The lost world of diversified farming…

Came across an interesting snapshot the other day. There we all are, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, ready for a winter hayride out on the farm.

A winter country hayride about 1950 at the Matile farm in Wheatland Township, Will County, Illinois. The author is the well-bundled little guy standing at far left between my Aunt Marie and my cousin Wilma.

A winter country hayride about 1950 at the Matile farm in Wheatland Township, Will County, Illinois. The author is the well-bundled little guy standing at far left between my Aunt Marie and my cousin Wilma.

Every winter, my dad put the hayrack on the bobsled running gear so he could use it to haul feed to the cattle. But it worked just as well to haul a bunch of merrymakers who were just itching for an old-fashioned hayride.

By the time I came along, my dad was ready to sell his last working team, replacing them with a Case and an Allis-Chalmers WD tractor. So during those snowy winters of the early 1950s, the invitations would go out and on the appointed day, a crowd would show up to enjoy the ride. Off we’d go, riding “around the block” for four miles, with the older kids having a riot riding on sleds attached to the rear of the bob with ropes.

Afterwards, we’d enjoy hot chocolate and the adults would sip steaming coffee while we all warmed up before everyone left to go home.

I think about those days a lot. It was a time that is now gone forever, except in a very few communities, such as in Amish neighborhoods. Today, farmers specialize; they either grow grain or livestock. Grain farmers manage thousands of acres these days, and livestock farmers raise huge numbers of pigs, chickens, and cattle.

But back in the days when we enjoyed those bobsled rides, my dad made a fairly decent living on 80 acres of good ground. He often rented another 80 or so from one of the elderly neighborhood widows. He easily handled growing the rotating the crops himself.

For equipment, as noted above, he had two tractors, both used. He had a three-bottom plow, a disc, and a steel drag (called a harrow in some parts of the country) to work up the ground in the spring; a mowing machine to cut the hay fields; a side-delivery rake to start processing the hay (no hay baler; we hired that done); a four-row cultivator that was an attachment for the Allis-Chalmers; a John Deere corn planter; an Allis-Chalmers combine to harvest the small grains (oats, soybeans); and an Allis-Chalmers corn husker attachment for the tractor.

My Dad’s farm produced corn, soybeans, oats, and hay crops including alfalfa and clover. Those crops were rotated annually so as to not exhaust the soil. In those days, little fertilizer was used, other than manure cleaned out of the cattle yard and the chicken house.

My Dad not only sold the corn and oats he grew, but he also used them for livestock food. Corn and oats ground into coarse flour at the elevator could be fed directly or mixed with raw milk from our cow to create the famed “slop” that the hogs seemed to love so much. After the corn crop was harvested in the fall, Dad would turn his feeder cattle out into the fields to feed on the corn the mechanical picker didn’t get. And after the oats were harvested, the straw was baled and stored for livestock bedding.

Some of the grain we grew went to fatten a steer and a pig every year, which were butchered, cut up, and frozen down in the huge International Harvester deepfreeze.

Household scraps helped feed my Mom’s chickens and their eggs were traded for groceries in town. And the chickens themselves provided some pretty good Sunday dinners.

It all fit neatly together, one thing leading to another, with the goal of reducing waste and maximizing productivity and making money. And it’s as obsolete as the Model T or a steam-powered threshing machine.

Even so, those were good and prosperous years for the nation’s farmers. And when you look at how those diversified farms actually worked, it was a time when farming was lighter on the land without today’s heavy reliance on chemicals, when the fences that kept livestock in grain fields harbored pheasants and grouse, and when those belts of trees planted during the soil conservation projects of the Great Depression to break the prairie winds were maturing. The era provided the armature on which today’s agribusiness grew. And like so much of modern life, it’s arguable whether newer and bigger is really better.


1 Comment

Filed under Farming, Food, Nostalgia, People in History, Semi-Current Events

One response to “The lost world of diversified farming…

  1. There is a movement back to the good old days. The movement is in smaller pieces of land, but centers around homesteading and self-reliance. There also seems to be a movement back toward a bartering system, like with your mother’s eggs. We are just getting out homestead started, beginning with cattle and chickens. Nice blog post

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