Tag Archives: North Dakota

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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Noah Liked Horses

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I don’t know a lot about my Great-grandfather Noah Lawrence Short. He died ten years before my father was born, so Dad never met his grandfather. What I know comes from the few records I’ve found (with help) on ancestry.com and other genealogy sites and from a handful of photographs handed down from my great-grandmother to my grandfather to my father to me.

When I write about my family’s history, I’m always conscious that my ancestors were real people, not just characters in books. Their lives were complicated by factors that are hidden to me by the passage of time. I might study an historical period but that doesn’t mean I know or understand it in the way I know and understand my own. Old documents and photographs only portray what’s on the surface of someone’s life. We can try to read them for clues about our ancestors—indeed, that’s part of the fun of genealogical research—but some things will always remain hidden from our view.

Still, acknowledging the hidden depths of a person’s life that can never be recovered should not stop us of from sharing and honoring what we do know. For my great-great-grandfather Noah, I have dates, records, and photographs, a few pieces that fit together into the pattern of a life.

Noah Lawrence Short was born April 5, 1878, in Donaldson, Indiana, to George Washington and Mary T. (McBroom) Short. I have no photos of Noah as a child but he does appear in the 1880 census with his parents and two sisters, Margaret (older) and Amy (mistakenly recorded as Emma). The 1890 U.S. census was lost in a fire (an accident I routinely curse), so I have no other trace of Noah until 1899 when he enlisted for the Spanish-American War. He was 21 years old, his shining young face both expectant and hesitant in this official photograph taken in Kansas before he shipped out to the Philippines.

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Noah’s military record states September 17, 1899 for his enlistment but the photo is dated 1898 on the back, one of those inconsistencies that drive genealogists crazy. We have no family stories about his service, but this photo may have been taken while he was in the Philippines.

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Noah served until June 30, 1901, when he was discharged for a gunshot wound to his right thigh, a fact that came to light recently with the discovery of Noah’s discharge papers. Interestingly, a later record for Noah’s hospitalization at the U.S. Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in South Dakota lists “mustard gas” as the cause of military discharge. He was diagnosed in 1911 with “tuberculosis pulmonary chronic far advanced Active C,” a condition which plagued him for many years.

Despite those problems, Noah married, raised a large family, and ran a dairy in Missouri Ridge township, Williams County, North Dakota. Noah and Mabel married in LaPorte, Indiana, on February 19, 1902.

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They had two sons in Indiana before moving to Missouri Ridge, perhaps to be near his younger sister Amy, who had come first with her husband. His younger sister Toot also came with her family. Here’s Noah and Mabel’s first home in Missouri Ridge. I don’t know whether my great-grandparents homesteaded or purchased their land outright. Either way, their beginnings were humble, as were most people’s who had come to North Dakota to farm.

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The original barn on the Short property burned down in the early years; the big red barn that replaced it became a landmark and was known as the Short farm even after the family had left.

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My grandfather Russell was the third son and first child born in North Dakota, in 1906. Living on a dairy farm was hard work but left some time for play, as seen in this photo of the two older boys, Lawrence and Howard, and a friend.

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On the back of the photograph, someone has written, “Noah Liked Horses.” Even though he’s not in the photo, his love of horses is evident in the number and beauty of horses he raised. Noah worked with horses in the dairy, delivering milk early each morning with a horse and wagon to nearby Williston.

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Noah and Mabel were active in the school, built their home, and raised their children. This photo taken after a school Christmas program in 1911 shows Noah in the back middle holding his son Clifford who died the summer after the photo was taken. Mabel is at the very right of the photo with her hand on my grandfather Russell’s shoulders. Howard and Lawrence are the two boys in white shirts at the left of the photograph.

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Here’s a 1915 photograph of Noah with a woman I first believed was his older sister Margaret visiting from Indiana (the photo was developed there). Recently I figured out that she’s not Margaret (who seems to have died young) but Pansy, Noah’s younger stepsister from his father’s second marriage. Judging by Noah’s clothes, he must have enjoyed some success as a dairy farmer.

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The next photo was a puzzle to me until my great-aunt recognized the older gentleman as my great-great-grandfather George Washington Short with his second wife, Flora. This photo may have been taken on a family trip to Indiana. Although someone has written, “I don’t know what year this was— about 1923 or 4” on the back of the photograph, the number and dark lettering of the license plate dates the trip to 1922, given that in those days, plates were renewed each year. A little bit of genealogical sleuthing helped figure that out. The two younger boys between Mabel and Noah are Wilbur and Lloyd, both of whom died young.

