I love to visit farms recognized through the Ohio Department of Agriculture Ohio Historic Family Farm Program each year for many reasons. There is usually fascinating history, there are always great family stories and there are generally some impressive historic structures to gawk at when you think about how they were built so long ago. Another reason Century Farm visits are so valuable is the perspective they provide.
It is so easy to get caught up in the busy schedule of today’s society. It seems that we have so much to do these days compared to those tales of yesteryear that are always so prevalent in my visits to Century Farms. Why is that? After years of learning about Ohio’s agricultural history, I continue to arrive at the same answer to that question: food.
Just a couple of generations back, whether they lived in the city or the country, people spent significantly more time and resources on food than we do today. In the subsequent years, our food system has evolved in a way that gives people what they most want — quality food that takes less time and less money.
I am reminded of this every time I sit and listen to tales told about farm days of old. Calvin Peterson remembers the joys of farm life as a boy on his family’s Ross County farm. The big brick house built and modified by his forefathers was wonderfully isolated from the outside world in the earliest days he lived there, connected to a distant road by a very long lane. Calvin recalls playing in the sand at the creek and the great boyhood joy when he got a new (used) bicycle that helped inspired him to start small shop for bike repairs.
He also shared stories of the incredible (but fairly standard for the era) self-sufficiency of the isolated farm where, instead of running to the store, his family would rely on the gardens, fields and livestock in the barn for their food.
“They had hogs and cattle and we butchered right here on the farm. We’d put it in salt to cure it and then we had the gardens and the women would can it for the winter. We had a hen house and were self-sufficient,” he said.
The table always seemed to have food, but only as a result of constant year-round toil to produce, preserve and prepare it. The family’s energy needs were much the same.
“I moved to this house in 1932 and they put in a furnace in 1935. Until then they had a fireplace in each room and we carried wood and coal in and hugged the fire. I was quite young when we got electric in the mid-30s. I was only four but I remember when we got the indoor plumbing and the coal furnace. We had a coal bin and my father would go down and get the clinkers out and stoke the fire. We could see our breath upstairs and we would run downstairs to get dressed in the morning,” Calvin said.
They did not have time back in the 1930s and 1940s to be busy with sports, or events, or whatever else we fill our time with today because they were working from sun up until sun down to produce the food needed for survival. When they did get a break from work, they relished it and savored it as an occasional luxury. Free time was not expected; it was a privilege. Leisure was not an entitlement; it was something to be cherished. Life was not as much about “me” because, out of necessity, it had to be more about “we.” It wouldn’t work any other way.
As food has gotten easier, we have come to expect time to spend doing things we want to do, rather than put so much effort into providing or procuring food and energy. We don’t have to spend hours a day producing and preparing the food necessary for survival, so we do other stuff and then complain about how busy we are (myself included). The miracle of our modern food system has eliminated much of the misery of food production for most of our society, but it has also eliminated much of the harsh reality that grounded our forefathers.
The farm men and women of previous generations worked very hard every day in dangerous and uncomfortable conditions to produce food. They didn’t have time to be our kind of busy because they used more of their resources doing what was necessary to survive. Their leisure was sitting down for a few minutes to enjoy some homemade ice cream and conversation with their fellow workers after 14 hours of hard, hot labor on a summer day. They tackled life’s challenges side-by-side together as families and not separated by cubicles or classrooms. Instead they were bonded with the common goal of surviving and thriving. Life may have been simpler, but it was definitely not easier. It is hard to argue that life was better then, but maybe the perspectives provided by a life of toil were better.
The Ohio Historic Family Farms program recognizes a farm that has been in the same family for: 100 to149 years (Century Farm designation), 150 to199 years (Sesquicentennial Farm designation) or 200 or more years (Bicentennial Farm designation). These historic treasures of rural Ohio are often overlooked, but they offer a glimpse into the state’s past that can really provide (I believe) some valuable insights for today and the future. It does not take much modern research to see that many in today’s society clearly have too much time to spend focused on the minutiae of perceived happiness — that is not something farm families had 100 years ago, and maybe they were better off for it. Maybe that is why they call them the good old days.