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