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In May 1925, after the birth of six sons, Noah and Mabel finally had a daughter; they named her after her mother. But in June, Noah was admitted to a military hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota, and remained until he was discharged in January 1926, “against medical advice.” By then, Noah’s health must have suffered enough to send him to a military hospital in Denver, where he died November 1, 1926, at age 48. I’m still working with state officials to find his death certificate.

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Sometimes I look at these old photographs of my Great-grandpa Noah and wonder if he was surprised at the way his life was shaped by the small and large circumstances he couldn’t control. He died much too young, leaving Mabel to raise the son and daughter still living at home. I wish he’d been alive for my father to know so we’d have a few stories to pass down. Instead, we have only records and photographs to piece together a man’s passions—horses, farming, and family.

 

 

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Tenders of Heart

To my readers: Be sure you read all the way down to the end of this blog post where you’ll find a wonderful gift.

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“Farming is risky business, but so is love.”

A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography

If farming’s risky business and love’s the same, what happens when two people chance both?

My grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers. Some of my great-great grandparents worked the land in Norway, England, and Ireland, as well. My father’s grandparents on his mother’s side—Josephine and Martin Jacobson—homesteaded and farmed together for almost 50 years. They grew up near each other in a Norwegian community in Swift County, Minnesota, married in 1904, and raised wheat, barley, turkeys, 11 children, and their own food in Hebron township, Williams County, North Dakota, starting with a quarter section of 160 acres that grew to a full section eventually—a lot of land to farm in those days.

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Their lives were hard: they lost two children to tragedy; had to sell their horses during the Dust Bowl; and lived in a homestead shack from 1907 until their sons built them a “real” house in 1946. They worked side by side on the farm until Martin’s death in 1952. Here they are on their 35th wedding anniversary and at a less formal moment around the same time. See that twinkle in their eyes? I think that comes from joining their lives on the land.

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Last week I walked out to the fields with some new friends and, once again, felt the weight of the memories this farm holds for me. My mind returned to the first planting of garlic, the harvesting of herbs for a first dinner, and the turning of a flower garden for a solstice ceremony so many years ago. Everywhere I look, I see the work John and I have accomplished together, often with friends who share our vision of community supported agriculture and farmland preservation. Still, at the end of the long day, it’s John and I who plan the next day’s work, and the next’s, and the next’s, as far as our dreams will take us.

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Stonebridge was one of the farms selected by the Firehouse Gallery in Longmont this summer for pairing with artists who bring their talents to our land by creating a new view of what our farm means. One of the artists with whom we worked is Jenny Ward Hodgson, a singer/songwriter from Lyons who tends her own beautiful garden on her family’s small homestead in the middle of town (see more of Jenny’s work on her blog, The Song-Knitter). We were honored to have Jenny write a song, Dance the Seasons, for Stonebridge. When John and I listen to Dance the Seasons, it brings tears to our eyes. Thank you, Jenny, for putting into song the joy that happens when two people risk both farming and love together.

 

 

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Back to Harlan

Harlan. Who’s Harlan?

I’m looking at a small, black and white photograph of children on the steps of a white house, circa mid-1920s, judging by the age of my grandfather, Russell Short, who’s one of the older children in the picture. Someone—probably my grandmother–has written “Daddy” on the front of the photo, but I’d recognize him anywhere. He’s 12 or 14, maybe 16, in this picture, wearing overalls and a beanie on top of his head. He’s smiling a little, squinting a bit in the sun, looking like he’s willing to indulge the photo session for a while.

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The other two children marked on the photograph are “Bea” and “Harlan.” Little Bea’s got a big bow in her hair; Harlan’s in overalls looking like someone told him to smile. They’re younger than Grandpa and I don’t recognize their names as relatives, but since Grandma clearly meant to mark them on this photograph, I pay more attention to two other small photos, taken at the same time, judging by the children’s outfits. (Photos from those days are often found in groups since they were taken when someone had a camera available, which was a rarer occurrence than it is now.)

One photograph includes the same group of kids, except for two differences. Grandpa is missing and a young woman–possibly a teacher or parent—joins the photo instead. Grandpa must have taken this one and the woman taken the first. I find Bea and Harlan squeezed between the other children, Harlan now wearing a newsboy cap perched on top of the long bangs covering his forehead.

