I’m drying apples today, which sounds a little strange in March, but I still had some organic winter keeper apples from Ela Farms in our cool room that were in great condition for drying, the skins only slightly shriveled or “pre-dehydrated,” and the fruit inside still fresh and firm. As I cored and sliced them, I noticed that my apple rounds were irregular widths, reminding me that I’m a human being, not a machine. I thought about how my grandparents and great-grandparents farmed before automation when farm work meant doing things by hand or with simple machinery operated by hand. How different than work in mechanized factories or sitting behind a computer screen.
I don’t mean to idealize those days. Farming back then was bone-wearying hard, whether raising crops and livestock or putting food on the family table. After all, my apples were drying in an electric dehydrator and I had running water to prepare them, not water hand-pumped from a well. But when I do things by hand, I remember my grandparents’ farms when I was growing up and I feel a kinship to my farming past. I think my grandparents felt a satisfaction with the work they did because the results benefitted them directly: wholesome food raised on land they had homesteaded, milk and eggs to sell in town, and a full granary of wheat to provide for the things they couldn’t raise.
A couple weeks ago, our county invited farmers to a special dinner and presentation by several farmers, now in their seventies and eighties, whose families had been farming for a hundred years or more on land where, according to one speaker, “everything is houses now.” They shared photographs of their families raising beet, alfalfa, and wheat crops and, just like my father, they knew the make, model, and year of every tractor they had driven. Back then, they said, companies like Case, John Deere, Oliver, and International all had businesses in town, none of which remain today.
These families had farmed before the “Get Big or Get Out” agriculture of the 1980s, when high interest loans for machinery and land shaved the profit margin so slim that only large-scale farms had a chance to survive. Back then, they said, “a lot of families farmed a little bit of land” instead of “just a few big farms” owning more of it. My partner John remarked to me that, judging from the photos, those little farms still provided enough income to build big farmhouses and barns. And, as one of the farmers remarked, family farms also “raised an awful lot of what you ate.” Since “the ladies canned all summer,” only sugar, salt and coffee were purchased. One farmer shared that he had recently found a Ball jar of pears from 1931 in his cellar—and it was still good.
All the farmers agreed that farming nowadays isn’t like farming was then, but they weren’t just referring to the economics of it. Instead, they remembered how families worked together to get the crops in and how people could do business on the trust of a handshake instead of a contract. Having seen the end of their way of life, they were glad for the chance to have lived it.
Last week, a friendly couple stopped by our farm. They had lived here in the early 1970s as part of a commune, of sorts, although the woman laughed that she hadn’t known she was a hippie until she’d read an article describing one. In the 70s, it didn’t take much to be considered a hippie; the “back-to-the-land” movement was branded countercultural as young people “dropped out” by rejecting middle-class jobs and keeping up with the neighbors.
As part of that movement, our visitors had milked two cows in what is now our community room, raised chickens in the old chicken house that’s now our guesthouse, and made candles and leather goods in the barn where we now distribute the vegetables for our CSA. John and I enjoyed walking around the farm with the couple and learning some of Stonebridge’s history. The cows were pastured where we now grow our vegetables—no wonder it’s so fertile. Their tipi stood in the old orchard where, twenty-five years later, our friends had raised a tipi for a while. And I was thrilled to hear that the Paul Butterfield Blues Band had jammed in our very own living room!
I’m not surprised at this farming past. Stonebridge has a “vibe” for community, whether commune or CSA. I’m glad to trace our farm as part of the “back-to-the-land” movement of young people whose own parents had fled the hardships of farming after WWII. Something had been lost in that migration, something that the small farms of my grandparents and the older farmers in our county had provided: a sense of working together for a common good rather than merely profit, a sense of being human rather than a machine. Many of us in small-scale farming today are looking for that same sense of community and satisfaction in work well done with others, for others. As Stonebridge begins our 22nd season, we are thankful for a farming past that we hope ensures a farming future.
For more about the connections between farms of the past and small-scale farming and CSA today, see my forthcoming book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, published by Torrey House Press.