Even the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic can’t alter the rhythm of the seasons. So sheltering in place or not, spring is here and another planting season for farmers here in northern Illinois’ Fox River Valley is upon us.
The various orders from state and local officials to avoid crowds and stay out of public won’t have much effect on this year’s planting season, although some items farmers need, such as protective gloves and masks might be hard to come by, because farming is a pretty solitary endeavor.
Farmers are already out in their fields working the ground for planting. There won’t be much planting just yet because there’s still a pretty good risk of frost, but it won’t be long until it starts. And when it does, it will, like the harvest, use up every day’s good, dry daylight until the job’s done.
These days, farmers either specialize in grain or in some form of livestock. Most around these parts are grain farmers. But things were quite different in the past—and not all that far in the past, either, unless you consider the 1950s some sort of distant historical epoch. And I guess I understand if you do, although it seems a lot like just yesterday to me.
Farmers of the ‘50s worked smaller farms and engaged in diversified agriculture. That meant growing a wider variety of crops than is the norm today, as well as keeping livestock around the place as a money-maker and not as a hobby.
Today’s major crops of soybeans and corn were joined 70 years ago by oats, rye, barley, perhaps a bit of wheat, and hay crops like alfalfa, clover, and timothy. Farmyards were busy places since a lot of diversified farms kept at least a milk cow or two, hogs, chickens, and, in the fall, beef cattle.
The crops grown on diversified farms fitted together with the farmers’ livestock like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Some corn was used to feed cattle during the winter, with most of it sent off to market. Soybeans were also market crops, but beans, at least on our farm, weren’t used as animal feed. The small grains—oats, wheat, rye, barley—could be used as feed, and the left-over straw from their dried stems was used as livestock bedding. Northern Illinois, after the settlement era, was not wheat country due to the climate so a wheat field during that era was, as it is today, a curiosity. Hay crops like alfalfa were baled during the summer growing season and used as fodder for feeder cattle during the winter.
The puzzle pieces of crops and livestock began to be put together during the spring planting season. Farmers rotated crops to allow the soil to rest and to recharge it with nutrients. Corn ground was planted the next year either with beans, alfalfa, or timothy. Beans fix nitrogen with their roots, which, in turn, helped the corn, oats, or other crop to grow better the next year. Alfalfa and timothy, plowed under in the fall or spring, also returned nutrients to the ground, too. Some farmers tried to get a jump on spring fieldwork by plowing in the fall, but many did not, both because they were too busy harvesting and because wind erosion of bare plowed land could be substantial during Illinois’ often windy winters.
After plowing and harrowing in the spring, the ground was seeded. Corn and beans were planted in rows to allow easier weeding—called cultivating by the farmers. Oats and other small grains were broadcast on the ground, usually from an endgate seeder on the back of a wagon, although they were planted in rows with grain drills in some farming areas. Hay crops like alfalfa were seeded with endgate seeders, too.
When the crops began to grow, it was time to hire some local youngsters to walk the bean rows to hoe out volunteer corn stalks. The annual crop rotation resulted in corn growing up in bean rows, and other problems, too, including milkweeds, velvet weeds, and other pests. Although tractor-mounted cultivators could plow between the rows and uproot weeds, it was harder to get between the plants. Some farmers still “horse-stepped” or checked their corn rows, leaving equal spaces between each hill to allow diagonal cultivating, but the technique sharply cut the number of plants in a field, and thus reduced the yield. Most relied on teenagers (or themselves) walking the rows with sharp hoes to cut out “volunteer” stalks of corn in the beans and other weedy pests. Morning glories, hollyhocks, and other pests my farmer father roundly cursed (and which now turn up in trendy perennial gardens) also had to be hacked and burned out of fence rows by hand. Today’s effective herbicides have largely made those chores obsolete.
The small grains ripened first and were harvested in mid to late summer. By the 1950s, the huge steam-powered threshing machines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had given way to tractor-towed combined harvesters compact, efficient, and economical enough for individual farmers to buy their own.
During the steam threshing era, most farmers could not afford their own machines and so banded together in cooperatives to buy a threshing outfit that consisted of the threshing machine, a steam tractor to power it, and generally a water wagon and/or a coal wagon. During the harvest season, the machine was moved from farm to farm of the members of the cooperative to harvest their grain in turn, and thus the general name for these groups: Threshing rings.
But by the 1950s, most farmers harvested their own grain, which was either hauled to the nearest grain elevator for sale or storage or stored on the farm for use as animal feed. Oats, once the fuel that powered horse-driven farm implements, was mostly used by the 1950s for hog feed, although there was still a market for it as a food grain. The straw left in the field after the combines finished their harvest was raked and baled for use as animal bedding during the winter months.
Soybeans ripened next, and were also harvested with combines. The stalks were not usable for feed or bedding, however, and so were left in the field to be plowed under and added back to the soil.
As fall rolled around, corn picking time approached. Farmers used either towed or tractor-mounted machines that picked and husked the orange-yellow ears, which were stored in the farms’ corn cribs to dry. After the ears had thoroughly dried, the kernels were shelled from them local businessmen who owned corn shellers. Corn shellers, like the threshing machines of previous years, were usually too expensive for an individual farmer to buy, and so a business niche was created.
After the corn harvest, cattle and hogs were turned into the fields—all of which were fenced—to glean the grain that had not been picked up by the mechanical harvesters.
During the winter months, the straw baled during the late summer harvest was used to bed chickens in their nests and cattle in their shed. Alfalfa was fed to cattle in feed bunks along with commercially purchased feed supplements and sometimes—if the farm had a silo—silage that had been put in the silo earlier. Hogs apparently enjoyed what my father called slop, made with either water or raw milk from our cow mixed with oats ground to a course flour.
In the spring, the cattle and hogs were sent off to market, and the cattle yard and hog and chicken houses were cleaned of the manure that had accumulated over the winter. The waste was then loaded aboard manure spreaders (ours carried the upbeat brand name, “New Idea”), and spread on fields, retuning the nutrients back to the soil.
And then whole process began again.
Except for the Amish and a few other small groups, diversified farms are as dead today as the Dodo Bird. Modem crop science and mechanical technology have helped boost crop yields. Today, a modern combine can be fitted with heads to harvest corn, with the corn efficiently removed from the cobs as it’s harvested—thus no more need for the neighborhood corn sheller—as well as any other grain from oats to wheat. But even with all that modern technology, crop science, and chemicals, a visitor to rural areas still sees the occasional stalk of stunted corn intruding into a neat field of soybeans or velvet weeds marring the perfectly straight rows of young corn.
A time-traveling farmer from the 1950s would have no trouble identifying today’s farms, and, in a month or so, what crops are growing on them. He would, however, probably be surprised at the size of the farms and the equipment working on them as well as the small number of farmers needed to handle today’s sprawling agricultural operations.
2 responses to “The farming calendar once ruled Fox Valley life”
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