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The third photo is marked “Harlan + Daddy” at the bottom, leaving off the name of a third boy from the other photos who must not have been a relative. Harlan and Grandpa are on their horses in this one, Harlan barely big enough to ride.

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Grandpa looks steady on his horse; I know he grew up with horses because his parents, Noah and Mable Short, ran a dairy farm and delivered milk with a horse-drawn wagon. I have another photo of Grandpa’s older brothers on horses at their dairy farm. On the back, it says, “Noah liked horses”–and beautiful horses they were.

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Back to Harlan. He’s cute, the way he smiles dubiously at the photographer, his hands in his overall pockets. He looks five or six years younger than Grandpa but the fact they’re riding together makes me think they were close. I file Harlan’s name away in my memory in case I come across something else in the box of old letters and photographs my dad inherited from his parents and recently let me take home to organize.

Several days later, I come across a list of addresses in my Grandma Short’s handwriting. Marked 1978 at the top, it must have been a Christmas card list. My parents are at the top, then my aunt and uncle, followed by my grandmother’s many sisters and brother. Then comes my name, with my first husband’s, a sudden reminder of a previous life. I keep reading and recognize more relatives from their last names, if not their first.

Near the bottom of the page, I find Harlan again, this time with his last name: Amor. He’s living in Montana in 1978. I’ve now got two big clues that might help me find out more about him. “Amor” was my great-grandma Mabel’s maiden name, so I know on which side of Grandpa’s family to look for him. “Montana” will help with census records for 1978, at least. I already know Harlan’s in North Dakota as a child because that’s where Grandpa was born and raised. With this information in hand, it’s time to turn to ancestry.com.

I joined ancestry.com at the beginning of the year when I was searching for my Grandma Short’s Norwegian roots. From my genealogical mentor, I’ve learned a few tips about using ancestry’s databases. I know to be as specific as possible but to also remain open to other possibilities because the names and dates found in early records or family trees are often incorrect.

I don’t have a lot of time for my first search, so I plug in what I know. I’ve already made a guess about who Harlan’s parents are: my great-grandma Mabel’s brother Walter and his wife Florence, whose last name I don’t know yet. I do know that Mabel and her brother lived with their father in Indiana after he was divorced from their mother. I also know that Mabel’s father and brother followed her and Noah to North Dakota after she was married. I also know that Walter was married to Florence in 1915. (My mentor and I are working to fill out the Amor family tree and to figure out where Mabel and Walter’s missing mother went after their parents’ divorce, a separate mystery that might take some time to solve.)

One important lesson I’ve learned from my mentor is that you often have to come around to the information you want from another angle. That means you might find someone by first finding a family member. As I type in Harlan’s name and locations, I wonder what finding Harlan might help me learn about the Amor side of the family, but I also know that I might have to reach out in the family tree in the hope of getting back to Harlan.

The first entry I find is the 1940 census for Harlan, his wife Esther, and two children in the same North Dakota county where he’d grown up. I learn his estimated birth year (and curse the 1940 census for not including birth month like earlier censuses had) and his occupation. Not a bad start. I take a screen shot and label it with his name, census date, and location.

Then I use one of the tips I’ve learned from my mentor. Rather than go back to the first list that may contain irrelevant information, I check the sidebar on the same page. Here I find other records listed for my Harlan specifically, including a social security death index. This includes both his birth and death dates, which might be helpful in a further search. You can think about the original search as casting a wide net to find the right catch and the sidebar as using a hook and line to reel in more just like it. I decide it’s time to start documenting the facts I’m learning by copying and pasting them into a blank document.

Still working on the links to the side of the 1940 federal census, I click on a North Dakota territorial census. I want to get the earliest chronological information about Harlan first for two reasons: I want to trace this little boy growing up and I want to find out for sure who his parents are.

The first North Dakota census I find is for 1925. Here’s my first surprise: Harlan and Beatrice are 9 and 8, but they’re not living with Amors. Instead, they’re living in a nearby township with a family named Page, a name I don’t recognize. Are Beatrice and Harlan orphans? Where are their parents? And who are the Pages?

My next find is a helpful one: Harlan and Esther’s 1936 marriage certificate. Now I find out for certain that his parents were Walter and Florence Amor, my great-grandma Mabel’s brother and his wife. I say “were” because “is” is crossed out for Walter; Florence would have been a “was” anyway since it asks for her maiden name—one of the many sexist recording conventions of the time. The other important piece of information is Florence’s maiden name: Page. Now the Page family makes sense—they’re related to Florence. Further, if the “was” is correct, Walter may not be living in 1936.

