By Matt Reese
Amid all of the lunacy of 2020, I personally have found it useful to look back and see that none of the challenges we are facing are really new. All of the root causes of today’s problems have always existed and have been dealt with by our forefathers. And, in the case of those of us in Ohio’s agricultural present, our past was shaped on Ohio’s Historic Family Farms.
The Ohio Century Farm program started in 1993 as a joint effort between the Ohio History Connection, Ohio’s Country Journal and the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
Today the ODA’s Ohio Historic Family Farms program recognizes a farm that has been in the same family for: 100 to 149 years (Century Farm designation), 150 to 199 years (Sesquicentennial Farm designation) or 200 or more years (Bicentennial Farm designation).
Maybe you’ve seen the signs, or heard of the program, but these historic treasures of rural Ohio are often overlooked. I think, though, in light of the increasingly unusual times we are living in, Ohio’s Historic Family Farms offer a glimpse into the state’s past that can really provide (I believe) some valuable insights for today and the future.
We have two Ohio’s Historic Family Farms featured this year (stay tuned in the coming days for those) and I love to visit them each year for many reasons. There is usually fascinating history, there are always great family stories and there are generally some impressive historic structures to gawk at when you think about how they were built so long ago. Another reason Century Farm visits are so valuable is the perspective they provide, which is especially important to consider in a year like 2020. Every time I hear the stories from the history of these farms I wonder: Why does it seem things were so simple back then, compared to today?
After years of learning about Ohio’s agricultural history, I continue to arrive at the same answer to that question: food. Just a couple of generations back, whether they lived in the city or the country, people spent significantly more time and resources on food than we do today. That was illustrated very clearly when I talked with Jim Leslie from Wyandot County last year. He was born in 1928, the youngest of six and 14 years younger than his next oldest brother. He told me about the community gathering on the farm for butchering livestock in the winter when he was growing up.
“We used to butcher here at this farm for the neighborhood. We had a Model A Ford. We’d jack up the rear wheel and put a belt on the spokes of the wheel. We’d start the car, the wheel would turn and that would run the meat grinder,” Jim said. “We’d hang the meat in the summer kitchen. Mom would go out and slice the mold off the outside of the meat to cut out the steaks and cook them. We’d throw the moldy meat she cut off in the pigpen. People today wouldn’t eat that meat, but if you want a pretty good steak, that was good stuff.”
The necessary life of toil required for food and energy provided a perspective that is largely absent in today’s American culture. Such was the case for Walter Mayer, a 100 year-old farmer in Union County I had the chance to interview back in 2012. He had seen fieldwork guided by horses and by satellite. Walter’s old farmhouse got electricity in 1937 and there was only power during the day. The house was heated with wood and coal and it was usually only one room that was heated in the winter. Weekly baths were taken in a rubber tub in the kitchen with water warmed on the wood stove.
We are incredibly fortunate that our ancestors worked so hard to create better lives for their children and their children’s children. Now we get to enjoy the fruits of their labor and I think we’d all be a little better off if we’d heed the lessons they teach us.
The early days of Ohio’s historic farms were fraught with perils that can scarcely be imagined today. Sickness, hunger, hard labor and even battles with Native Americans and wildlife were not uncommon. They did not have time on the farm back in the early 1900s to be busy with sports, or events, or whatever else we fill our time with today because they were working from sun up until sun down to produce the food needed for survival. When they did get a break from work, they relished it and savored it as a luxury. In general, free time was not expected; it was a privilege. Leisure was not an entitlement; it was something to be cherished. Life was not as much about “me” because, out of necessity, it had to be more about “we.”
As food has gotten easier, we have come to expect time to do things we want to do, rather than putting so much effort into providing or procuring food and energy. We don’t have to spend hours a day on basic survival, so we do other stuff and then complain about how busy we are (myself included). The miracle of our modern food system has eliminated much of the toil of food production for most of our society, but it has also eliminated much of the harsh reality that grounded our forefathers.
After hearing the arduous tales of life on Century Farms, it never fails to make me appreciate all that we have today — even in the insanity of 2020.