Growing up, I was privileged to be able to spend all my summers with my grandmother and grandfather on my mother’s side. They had 40 acres of homestead with large plots devoted to gardens, a huge forest for exploring, a natural spring which provided clean water and occasional dips when the weather was hot, a small orchard of plums, pears, and apples, a few pecan trees, and a chicken coup with dozens of hens for fresh eggs. It was in this country farm setting that I learned a great deal, much of which was forgotten until just recently. Thanks to my mother, what I was remembering was accurate. As my Dad always said, “Things you learn or know are sometimes placed in the back of your mind, stowed away until it’s needed, but it is never really forgotten”.
There isn’t a week that goes by these days that doesn’t include trips to town to scavenge for needed items. More often than not, bare shelves are encountered where toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning products, water, canned goods, dish and laundry soap and butter used to be in abundance. At times, even the meat section lacks the abundance of chicken, beef, and pork we all have enjoyed our entire lives. Simple trips for groceries have turned into hours long events, which results in only being able to fulfill half the list.
What does all of this have to do with a little girl spending her childhood summers on her grandparents’ farm? First, it was why I spent those summers on the farm – my mother had to work to help my Dad make ends meet and there was no money left over for childcare. Mom worked at the local plastics plant while my Dad managed a dairy farm. Dad couldn’t keep an eye on me all day and work the farm where we lived. It was a situation I didn’t learn about until much later in my years. But, what I learned on my grandparents’ farm from them placed in the back of my mind that looming danger that we face today.
My grandmother’s father had a sizeable farm as well. Even in his 80s, he was still plowing acres and acres of corn with a mule – a mule I would ride as he plowed until my grandmother found out and put a stop to that. It was during those days of plowing corn that I asked Grand-Daddy why he had so much corn. In between, the “gee” and “haw” and “ho” to the mule, who stood as still as a brick wall in the wind when stopped, caring nothing for what was happening around him, Grand-Daddy explained that a lot of corn was needed for eating, feeding the chickens and hogs, putting away for the winter, and milling in order to have meal. Well, this was something that I had not heard before since cornmeal came from the grocery store. Mind you, this was in the mid to late 60s. Most everything came from the grocery store, except our milk and beef, which came from the livestock on the dairy farm. I didn’t eat beef for a year because “Bully” was the stock from where we got the beef. And, beef is not something I eat much of today. But, I digress.
In Grand-Daddy’s day, as well as the early years of marriage of my mother’s parents, the local mill ground your corn for meal. Everyone raised corn and hay because it was needed for the livestock that everyone kept, if you lived in the country. The store was where you bought flour and sugar. It had very little else where food stuffs were concerned. This prompted the next question to Grand-Daddy – what about everyone that lived in town? Grand-Daddy said that many of them kept some chickens but would purchase other goods from local farmers like himself. Naturally, my curiosity led to more questions that he answered patiently and joyfully.
Since Grand-Daddy was a farmer, he raised cotton as a cash crop to make money. He told me about all the kids, his six, staying home to pick the fields so they could have money for the year. My grandmother told me many stories about cotton-picking, but I never remember her saying it was for money. She described it as hard, back-breaking work necessary for survival.
What I learned from Grand-Daddy during his mule-plowing and my mule-riding sessions was most everything that was needed was able to be procured locally. Many small farms, such as my grandparents’ farm, even had honeybees for pollination and to provide honey. I didn’t understand Grand-Daddy’s lament over such days gone by then. He seemed a figure out of time, and he was.
By the time my mother came along, my grandfather had to work a job for money to purchase items that could not be raised on the farm. He toiled untold hours at the local iron foundry then would come home to garden while my grandmother tended the animals. Families made their own soaps, cooked with wood on a wood stove, washed at the spring, wells just outside the house provided water, some made their own jams, jellies, and preserves, and no one used not one sheet of toilet paper at the outhouse. But, by then, goods were beginning to be more regionalized instead of local.
It was during one of my summer visits on a hot, sunny, summer day swinging on the front porch with my grandfather, when my grandfather’s brother, Uncle Julius, visited. He said, then, “There will come a day when there will be plenty of money and nothing to buy.” Naturally, this went over the head of a small child, but was not lost in the memory. It wasn’t long after that my grandmother’s mother passed and was soon followed by Grand-Daddy. Grand-Daddy’s farm was divided between the children and the last acreage sold off in the early 80s.