I find a couple more records before I quit for the day: another 1925 North Dakota census and the 1930 federal census. Both contain more mysteries. This second 1925 census shows Harlan and Beatrice living with a person named “Estes Paige,” probably a misspelling of “Page,” in the town that’s the county seat. This means the children are doubly listed for 1925 with two different parts of the Page family. Why both households? Did they move back and forth between them for school or for some other reason? The 1930 census presents even more of a mystery. Here they’re listed as the wards of Oscar and Esther Booke back in the same township where the children lived when they were little.

An hour’s work on ancestry has yielded some information and more questions. Thinking about what might have happened to Harlan and Beatrice’s parents, I realize that the children were orphaned or abandoned sometime between 1917, when Beatrice is born, and 1925, when they live with the Pages. Could Walter and Florence have both died of the Spanish influenza that swept the country in 1918, especially taking the lives of young adults Walter and Florence’s age?

It’s a couple days before I can get back on ancestry.com with some new ideas. Remembering my mentor’s advice about looking for someone from the side, I start with the Pages, George and Nora, because I’m certain they’re Florence’s parents—and I’m right. There they are in the 1920 census, one I hadn’t had time to search before—and guess who’s living with them? Harlan, age 4 and a half; Beatrice, almost three; three Page children; AND Walter, their widowed son-in-law, age 35. There goes my double-influenza theory. Next I realize that Harlan hadn’t shown up in the 1920 census because he, his sister, and his father are recorded as “Asnor.” If I hadn’t looked for the Pages, I wouldn’t have found Harlan in 1920. I’ve run across this mistranscribed name problem before with “Amor” showing up as “Amos,” and my mentor has found them as “Heymour,” but “Asnor” is a new one.

Another quick search proves that Esther Booke was Florence’s sister, Esther Page, with “Estes Paige” a misspelling of her name in the 1930 census. I’m relieved to find that Harlan and Beatrice were still living with family. Looking back at the photographs, I’m not sure whether they had lost their mother and possibly father by the time the pictures were taken, but if they had, the pair certainly look cared for, with people around them. It’s even possible the other children might be Pages, cousins on their mother’s side.

Since that search, I’ve found more records for Walter and Florence, including his WWI draft card in 1918. Florence was still alive then because her name is also on the document. But I haven’t yet found Walter past 1920 when he and the children were living with his in-laws. Various “Walter Amos-es” show up in census records in different states. I’ll keep looking. I might even find a death record for Florence, who may have died of the flu or of any number of problems that plagued young mothers back then.

I do know that Harlan married, had two children, and lived to age 80. I like to think he had a happy life, that small boy in cap and overalls on a big horse next to his cousin, my grandfather, seven years between them. Knowing my grandpa, I’m sure he looked out for Harlan, a little boy who lost his parents along the way but still had family to ride along beside him.

Grandpa Short with a younger brother

Grandpa Short with a younger brother

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Spring Spinach With the Birds

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This afternoon I’m hosting our local women’s group for an appetizer potluck and reading of A Bushel’s Worth. I’m roasting mushrooms with Greek salad stuffing, which means walking out to the garden to pick baby spinach. Our farm season opens in three weeks and the spinach will be much bigger by then. For now, I’m content with smaller leaves, but it does take longer than one would expect to fill a whole bag.

Seems like the bag stays only half-full for quite some time, but I don’t mind. I’m listening to two Western meadowlarks trilling back and forth from the giant cottonwoods along the irrigation ditch. You can listen to one of a Western Meadowlark’s songs here.

I’m originally from North Dakota, whose state bird is the Eastern Meadowlark. My grandmother often noted in her diary when she heard the first meadowlark’s call:

“Wed, April 6, 1983: We walked to the creek and found mayflowers and heard a meadowlark sing.

It took me many years to get used to the Western Meadowlark’s song with its notes ascending and descending in a different order than that of North Dakota’s state bird. But both birds share the complex musicality of their song, more lyrical than many a bird’s call.

As I listen to the meadowlarks’ duet in stereo near the spinach bed, I also hear a pair of Red Tailed Hawks shrieking high above me. I can see them, too, as they circle our west field on the other side of the ditch. But I can’t see the meadowlarks, even when I walk near the trees from which they’re clearly singing. I’m surprised not to find them with their bright yellow breasts. Today, they’re camouflaged by the new green leaves of willows and cottonwoods breaking from winter rest.

