The Fine Role of Farm Wife

by on May 10, 2010
in Farm Life

A stack of "Farm Knowledge"

My husband William and I have a set of books entitled “Farm Knowledge” published by Sears and Roebuck in 1918. There are four volumes, each dealing with a different part of farm life. We’re really grateful to have them, they are quite rare these days and expensive to purchase and I’m the kind of person who would much rather own a book and be able to touch the pages than to simply read it online. I’m a very tactile reader.

The volumes make for fascinating reading. It’s interesting to me that though we are now a full decade into the 21st century, the messages from the first two decades of the 20th century are so familiar in content. How often have we heard from poets, authors, and politicians the urging to return to “simpler values, simpler times” and hearken America back to a more bucolic day of peace and plenty? I know I’ve read it, and written it many times. I think there must be some kind of human hard-wiring that makes us see a green field and breathe deeply and say “aah, how peaceful.” And yet as we peruse the pages of these antique volumes of farm methods, tips, and suggestions I keep reading the same thing. What??? An editor in 1918 was pleading with his readers to return to a more peaceful, prosperous time?

Actually, yes. The books, while presented as an encyclopedia of farm knowledge were as much a plea for what they wanted to exist in American communities as they were a repository of what did exist. They didn’t request that the farm families live like they did 100 years ago (well, let’s face it, life in 1818 was not a walk in the park, and no one would buy that bridge if they tried to sell it.) Mostly they tried to paint a picture of the American farm life that we romanticize now; hard working families, communities knit together in a common goal of success, peaceful neighborhoods, clean yards, and happy children. Each volume has suggestions of ways to improve farm income, to further education in rural settings, to inspire youth to not only work the fields but to cultivate their minds as well. It sounds like a chapter meeting for the modern FFA.

I love reading these books. I love knowing that the world wasn’t perfect and we’ve since misplaced perfection somewhere along our path to technological advancement. I love knowing that progress is an ever-changing thing; that society has the ability to choose, to grow, to discard and change whatever isn’t working. And I love that the basic elements of what makes a family and a community successful haven’t changed. In fact I can go back even further to Virgil’s “Georgic” poems and Hesiod’s “Works and Days” and find bits of wisdom that haven’t changed in the nearly three-thousand years since they were penned. Who can argue with sage advice like “Build barns; it will not be Summer forever”?

I think that my favorite part of the “Farm Knowledge” books is the section on the farm house and yard. They actually spend quite a bit of time expounding on the importance of a neat and well-kept farmhouse, where the farm wife, who keeps everything running, can work effectively and efficiently towards the goal of a happy, healthy, farm family. Now there’s a bit of romanticizing that I can get behind. There are tips on decorating, adjusting the height of the kitchen work tables so you don’t injure your back, using a vacuum, finding clever storage areas for all of the “things” you need on a farm but might not have extra room for. It’s great, it reads almost like a modern copy of Good Housekeeping or the latest Martha Stewart book.

I like knowing that I am not alone in the drama of keeping a farm-house clean. Keeping any house clean requires skills of organization and good habits, but have you ever considered what keeping a farm-house clean entails? Do you know what comes in on the bottom of a farmer’s shoes? I have an intimate knowledge of what gets tracked into the farmhouse; it’s not pretty, and it doesn’t smell good. But after reading about the struggles with dirty boots and wash day of the early 20th century farm-wife, I feel decidedly blessed to be her counterpart in the 21st century. I get to look out at my green fields and sigh over how peaceful they are, call Jezebel in from that field, milk her and send her on her way again, cluck at my sweet little biddies, gather their eggs with my daughter Marilla and head back in to the house to begin the daily house chores. Often as I am wiping off the bottoms of my own boots I pause and look around at the farm I enjoy. I can see why poets and politicians tell everyone we should get back to this, it’s hard to beat.

Afton Field Farm

Yesterday was fantastic! We drove down to Corvallis and visited Afton Field Farm. What a delightful farm, and what a great family! Tyler and Alicia are amazing, both of them work the farm using their respective strengths to make it thrive, with friends and extended family pitching in. Alicia’s blog sold us on wanting to visit their farm for the monthly guided tour, it’s great to get online and be able to share a little bit of their farm experience with them and it got us salivating to see it in person. If you have the chance to visit you really should.

The combination of the tree lined driveway, the historic house, and sustainable farm make for a memorable and inspiring afternoon. Tyler shared with us the in’s and out’s of his farm model. He interned with Joel Salatin (if you are not familiar with this name you need to do an internet search, buy his books, listen to what the man is saying, and get inspired about local agriculture) at Polyface Farms for a year and is implementing his methods here in Oregon. The food they are raising is wonderful (we were able to get some pasture-raised pork to bring home for dinner – yum!) and just as inspiring is their dedication to helping small-farming make a comeback. They are sharing their knowledge, their inspiration, and their dedication with whomever will listen. I have great hopes for their farm; I think with such great young farmers at the helm it will stand for another 100 years, serving their community with excellent food; raised for flavor, efficiency, and responsibility to the future.

What an asset they are to their community and others who are wanting to really make small family farming successful. They offer guided tours once a month, with question and answer time with them, but you are welcome to go by anytime and say “hi”.