Barns the losers in farming evolution…

We enjoyed our spring break trip to Iowa last week. We stayed with my sister near Tipton, visited with my nephews, did a little family research at the Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, had a typically great lunch (with rhubarb pie!) at Amana, and then headed south to Ottumwa for more family history research.

On the way, we stopped at Kolona, known for its Amish farming community, and did a little shopping. We finally settled on a nicely framed print of Billy Jacobs’ “Spring Cleaning,” that depicts a farmstead during that season of the year.

There were lots of other prints by Jacobs and other artists to choose from, many depicting farm buildings in various stages of disrepair and deterioration, which struck me as depressing. Realistic, but depressing nonetheless..

During our trip we saw lots of barns in sad shape, something I remarked on in the post below. While it saddens us old farm kids to see these once-imposing buildings in their death throes, it’s really an indication that life is moving on. Some would say progressing.

Most of the vintage barns still standing sported lifetime asbestos cement shingle or metal roofs. The ones with asphalt and wood shingle roofs were in serious states of disrepair, many about ready to collapse—when the roof of a building fails, the rest of it will surely be close behind.

The problem is that keeping these large buildings in good repair is an expensive proposition. And now it’s an expensive proposition that will lead to no profitable use—the usefulness of the vast majority of barns in rural areas is long past.

The old barns we see dotting the landscape today are the end products of centuries of development. They weren’t built in isolation; rather they were parts of what amounted to very large, static machines designed to produce grain and livestock—farms.

In the United States, barns became the central focus of farming, a place they held until diversified farming was abandoned during the past 40 years or so in favor of concentrating on either grain or livestock farming.

This gambrell-roofed barn, which has lost its farmstead and is now surrounded by a sea of standing corn, has been repurposed for grain storage from its original use. Many vintage barns, like this one, are gradually deteriorating due to changes in modern farming methods.

This gambrel roofed barn, which has lost its farmstead and is now surrounded by a sea of standing corn, has been repurposed for grain storage from its original use. Many vintage barns, like this one, are gradually deteriorating due to changes in modern farming methods.

Diversified farms produced both livestock and grain, and so needed a variety of facilities unique to each task. Along with barns, those necessities included corn cribs for the storage of grain including oats and corn; tool sheds for farm equipment storage; specialized livestock facilities including chicken houses and hog houses; feed storage facilities; milk processing facilities; and others, including farmhouses.

It was the barn that was central to the whole farming operation, however. It provided storage area for forage crops for livestock from horses to cattle, offered shelter for those animals as well, provided a place to store and make use of tack—equipment needed to harness and saddle horses; and offered indoor space for other livestock related tasks such as milking cows.

Some barns were modified for specialized purposes, either to maintain the horses that were central to providing power for farming until the invention of motorized farm equipment, or to house milking operations. Others were specialized for the storage of forage crops, including hay and straw, and the feeding of livestock such as cattle and pigs.

Many barns still dotting the countryside today were originally built with a combination of uses in mind, including housing draft horses, milking a few cows, and providing shelter for feeder cattle while they were being fattened for market.

There are also dairy barns that were built specifically for the milking business. With their concrete floors and built-in feed bunks and waste removal systems, plus the milking equipment itself, they were usually unsuitable for modification into other more diversified uses without a lot of work and expense.

Other farm buildings were generally clustered fairly close to the barn because of the way diversified farms were run. The corn crib, for instance, was usually fairly close because the grain stored there was used not only to send on to market but also to feed the livestock—horses, cattle, and pigs—raised on the farm. Chicken houses were generally closer to the farmhouse because they were often the domains of farm wives who traded eggs and dressed chickens for groceries.

Hog houses were close to the barn but farther away from the house, due somewhat to the smell.

Other buildings clustered in old-time farmyards included a milk house, often attached to the barn, where milk was cooled and milk cans (and later milking machines) were cleaned and stored; well houses to protect the farm water well and pump; and sometimes a spring house where natural running spring water kept groceries cold while also providing a source of drinking water for both the farm family and their livestock.

Gradually, however, the uses for which barns were built disappeared on most farms. Many farmers kept a cow or two to provide fresh milk, cream, and butter for the family and as another feed source for chickens and pigs, but starting in the early 1950s, better roads to get to town and cheaper prices at stores made small-scale milking too labor-intensive. The general introduction of affordable gasoline and diesel powered tractors starting in the 1920s quickly eliminated draft horses from the farm scene, and barns lost another reason for their existence. Raising livestock, too, gradually disappeared from most farms, as some farmers and corporate farming companies established large-scale operations dedicated to raising either cattle, pigs, or chickens.

By the 1970s, virtually everything for which barns had been designed was no longer part of farming practice. The very size of barns made it expensive to maintain them—a new roof costs thousands of dollars, and painting is also expensive.

And so they were allowed, for the most part, to start falling into ruin. Today, most farms make do with a large machine shed for equipment storage, and a series of huge metal or fiberglass bins to store grain while waiting for the right market conditions.

It’s the efficient, sensible way to do things, but it’s still sad to see our barns disappear.



Filed under Farming, Food, Nostalgia

3 responses to “Barns the losers in farming evolution…

  1. You could be describing my grandfather’s farm in western NY which had all the outbuildings and uses you describe. The new owner did re-roof the barn to preserve it even though he had little use for it.

    • Our Midwestern farmers brought their diversified farming techniques with them when they emigrated from New England and the Mid Atlantic states, so your grandfather’s farm was sort of a template for how things were done out here. There was some diversified farming in the South, but they really pioneered the monocultures of modern farming with their plantations dedicated to growing single major crops of tobacco and cotton. They diversified only to provide subsistence for use on the plantations themselves. Smaller Southern farmers did diversify more than their plantation counterparts but not as much as their Northern counterparts.

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