On the way back to the house with my bag of spinach, I spot a Downy Woodpecker near the knot in our old crabapple tree. No mistaking this bird’s red head and black and white body. I wish I had my camera as the bird senses my approach and flits off to a higher elm.

Spring has been slow to arrive this year. We transplanted 10,000 onion and leek starts last Saturday, a week later than the previous two years. The next day, a wet spring snow watered in the grass-like shoots. We love our alliums at this farm, depending on them all season and even through the long winter. In three weeks, we’ll harvest walking Egyptian onions for our members, followed by green garlic, garlic scapes, early garlic, and green onions, until the full-sized garlic, onions, leeks, and shallots are ready mid-summer.

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Today, I’ll use the last of the stored shallots in the mushrooms I’m stuffing. You can find the recipe here on our website. I’m looking forward to sharing A Bushel’s Worth with women in our community tonight. I joked that I’m going to read the romantic parts, but, in fact, I’ve decided I will. John and I met in the spring; on our first farm date, we made our first salad together from newborn herbs and greens. Seems fitting to share that memory on this sparkling spring day.

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If you can’t join us tonight, you can view a farm reading of A Bushel’s Worth here, along with great music from Joe Kuckla and Alex Johnstone. Happy spring!

 

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Farm Women

On the way to town last week, I slowed for a pick-up truck to pull in front of me onto the country road. The sign on the back said “Hoof Care,” but it wasn’t the truck or the company of the farrier who grooms our friend’s horses nearby. A farrier could find lots of work in this part of the county, where ranches and farms line the side roads between small towns.

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As I followed the truck, my eyes fell to the sticker on the driver’s side bumper above the high wheels.

No Farms
No Farmgirls

I’d never seen that sticker before and it gave me pause. The logic was similar to the bumper sticker on my own car:

Know Farmers
Know Food

As I point out in my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, the homonym is also true:

No Farmers
No Food

But the truck’s bumper sticker seemed a little different—and certainly less political. I wondered in what context it should be read. I thought of the lascivious jokes about farmer’s daughters, the kind of joke that embarrassed my mom when she was growing up. Was “Farm Girls” an updated version of “Farmer’s Daughters”? Was the message a sexist reference to dating girls who grew up on farms and their supposedly loose ways?

What did it mean by “farm girls,” anyway? Did “girls” include grown-up women, in the infantilizing way it often does? I’m not one for calling female adults “girls” because I find it belittling, but I realize that women often refer to each other that way as a playful term of affection. Still, “girls” are rarely granted the authority that men have. I always referred to my female college students as “women” because I didn’t refer to my male students as “boys” and I wanted to encourage my students to see themselves as up-and-coming adults.

Still following the truck, I couldn’t see the driver because the headrest was in the way. I couldn’t even see whether he wore a cap or a cowboy hat, a possible indication of whether he lived on a farm or a ranch.

He.

Whether based on the sticker, business name, truck size, or residual prejudice in someone who should know better, I realized I’d made a gendered assumption about this truck and its driver. Maybe the person with the bumper sticker wasn’t even male. I had to find out.

By now we were on a four-lane road on the edge of town, with a stoplight ahead. I pulled into the right lane and up alongside the pickup as we stopped for the light. Glancing around to cover my curiosity, I peeked over quickly to see who was driving the pick-up.

The driver was a woman. Well, that put a different spin on “farm girls,” one falling in the playful “girlfriend” camp rather than the “farmer’s daughter” mode. “Farm girls” might even be read as a feminist statement, I thought, one asserting that farmers can be female as well as male.

But something about “farm girls” just doesn’t seem to carry the same weight as “farmers” or even “women farmers.” If a woman wants to call herself a “farm girl” on her bumper sticker, that’s okay with me, but it’s not a term I’d like to see used in agricultural policy. It’s hard enough for women to get included in the term “farmers” in the first place. “Women farmers” at least lets us into the club.

I’ve been thinking about women farmers a lot lately, first of all because I am one, and second because the latest statistics from the US Department of Agriculture found that women are the principal operators of 14% of farms. Although the numbers of women farmers has decreased since 2007, the overall number of farms did too, with men and women leaving in equal numbers.

