Traditional Farming and Farm Hand's Companion

The Old-Fashioned Subsistence Farm of the Past and Present

If my writing here seems to go on too long, will the reader please forgive me? I plead guilty to loving my topic: old-fashioned farming. However, it’s a bit difficult to pen a concise monograph on something so close to your heart without rambling on for a thousand pages. So I think I’ll set my goal for this little treatise as hitting the highlights in broader terms. Then perhaps in weeks, months, and years to come—God willing—I’ll spend more time filling in the gaps with the finer points.

Old Time "Organic" Farming

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My grandma Nanny's oldest brother, Virgil with his son and grandson taking a break from planting corn
First, I’ll bet you noticed I placed the word “traditional” right there in front of “farming”. In order to be clear I’ll just say the only reason I need it at all is to differentiate the type of farming the FHC website and show will be referring to from the commercial farming of our present day. From genetically altered vegetables, crops, and livestock, to centralized, one-faceted agricultural operations…there’s a lot of criticism out there about the modern commercial farming industry. Whatever your viewpoint of the modern farm is, one thing I think all can agree on: It also found its origins in the men, women, sons and daughters of the traditional farm throughout American history. Many of these were the subsistence farms of the past. And it’s these unsung heroes for whom it’s time to sing. We shall do so by remembering their efforts and utilizing their methods where best fitted to our purposes. So in all my FHC efforts both present and future, I’ll be pondering the type of old time farming I know something about, and those are the less complex day-to-day enterprises of the “traditional” farm; things like gardening and animal husbandry for instance. I was kind of surprised to see an article recently refer to the modern commercial farm as “traditional” in an effort to distinguish between it and the more organic type of agriculture I observed the writer to be endorsing. I think, though, I’ll steal the word back and use it to describe what to me was organic…back before organic wasn’t “cool”.
Now I was born and bred in the south, so much of what you’ll see on FHC relates first and foremost to southern idioms, phrases, and methods. Now, in most instances there’s hardly a difference between southern farming and other areas of the United States, except for things like growing season lengths, zone temperatures, colloquial phrases, words and customs. Much of what can happen or has happened on a traditional southern farm can or has happened on a traditional northern farm. And a lot of what stands out about traditional farming in the south (like a good work ethic, for instance) is also highly regarded in the north. You just wear warmer clothes and plant your corn later, I guess. I like talking about the things I love, and the things I know. Since the south is where I’ve lived and worked all my life, it’s what you’ll no doubt see a lot of with FHC. However, all Yankees, Midwesterners, South Westerners, and Westerners are always encouraged to come along! We’ll have a big ole American time.
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Rendering of a traditional farm of the past carved out of raw wilderness
And one more thing about the previous train of thought: In concentrating my attentions toward the old-fashioned “traditional” farm, I’m not in any way suggesting or prompting a denial or distrust of technology. If you turn up your nose at technology, you can’t even honestly use fire. And I like fire…use it all the time, along with a good chainsaw and a tractor (which just happen to have fire in them, too). I simply seek to promote a desire to take up and/or improve the craft of old-time farming by building on the success of others, and developing it further (technology is development) within the bounds of good sense and practicality.

Okay, now…next thing: The people of the traditional farm fall into two groups, which I will represent, correspondingly, by two questions:
1) Who were they then?
2) Who are they now?
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Pa Mac's daddy and mamma, Quint and Lema
First group: Who were traditional farmers then? They were the pioneers, homesteaders, and farmers who settled the states and territories from early European settlement till about the middle of the 20th century. They were literally all over the place, creating farms here, there, and yonder; wherever they thought the dirt was rich. You’ve probably driven or ridden past one of these forgotten farms pretty often, possibly even oblivious to its former existence. In the course of going into a grocery store, a shopping mall, or a hardware store, you might have walked into the old property lines of one without knowing so, and walked right out of it again just as unwittingly. It’s also quite possible that someone reading this paragraph is doing so right in the middle of an old cotton or cornfield…but not any more aware of it than they know what they’ll eat for Sunday dinner a year from now. These forgotten places tell a thousand different stories of success and failure, drought and plenty…yet life went on.
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Nanny's grandparents: Isaac and Mary Jane Harris
History calls the founders of these homes pioneers and settlers. Makes ‘em seem like distant figures in a library book, doesn’t it? In reality, many of us are their direct descendants and we’re really not that far removed from them. With the use of antiques and imagination you can catch a glimpse of how they lived when you visit a living history museum. How far away their lives seem, even though it’s really not that long ago chronologically; and our life experiences and theirs have more in common than one might think. I won’t condescend to tell you such simpleton truths like “they had the same needs we do”. Well of course they did: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they married, they birthed, they bartered and buried. They lived close to their humanity…and that is a fertile seed ground where character often can flourish.

