So when was the golden age of American farming?
I think the answer is different if you’re thinking from the point of view of the farmer or the consumer. If you’re the consumer, the answer is obviously, “The golden age is now.” You’ll see why in a minute.
For the farmer, we need to separate what’s picturesque from what’s good. Some aspects of the bad old days were:
- Being connected to town by dirt roads that were often impassible.
- Farming that was so labor-intensive that you couldn’t get along without hired help. (Even in Ten Acres Enough, Morris had to hire two people year-round on his little farm, and more at harvest season.) Let’s face it: the American farmer has never been a good manager, and never liked dealing with hired help.
- No understanding of disease — the germ theory of disease wasn’t widely believed until the 1860s and wasn’t proven until the 1870s. This resulted in a generally low level of health in both man and beast.
- Not being able to give your kids a high-school education unless they boarded with strangers in town.
- Travel that’s so expensive that the local general store had a monopoly over your business — and mail-order hadn’t been invented yet.
- No mass communication except newspapers and no free public libraries, leaving rural folks at a huge disadvantage in education.
- Produce traveled to market via unrefrigerated slow freight, resulting in almost unbelievably low quality in the city.
- An unbelievably high level of fraud and double-dealing at all levels of society, not just by politicians and CEO’s, resulting in low levels of both quality and trust.
- Horses were essential, but many farmers weren’t good with horses. Few things are more dangerous than a team of horses hitched up to farm machinery and handled by a farmer who doensn’t have a close working relationship with them.
- Farming is dirty work, but hot water for bathing and a room warm enough to bathe in were scarce.
So I figure that the Golden Age had tractors, paved roads, Rural Free Delivery of mail, high schools that could be reached on a school bus, radio, pickup trucks, tractors, refrigerated freight cars, the Sears Roebuck catalog, free public libraries, and labor-saving devices that allowed the hired help to be given the boot. So the Golden Age for farmers started around 1910 and ended roughly around 1960.
When I was a kid, people hearkened back to simpler times of horse agriculture and houses that lacked bath soap, but I think that such times are receding into the mists of antiquity — it’s a lot easier to relate to farmers with running water and a tractor than those of earlier times. And it’s easier to emulate them successfully as well.
Golden Ages sow the seeds of their own destruction. What’s good for the farmer isn’t necessarily good for the consumer. For example, eggs used to move from farm to city by unrefrigerated slow freight. In The Dollar Hen, Milo Hastings reports that eggs actually hatched in transit during the summer of 1901. Since incubation takes three weeks, this gives you an idea of how awful the distribution chain was back then!
Factory farms took over the egg business quite suddenly. Farmers with operations relatively close to town and who had walk-in refrigeration could guarantee the freshness of their eggs. Midwestern farmers whose eggs traveled by slow freight could not. In the Fifties, the market was taken over in just a few years by farmers who offered end-to-end refrigeration. The market price for eggs shipped the old way fell to unprofitable levels, and, just like that, eggs from diversified farms were a thing of the past.
Which goes to show that running a picturesque, old-timey, poltically correct operation counts for nothing if the eggs are bad. Lots of people don’t understand this, and when they start a little farm of their own, they skimp on quality six ways from Sunday, with the idea that they can do no wrong because they’re politically correct. It doesn’t work like that. As my Engineering professors liked to say, “Partial credit will not be given if the bridge collapses.” Only suckers give you credit for good intentions. Everyone else wants results.
Fortunately, in this day and age, results are at every farmer’s disposal, large or small. On-farm refrigerated storage is no longer a novelty, even on the smallest farms. Nearly a century of extending paved roads, telephone lines, and rural electrification mean that isolated farms are at no particular disadvantage except travel time. The nature of commerce ensures that most farmers and processors are focused on commodities and ignore niche products. If you play your cards right, this is a second Golden Age — and one that is more easily shared with your customers.