Here’s what the Women, Food, and Agriculture Network had to say about the USDA’s latest figures:

“Women were listed as principal operators of 288,269 farms nationwide in 2012, compared to 306,209 in 2007. The overall number of farm operators declined from 2.2 million to 2.11 million during that five-year span. Women continue to operate smaller farms than men, earn less income on average, and own a greater percentage of their farmland. This corresponds to the type of farms a majority of women operate: small-scale, diversified farms producing goods for direct sale, rather than the large commodity farms that tend to be operated by men.”

Women running smaller, diversified farms selling directly to consumers at farmer’s markets or through community supported agricultural farms fits with my knowledge of women farmers, the ones I’ve met through national networking and in my local area. Making less money than men probably corresponds to the type of farms women run. Big agriculture runs on big money, the kind needed for big machinery, big loans, and big risks. It’s also more likely to use chemicals or genetically modified seeds, to export to other countries, and to depend on federal crop subsidies. The women farmers I know—and many of the men—aren’t interested in that kind of farming.

In A Bushel’s Worth, I write about the women in my family who were farmers before me:

“My grandmothers and great-grandmothers were never called farmers. Even though they raised livestock and vast gardens to feed their families, even thought they worked in the fields, made decisions about crops, and kept track of farm finances, they were called ‘the farmer’s wife.’ ‘Farmer,’ in those days it seems, didn’t only refer to the work that one did but to the gender of the person doing it.”

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys.

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys.

I didn’t mention in the book—because I hadn’t learned it yet—that my great-great-grandmother Anna Dokken had a blank space under “occupation” on her daughter Josephine’s birth certificate, unlike my great-great-grandfather, Ole Dokken, whose occupation was listed as “farmer.” They had both come to the US from Norway to farm, but only one of them could claim the title.

As I say in A Bushel’s Worth, the face of farming is changing, and with it, the gender of that face: “With small-scale farming, farmers can build close relationships with people in their communities, putting a member’s or customer’s face on food as well as a farmer’s. This person-to-person contact is drawing women of all ages to farming, women who see a future for themselves in creating local food sheds and connecting everyone to the food they eat.”

JasperMyrasmith

My Great-aunt Myra farming with her father, my Great-Grandpa Jasper Smith

I’m happy to see women driving trucks and tractors and proclaiming their right to farm on bumper stickers, even if they do call themselves “farm girls.” But if a man had been driving that truck, would I have felt differently? Language, after all, exists within social, historical, and political contexts, as does identity.

But I think I would have chosen to give the driver the benefit of the doubt, to think that he—like she—valued women on farms, as well as farms themselves. It’s the “No Farms” part of the message that the pick-up shared with my Subaru. More farms, especially organic, small-scale, local farms—the kind women are most likely to run—is something I can always get behind.

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A Farming Past

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.

My great-grandfather Jasper Smith and great-aunt Myra harvesting wheat

My great-grandfather Jasper Smith and great-aunt Myra harvesting wheat

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.

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys

My great-grandmother Flora Hunsley Smith raising turkeys

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.

My dad in his teens with his John Deere A.

My dad in his teens with his John Deere A.

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.

Jars like my grandmothers used to can and keep in their root cellars

Jars like my grandmothers used to can and keep in their root cellars

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.

Grandpa Short with his Minneapolis Moline G

Grandpa Short with his Minneapolis Moline G

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!

The Stonebridge John Deere B

The Stonebridge John Deere B

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.

Saturday morning pick at Stonebridge

Saturday morning pick at Stonebridge

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.

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Mercurochrome

Culling her collection of vintage treasures, my sister handed me a box of old bottles to see if I had a use for any of them. I immediately chose the Burma-Shave jar with its ribbed glass and navy blue lid. Burma Shave was a shaving cream company whose marketing campaign placed consecutive lines of rhyming advertising jingles along highways from the 1920s to the early 60s such as “Special Seats/Reserved in Hades/For Whiskered Gents/Who Scratch/The Ladies/Burma-Shave.”

Every year or so, a crew would change the signs, throwing the old boards on the ground. Because the Smith farm bordered the highway, my Grandpa Smith would pick up the discarded wood—still good lumber—to fix a shed or patch a broken window. My parents brought some of these signs to Colorado and now they hang in the Sunflower Room at Stonebridge. My sister had found the old Burma-Shave jar on the farm after my grandparents’ deaths. It seemed fitting to reunite it with the signs advertising the shaving cream that used to fill the jar.