Second group: Who are traditional farmers now? Probably you, if you’re taking the time to read this exposition on the subject. There are as many different kinds of us as there are agricultural philosophies: homesteading folks, new pioneers, back-to-the-landers, organic gardeners or farmers, I could go on with the types…I won’t. You know who you are. You like being close to your food (animal or vegetable, or both) and you seek self-sufficiency in “doing” for yourself, and not others “doing” for you. I’m tellin’ you, in this way you’re not that far removed from group one. But by virtue of being so similar to group one, you are finding yourself farther away from a disturbing dependency mindset that continues to grow in this nation…which is another topic for another time.
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The original Pa Mac, with "Shorty" and the original "Pet"
Let’s develop further the similarities between traditional farmers then and now. This is where my grandpa, the original Pa Mac, is a useful illustration. When I was a kid I spent a lot of time with my grandma, Nanny. This was after Pa Mac, her husband of many long years had passed away. I loved exploring their old farm. By then it fallen well into disrepair, but I learned so much by carefully observing what remained. The outbuildings were made from culled lumber and slabs that would have been hardly usable to most anyone…except for Pa Mac who made up for his lack of resources with imagination and skill. There are different names for this kind of handiness that makes needful things happen with scant resources. And a lot of people who lived through the Great Depression like Pa Mac and Nanny learned to live by this “code”. Back then it was often referred to as “make-do”; and it was a mindset—a way of looking at everything you did with frugality and economy of effort. Reader, do you understand how this make-do mindset is so entrenched in traditional farming that it would be an impossible task to separate the two? Throughout history, people with little or no means have often relied on none other than themselves to make, build, or produce what they needed with very little to work with. Resourcefulness could be the best word for it yet, and I can't think of any way of living that displays the value and need of resourcefulness more than what I call traditional farming.
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A young Pa Mac (second from left) and his siblings with their parents from whom they'd learned the tradition of farming.
Let’s go back for a moment to Pa Mac’s farm. This was a place that had been dependent upon no one but it’s founder and operator for its existence. It was his desire to make a “living” that fueled his determination. But there’s no need to tell you that a farm like this was by no means unique. To all but the youngest readers this is obvious. Even by the time our nation was founded, many farms had already come and gone as families who operated them attempted to make a living.

