While development has taken a substantial toll on agricultural land here in Kendall County, there are still plenty of planted fields left for farmers to harvest this time of year. From the county’s congested tier of three northern-most townships, just take a drive west on Galena Road, or south on Route 47 or southwest on Route 71, and it doesn’t take long to leave tract homes and strip centers behind, and find yourself surrounded by fields that grow corn and soybeans, just as they have for generations.
It’s easy to think that our forebears would find the landscape on Route 47 down near Lisbon Center or on Grove Road south of Route 126 familiar. It’s rural; many of the farm homes are products of the late 19th century and early 20th century. There are even a few (very few) gravel roads to reinforce the feeling of stepping back in time.
But assuming we could crank up the Wayback Machine, and send Mr. Peabody and Sherman back to, say, 1870, to bring a farmer back for a brief summer visit to his future, he might find some similarities, but mostly he’d be struck by profound differences.
First and foremost, even if plunked down in a completely rural area, out of sight of any buildings, our farmer of the past would undoubtedly be struck by the odd uniformity of the agricultural landscape. Familiar, though unusually large and densely planted corn fields would stretch in every direction, but what, he would wonder, are those other row crops that seem to have bean leaves? And where in the world are the familiar fields of wheat, oats, barley, and rye? What’s happened to the pastures and the hay fields?
And where have all the fences gotten to? How on earth do modern farmers keep the neighbors’ cattle and hogs from eating growing crops with no fences to keep them out of the fields?
That nearby farmstead looks odd, with no barn, and only some cylindrical metal buildings with conical roofs and one very large shed that looks as if it, too, is made of metal. And such a huge door it has. No cattle shed; no corn crib; no chicken house; no hog houses. The farmhouse lawn seems trimmed so neatly it’s almost unnatural, but where is the orchard?
Unlike our visitor from the past, today’s farmers operate in an either-or environment. They’re either grain farmers or livestock farmers. Our visitor from the past came from an era when every farmer grew both grain and livestock. Moreover, both were integral to the economic heath of every farmstead.
Grain was not only grown for market, like it is today, but was also grown for use on the farm to feed hogs, cattle, and poultry. Hogs and cattle were driven to market, meaning less grain had to be hauled over the abominable roads of the era. Poultry was kept for the eggs produced–which were traded for groceries in town–and used for meat on the farm and also to trade in town.
The manure produced as a byproduct of feeding hogs, cattle, and poultry was, in turn, used to fertilize the farmer’s grain fields.
A variety of crops were grown every year, and the fields in which they were grown were rotated each year, with pasture or hay land part of the rotation so the land could lay fallow for at least a year with no crops leaching nutrients out of the soil. The Anglo Saxon root of the word fallow refers to the colors of pale red or pale yellow—the color of fields tilled but not sown with seed.
Soybeans were not part of that rotation until they were popularized in the 1930s by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. County agricultural agents instructed farmers in the fine points of their cultivation and harvest, and soon they became a popular cash crop—one probably unfamiliar to our visitor from the past.
What happened to the crops with which our visitor was familiar? Where are the oats, the wheat, the rye and barley? Farmers not only specialize these days, but so do regions of the country. Illinois’ humid climate is not conducive to growing wheat, so its cultivation has migrated west of the Mississippi to drier the Great Plains. Oats were once necessary to feed the millions of horses that powered the nation’s farms and cities, and for on-farm livestock feed, needs that have largely disappeared today. So too have modern times sharply reduced the use of rye and barley.
Pastureland—where are the county’s pastures? Most have been plowed for cropland in the absence of livestock. The same with the hay fields that once covered thousands of Kendall County farmland acres. The sight of rolling stands of clover, timothy, and alfalfa rippling in the wind of mid-summer is largely a thing of our past that faded away with the livestock that once required them for food. It makes a person wonder what Timothy Hansen would think, the Norwegian immigrant who imported the nutritious forage grass named Phleum pratense to his farm in Virginia in 1721. So well did he conduct his campaign in its favor that farmers nicknamed the grass “timothy” in his honor. Where once timothy grew on virtually every farm, today its presence has dwindled, another victim of changes in farming.
Farm orchards, too, have largely departed leaving only memories of stands of apple, plum, pear, and cherry trees once prized for their abundant fruit. As have the dirt roads with which our farmer of the past would have been familiar. When studies were done in the early 20th century, it was found farmers’ cars and trucks got much better gas mileage on gravel roads, road maintenance costs were less, and wear and tear on vehicles was far, far less. And asphalt roads were far, far better than gravel roads in terms of damage to vehicles, mileage, and maintenance costs. So dirt roads have disappeared. Gravel roads, at least in most of Kendall County, have disappeared, too, because they’re expensive to maintain.
As our visiting farmer leaves to head down-time to his home, he is probably happy to get back to where farming makes some sense and where the parts of the landscape make cultural and economic sense to him. As for us, it’s another late autumn of taking life the way we find it in Kendall County.