After I picked out some medicinal vials for bottling the berry cordial we make each fall, I noticed a small bottle with a rubber stopper for a lid. When I lifted it out of the box, I gasped. Here was my Grandpa Smith’s mercurochrome bottle, the one he’d used to doctor our scrapes and cuts every summer. He’d patiently lift us up to sit on the kitchen counter, the better to “paint,” as he would say, our knees and elbows with the metallic orange-red tincture. Today mercurochrome is banned in the United States because it contains mercury but back then, we believed as much in its curative powers as we did in our grandpa’s doctoring skills.

Its label faded and torn, its rubber stopper hardened in the bottle’s glass neck, my grandfather’s mercurochrome bottle evoked another memory of childhood complaints. Mercurochrome wasn’t the only medicine in the farm’s kitchen cabinet. I remembered the smell of the medicine before I remembered its name: Listerine. Not the cool mint or citrus fresh flavors of today but the antiseptic scent of the original mouthwash my grandfather used to stop our mosquito bites from itching.

How we winced when that home remedy stung our arms and legs but it kept us from scratching the mosquito bites that plagued us those hot summer nights in the North Dakota countryside.  Like mercurochrome, it worked, but even if it hadn’t, we wouldn’t have questioned our grandfather’s authority to use it. We trusted those moments of tender curing that affirmed a grandparent’s love.

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Summer Heat

Of childhood vacations on my grandparents’ North Dakota farms, hot, dry winds blow through my memories of our summer visits. Days are long in that northern state; to escape the worst of the prairie heat, we’d run errands in town in the cooler mornings and spend afternoons in the farmhouse reading or playing games and drinking tall glass of iced tea. Most nights, we lay as still as possible in our stifling beds as the sound of the fan whirring in the living room held hope of catching any small breeze through the open window until the northern sun finally set hours past our bedtime.

Summer in Colorado is hot, too, although the worst heat doesn’t usually break until July and August, and hot days are broken by monsoon rains in the afternoons. But this year, May and June have been the hottest on record, with consecutive days breaking unheard of temperatures of 100 degrees, turning June into July with few clouds to shield us from the sun’s battering heat and bringing worries of drought to the state.

Every morning we check our irrigation ditch for water. We’ve received no official notice of an impending shut-down on our senior rights ditch, but rumors have us wondering how long we’ll be able to water the fields. The first thing John does in the morning and the last thing at night is set the pump, watering as much of the day as he can without wasting water to evaporation in the afternoon heat.

With little rain this spring, new grasses and plants in the foothills and mountains have not grown quickly enough to cover last year’s dry thatch, creating quick tinder for lightning strikes that spread through pine-beetle killed timber. Started by such a strike on mountain property owned by friends, the High Park fire has been burning for two weeks north of Ft Collins, destroying 8200 acres of beautiful forest land so far, with less than half of the fire contained. We can see the plume from our farm and smell the smoke, a daily reminder to use precaution in all we do.

Then this morning we woke up to thicker smoke hanging in the air and we knew the fire we’d heard about yesterday in Estes Park had worsened. This fire started in a housing subdivision near the southern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, close enough to threaten western parts of the town. 4300 people, including patrons at our favorite Estes restaurant, The Rock Inn, were evacuated last night; horses from nearby stables were relocated to the fairgrounds. Throughout the morning, the smoke seemed to shield us from the intense heat of the sun as the temperature neared 100. Thankfully, the fire was out by late afternoon, leaving 20 houses burned to the ground.

Now, as the sun begins to set, we can hear thunder and a few small raindrops have fallen. John and I went outside to soak in the cooler air as the wind picked up around us. Without a real rain to soak the earth, the storm may be a mixed blessing. The wind may whip the fire north of us; lightning may ignite a new blaze in the tindered land. Still, the cooldown means we’ll sleep better tonight and that will be welcome. With a week left in June of temperatures forecast in the high 90s, we have another long, hot week before us to meet with caution and care.

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Horse Barn, Milk Barn

I never saw a horse in the horse barn, but harnesses hung on the weathered walls and hay still covered the loft floor. My grandparents didn’t like us climbing up there because we might fall through the slots in the planks where years ago the hay was pushed down into the mangers below for the horses to eat.  But sometimes we’d sneak up the steep stairway along the barn’s thick, wooden wall, our feet fitting the hollows grooved into each step from years of burdened climbs. At the top of the steps, we’d peek into the dark vault of the gabled roof, smell the stale hay, and wonder what treasures lay hidden in the loft’s dusty depth, abandoned when the horses were no longer needed for farming and now long forgotten.