But consider that word “living”: In the past, a “living” was just that…the process of staying a-live. Today, most workers earning what they call a “living” assume they will not realize occupational disaster (i.e., losing a job, going into bankruptcy, etc.) to the point of death; most modern workers assume that either the charity of others or government will come riding to their aid before anything too tragic happens. Today’s worker (farmer or not), and the farmer of the past are alike in that both work (or worked) for success.
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My great grandpa's brother, Uncle Bob and Aunt Jo Stuart
But here’s the point, and it’s an important one: The modern notion of success, generally speaking, is to achieve an abundance of assets (i.e., things or money). In the olden days of the traditional farmer the general definition of success was simply to keep yourself and your family alive to see another year. Just think how these two views reflect vastly different attitudes toward life and work! But I hope you don’t think I’m against profit…I’m very much the capitalist in favor of it (as most farmers were and are). Each of us is accountable to God alone concerning our motives for pursuing profit, and it’s the motive that can be good or bad. However, each person should do some serious soul-searching as to what their benchmark for success ought to be.
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A farmer/preacher, Andrew Giles Meador, and his daughter, Lydia (Pa Mac's mama's daddy and sister)
Now it’s purely anecdotal, but here’s what I’ve heard: In talking to people who remember the first half of the 20th century, they point out to me the difference between the attitude people had toward work back then, and how dissimilar it was from those who work today. They see the modern worker’s idea of success being “that day somewhere in the future, where he or she arrives at a certain condition of plenty or abundance; where all needs would most assuredly be met, and most desires as well”. Retirement and leisure would then be “knocking at the door”. Contrast this with the farmers of old: Although riches may have crossed their minds from time to time (maybe along with self-deprecating jest), most old-time farm couples didn’t put that much thought to making an abundance of wealth; their goal and idea of success was to “break even”. This, to them, was indeed success. It was also a good “living”. To dwell too much on the idea of plenty, bordered on the sinful, and if it crossed your mind any, it probably wasn’t voiced much, if at all.
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My great uncle Virgil, with one of his best mules
When contrasting traditional farming with modern farming there’s another big difference that shouldn’t be ignored (so I won’t): The traditional farms of yesteryear knew how to diversify. You’d think with such a fancy sounding business term it would be an action you’d sooner expect from the commercial farm of the present; but in comparison there’s no contest. A traditional farmer’s way of minimizing risk was to maximize their ventures, by maintaining as many enterprises as they could manage from sunup to sundown…and believe you me, they could keep a lot going. When you’re fond of three meals a day, there’s no limit to your motivation. To keep all these endeavors operating, the farmer was typically a lot of different people rolled into one: blacksmith, wheelwright, teamster, farrier, veterinarian, woodsman, tool maker, woodworker, mechanic, weatherman, and planter. The profitable activities found on a traditional farm were only limited by the skill, resources, and willingness of the occupants. Chickens for meat and eggs, cows for beef and milk, bees for honey, sheep for clothing, hogs for everything else, and for what those and other things couldn’t produce, they might be bartered for anything else available. The thought behind maintaining multiple undertakings on the farm was an idea that centered on the law of averages: Everything might fail at some point…but probably not at the same point, unless your name is Job. Brilliant…if your time, energy, and skills permit…and an inspiring example for you and me.
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Pa Mac and Nanny's kinfolk rest from their work for a photograph
Finally, at the heart of traditional farming is pure, raw, human living. It’s not always pretty…sometimes it’s beautiful. And sometimes it’s painful; sometimes quite the delight. Sometimes it’s living at it’s best, and sometimes death is close by. As I said, it’s pure, raw human living, which ultimately culminates in human dying. Isn’t modern culture trying to ignore this simple fact? I can hardly go anywhere without reading or hearing someone tell me from every conceivable angle how to live in order to not die; but as the statistician once said, 10 out of 10 people die. Life ought to be, by default, a humble one, because of its simplistic nature. We breathe, we work, we eat, we sleep. It’s an existence of humility, and it’s so typified by the simple farm life with its God-given mandate of work.
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Grateful laborers, standing in high cotton
Toil teaches and sweat is good for the brow; labor is the suitable and God-given course of action for a cursed world. And with the necessity of labor comes the desire to do more with less effort…a pure and noble goal. It is now at this point that some would part with my thinking and continue on with laments that technology ever advanced. But I shall not go that route. It’s a fools journey and of no value to me. As I alluded to earlier, I’m not an enemy of technology. A sharp axe is advanced technology compared to a dull one. God gave us each a brain and it’s wrong to not promote our condition by means of it, especially on a traditional farm. But I contend there has always been, and always will be a way to develop technologically while remaining tied to a way of living that grows our character, through working with our hands. Those of us who wish to, can…by utilizing that very efficient device God has placed in the traditional farmer’s toolbox: that of resourcefulness.
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The Stuart clan (my grandmother, Nanny, fourth from right)
I do believe I’ve come full circle now in my attempt to explain traditional farming. While continually discovering the farmer within ourselves, we stand beside the men and women who daily practiced the life of simple farm living from the mid 1900’s on back. They had no need to go back to basics like we do; they lived the basics. As I said earlier, these are the unsung heroes of our past who worked hard from sun up till sun down to feed their families and keep roofs overhead, and in the process—whether they knew it or not—propelled our nation onward. For the most part these were common people; simple in their pursuits, undeterred from their dreams, hardened from their toil, and given to survival no matter their circumstance. I've seen their worn faces in books, on film, and in photographs…some that you’ve seen here from my very own family albums. When available, I've read of their experiences in first hand accounts. The lives they lived are my fascination. The determination they displayed is my example. The resourcefulness they applied is my inspiration. May we, the most recent occupants of the traditional farms, follow in their steps knowing that all our endeavors, however resourceful they may be, are dependent upon the blessing of our Creator. And God willing, we will be mindful of these old-time traditional farmers as we go on our way…with our hands to the simple work of living.
Written by Pa Mac, copyright 2012