Times were changing for the small rural areas so by the time I was born, most goods had become produced in a centralized location and shipped nationwide. More people were gathering into large cities, which became even larger and living spaces more cramped and no one considered gardening or keeping small livestock. Despite always having a job, my parents continued to raise a garden. My mom, like her mother before her, would can and freeze vegetables for the winter months. She made preserves from the two small pear trees she planted in the back yard. It was a lifestyle they continued not only out of necessity but out of love for times they both lived and traditions carried on from one generation to the next.
Unfortunately, I did not continue those gardening traditions when my child was growing up so she knows little of farming/gardening. My grandfather died when she was six weeks old so she never saw their farm during its working days. She did see my parents garden and helped when she was little, but has no hands on knowledge in growing vegetables for food. It was a disadvantage I gave her. Even my sister has little knowledge of gardening, except to grow container tomatoes on the back deck.
Luckily, I listened to my Dad a few years back about learning the art of gardening. My first crop consisted only of okra and corn. But, those three 15-foot rows of corn yielded 60 ears. The two 15-foot rows of okra yielded enough okra to eat, freeze, and give away until the first frost. I made mistakes, but I learned.
So, knowing the food supply and distribution had become centralized, when the first mention of this coronavirus hit, I knew it was time to fully expand the garden. Why? Remember the adage of those who mean to do us harm – never let a good crisis go to waste? In the back of my mind, the assumption was made that if this hit the united States and the reaction was overblown, the food supply chain, as well as other goods distribution, would be disrupted. It meant a shortage of items to buy at the store. We stocked the pantry with what we could to get us through to harvest and beyond. We bought needed seeds and relied on our stockpile of seeds from the freezer to fill the gaps. We planted.
Gone were the days of locally grown. Even the small farmers’ market goes to the large one in another county to fill its stock. Gone were the days of regionalization where one could get goods from another part of the State. The technological advances and the development of food conglomerates centralized the food supply and the supply chain of many other goods to the point the government overreach with this “virus” has pushed some to the brink of starvation.
When we had little money, there was plenty to buy. Now, we have money, but there is beginning to be little to buy. Flour and cornmeal are a commodity as well as paper and cleaning products. Before long, canned good will be as well, along with bread.
Working a garden is harder work than any day of nursing I ever experienced. A garden is continual whereas when I worked as a nurse, my day was done when my shift was over. Fighting pests, drought, and fungus is harder than anything I dealt with in nursing. But, I don’t long for those days of nursing. I long for the days of local farming, carrying on the traditions that kept people fed and healthy. I long for the days when even town folks had some way of providing for themselves, instead of fighting city hall on having gardens and livestock. I long for the days I learned about as a child and failed to keep those traditions alive for mine.
In an era that is long gone, the amount of cornmeal you had was dependent on what corn you could raise and get to the mill. Flour was readily available at the store, along with sugar. One wonders at what point will sugar be disrupted because it seems that some State authorities are refusing to return to pre-coronavirus normals, while even the federal government is indicating a return to what was normal will not be forthcoming any time soon. Livestock farmers are culling their stock, losing money, which further puts the food supply in jeopardy.
But, all is not lost. It takes a bit of research and ingenuity to find local livestock farmers who will sell beef and pork on the hoof – they are still there. And, we were lucky enough to tap into a local chicken farm for poultry meat. Of course, you have to buy the poultry in 40-pound lots, but it’s there. The art of cheese-making, butter making and bread-making are still alive and well. To learn those skills, you have to know someone willing to teach you and you have to be willing to learn.
Those by-gone eras of local farming will not be coming back. But, we can keep that spirit and tradition alive if we are willing to put our nose to the grindstone to learn them, honor them, and teach them to others. It’s not too late to learn during this man-made crisis and keep it going to lessen the impact of anything in the future. It will certainly help keep your family fed when supply chains are disrupted. Plus, you might just find you enjoy it, despite the hard work it takes.
And, what happened to that little farm of my grandparents? My grandfather gave his three children five acres each and one of my mother’s brothers bought the rest. It’s still in the family minus about 14 acres, which my cousin sold to pad his pocket after his parents died. It sits outside a small town in Alabama, where we can return to farm, if necessary. All it needs is a bit more fencing, some ground-breaking, and tree clearing. The old barn still stands, built by my grandfather some 60 or so years ago – an icon of years gone by.
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