Family Farms Then, Farm Food Now

I found this photograph with some old family things and wondered who the white-bearded gentleman might be. He showed up wearing overalls in another photo taken with my great-grandparents, Noah and Mabel Short, and three of their six sons. From the North Dakota license plate and the house front pose, it looked like an out-of-state family visit by car, making me suspect the distinguished looking man was my great-great-grandfather, George Washington Short, and his second wife, Flora, who lived outside Stillwell, Indiana. When I sent my great-aunt the photos, she agreed the man with the trim white beard must be her grandfather, GW.

Next I spotted George Washington in a group photo with Mabel and Noah holding their two oldest boys before they left Indiana for North Dakota in 1907. The building looks like the church near the cemetery where my great-great-grandfather is buried, a photo I found later on find-a-grave.com. Noah and Mabel are just left of the photo’s center. Can you find GW on the right next to Flora?

And then GW and Flora appeared again in another photo taken at a house with a fancy porch, probably another church gathering. I recognized the young woman next to Flora as their daughter Pansy, who I had seen in a photo from her 1915 visit to Noah and Mabel in North Dakota. I also figured out that the handsome young man with the mustache in both photos was probably Noah’s brother Frederick Pershing Short, the “Pershing” for their mother Mary McBroom, who was third cousin to the General John J. Pershing.

Recently, I met a first cousin twice-removed through ancestry.com (first cousin twice-removed means she was my grandfather’s cousin). Our DNA tests matched, so we contacted each other to share what we know. I sent this newly found cousin my photos of George Washington and she affirmed I was right in my guess. Her father was GW’s youngest son, Welcome. I was thrilled to think this cousin had known my great-great-grandfather when she was a child, but the timing seemed odd since my own grandfather Russell, her cousin, has been gone a long time. That’s because she is descended from the second, younger part of GW’s family with Flora Dennie and I am from the first, older part with Mary McBroom. After my great-great-grandmother died young, GW remarried, creating two separate families, with my side moving to North Dakota in 1907, which was where my grandfather was born.

With the help of my expert genealogy friend, a little more research uncovered that at 16, George Washington Short left his home in Indiana to serve in the Civil War. In 1864, he was wounded in the battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and was discharged after the war ended in 1865. He saw a bit of the world for a young man of his time, but when he came home, he bought some land for himself. A photo from my new cousin put it all in place. Here was George Washington in work shirt and suspenders on his farm. In the background you can see an earlier view of the barn in my first picture.

George Washington Short became a farmer, just like his father, Silas Short, and his grandfather, Curtis Short in Sussex, Delaware, before him. That’s as far back as my records go. But the farming lineage reaches forward to GW’s son Noah, his son Russell, and—although he left the farm to become a surveyor—my father, Robert Short. The census records don’t say “farmer” next to their names, but my paternal grandmothers were farmers, too, from Hannah (last name unknown), Mary Ann Thompson, and Mary McBroom to Mabel Amor and Olga Jacobson, my grandmother. Farmers are also on my maternal side, but that’s another story.

This story about George Washington Short has gotten me thinking about farming today. In GW’s time and before, farms and farming knowledge passed from generation to generation in this country because the majority of the population lived on family farms. They grew and ate their own food and sold crops when they could. Their land was not just where they lived but where they made their living.

I found GW’s land at the northwest intersection of two roads in section 14 of a 1921 plat for Pleasant township, LaPorte county, Indiana. Seeing his name on that plat gave me another thrill. Now I could picture the land that held that big barn and fences around fields on which he grew crops and raised livestock and Flora kept a big garden to feed her family of seven.

Today, food barely comes from a farm, not when you consider all the processing and packaging that happens before we eat it. Farms and farmland are shrinking, both from loss of land to development and from consolidation of farms into bigger, corporate-owned businesses. Food is big business—but it’s not the kind of food my great-great-grandparents or even my parents ate when they were young.

To get a sense of the food industry today, take a look at how much of your food dollars goes to farmers—a mere 8.6%. And from that, farmers pay the costs of production, including farm laborers, seeds, insurance (a big chunk), irrigation, machinery, and structures. The rest of your food dollar goes to stuff you probably rarely think about when you sit down to a meal, like transportation, packaging, advertising and the costs of retail and trade services that get your food from the field to your plate.

Community supported farms like ours are keeping smaller acreages in food production and that’s important not only for farmland preservation, but for helping people eat closer to the plant. Here’s a chart showing the most common veggies consumed in the US today, with the green part of the bar meaning “fresh.” Potatoes, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and carrots are the most popular fresh vegetables on most people’s tables.

But when members join a CSA farm, their plate will include all kinds of other vegetables. Just this week for the third pick-up of our season, our subscribers took home spinach, green garlic, radishes, head lettuce, kale, and beet greens—all fresh, all just-picked, all organic. The first two weeks, they got rhubarb, too, which we’ll pick again this Saturday. And this is just the start of the season, with the bulk of the garden still to come. Once the basil’s in, we joke that people get back the cost of their membership in what they save on the price of supermarket basil (which comes in plastic, how appetizing).

Eating from a CSA farm isn’t exactly like eating from a family farm like my great-great-grandfather’s, but these days, it’s about as close as you can come. Small, local community farms help people eat closer to the land and closer to the health provided by the food. Even in the days before antibiotics and immunizations, George Washington Short lived to be 90 years old. I like to think fresh food and hard work on the land kept him healthy and fit. I hope eating food from Stonebridge Farm helps our members stay healthy too (check out our recipes here). Delicious vegetables, farmland preservation, and local community support for food production–I think my great-great-grandfather would approve.

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8 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

8 responses to “Family Farms Then, Farm Food Now

  1. Susan Skor

    Love reading the family history and reflections of your thoughts. Learned so much last summer with you and then over in Wenatchee. I’m way behind in the family genealogy, but love hearing the stories. Thanks!

  2. I didn’t know you had relatives from northern Indiana. My father was raised near Fort Wayne, and I still have several relatives in that area. In addition, my mom’s parents (after immigrating from Switzerland) first settled near Lisle, Illinois. So my ancestors sort of geographically bracketed yours. Who knew?

  3. Longmont has a very active and helpful group. Both John and I have given talks on our research. Glad you have a great one near you!

  4. I joined the West Valley Genealogical Society in Glendale. If there is such an organization near you, I would highly recommend joining – I have met so many knowledgeable members at WVGS and their advice saves lots of research time.

  5. Pattie Cowell

    Thanks for the insightful comments about changes in the farming and food economy. I grew up on a family farm growing sugar beets in north-central Montana, but when the processing plant moved far enough away to make growing sugar beets impossible, the farm became a ranch raising registered Angus cattle. My near-retirement brother who continued the ranching tradition now wonders about the changes coming for the next phase.

    • I’ll bet your brother’s wondering, especially considering water in the West. We planted 600 tomatoes yesterday with the memory of hail two years ago when we couldn’t get out to check on the plants, let alone save them. But we replanted and had a good crop. Guess that’s still part of farming, then and now.

  6. Thanks what hardy folks.

    On Mon, May 29, 2017 at 4:23 PM, Pearlmoonplenty wrote:

    > kayann short posted: ” I found this photograph with some old family things > and wondered who the white-bearded gentleman might be. He showed up wearing > overalls in another photo taken with my great-grandparents, Noah and Mabel > Short, three of their six sons. From the North D” >

  7. johnmmartin

    Would very much liked to have spoken with GW. I bet he’d still recognize spinach and a beet green.

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