According to my mother, the family historian, the horse barn and other buildings had been moved to the Smith farm when my great-grandmother Flora’s sister Edith—who was a Crum, as they used to say after a woman married—left her nearby homestead to go “out West” with her family. “Out West” was another colloquialism I heard growing up, usually referring to the two states most west of North Dakota—Idaho and Washington—Montana lying geographically in the right direction but not far enough away to constitute the “out” part.

My great-grandparents farmed with horses in the days before combustion tractors, so a horse barn was a valuable building, providing shelter not only for the horses, but for their feed. Hay could be brought to the barn by wagons after it was cut in the fields and then hoisted by pulley to a door at the top of the barn loft and stored there through the winter. But after tractors replaced horses, the barn stood empty, inhabited only by the farm cats, who would have their kittens in the soft hay. Then my grandmother would take us up in the loft to find the newborns before they’d even opened their eyes.

On our summer visits, one of our chores was feeding the cats in an old bowl outside the horse barn. After each meal, Grandma Smith would scrape the plates and pans for leftovers—skin, bones, crust—into a clean ice cream container from our Uncle’s creamery, adding a little milk on top for the mother cat. My sisters and brother and I would take the scraps out to the barnyard, hoping to catch a glimpse of a cat, but they were wild, having found their way to the farm on their own or having been abandoned by the side of the highway on which my grandparents lived, their city owners hoping that this farm would provide a more convenient home. My grandparents fed the lost cats and even gave them their shots if they could catch them. In return, the cats would keep the farm buildings free of mice.

The Smith Farm in later years. The horse barn is farthest right; the milk barn-turned-garage with white doors is directly to its left

Across the barnyard from the horse barn stood a gambrel-roofed milk barn, but my mother’s parents quit milking cows before I was born, so that barn was cut down in later years to make a new garage for my grandparents’ car. Even though baby pictures show me and my mom in the farmyard with the milk barn towering in the background, I don’t remember it.

Milk Barn on the Smith farm

But I do remember the milk barn at the Short farm. It didn’t have a high loft like the other farm’s barns but was a lower-roofed building into which the cows plodded from the pasture every evening. As children, we didn’t understand how the cows knew when to come to the barn, lining up in their stalls to be milked by my grandfather. We didn’t know how cows worked, how their udders would fill with milk after pasturing all day, but we could watch my grandpa squirt the milk, creamy and white, into the stainless steel buckets, keeping an eye out for a stray hoof as the cows switched their tails and waited patiently for my grandfather to finish. That cream would be separated from the milk in a round-topped machine on the back porch of the farmhouse and taken to the creamery in town once a week for pasteurization and sale.  We children never drank that fresh milk because my parents were afraid we’d get sick from stray bacteria. Now some nutritionists say we’re all less healthy than when we lived on farms because proximity to animals strengthened our immune systems. 

Playing with Poochie in the Short milk barn as cousin Debbie watches from the doorway

In later years, after Grandpa Short gave up raising cows, the milk barn slowly leaned inward and collapsed, as if swallowing itself. The barns on the Smith farm were torn down after my grandparents’ death when the land was sold to a neighbor who would farm it along with his own hundreds of acres of wheat.

Until I was older, I didn’t realize that barns were special because they symbolized a part of my family’s farming history that was being lost on a national level as well. Barns once stood at the center of our farmyards and our food system, but as this country has turned away from its rural roots, barns have become an endangered species. Once families depended on them to house the animals and store the food required for survival, but as agriculture became first mechanized and then industrialized, barns like those on my grandparents’ farms no longer held what was needed to live.

The Short farm with the milk barn to the far left; even then it was starting to shrink

Our own barn at Stonebridge is a part of that rural history, but it’s not the same as those old barns were to me. Our barn was saved because it continued to fit the needs of small-scale farmers on a farm that was preserved by our forward-thinking predecessors. We’re lucky to have our original barn, but it lacks the mystery of my childhood barns. Those barns were imposing, larger than the life that had been lived in them because, even when I was a child, that life was fading away.

Built for a kind of farming that died out with my grandparents’ generation, the horse barn and the milk barn could not outlive their use. Nor could I imagine that one day, like the farms themselves, they would be lost and my childhood summers left behind. So I conjure them here in words that can only tell my part of their story. Preserved in memory and old photographs, those barns still stand against the prairie as hay turns to dust, boards sink, nails loosen their hold, and rusty chains drop coiled to the floor.

My dad in front of my mom's horse barn in 1960, a year after I was born

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