farm success stories preserved in plastic sheet holders. Oh, the history that lies unfolded behind each farmer’s efforts.

A quote from “Ira’s Farm” Pg 54: “To create a self-sustaining farm operation would depend on how he (my dad) cared for the soil—that warm earth womb that nourishes and brings life to dried brown seeds and brittle kernels of corn. His harvest would depend on how he prepared the ground that beds fields of rye and strengthens the deep roots of alfalfa. Those fields would be the key to Dad’s future.”

Don’t forget to dig around in the dirt today – let the sweet, rich soil slip through your fingers. Protect it. The greening of the earth lies therein!