A Pilgrimage to My Parents’ Childhood Farms
Last fall, my sister and I took my eighty-something parents on a journey in search of their respective childhood farms. It was a trip of a lifetime, which not only allowed my parents to reconnect with their land, but helped me dig into my family’s roots, as well as the history of our food system.
I got the idea to take my parents on a quest to see their childhood farms at the Minneapolis airport, on a layover after presenting on cultural, plant-based food traditions at a nutrition conference. I was buzzing with energy after dialoguing with colleagues about the power of sustainable, traditional foods on health, and here I was only two hours from my father’s childhood home—a place I had never seen. My father always loved to share stories about his farm in Brainerd, Minnesota: the cold winters, getting up early to care for the animals, and the long trudge through the snow to school. At the same time, my mother told me her own childhood farm stories by way of Ash Flat, Arkansas: playing jacks on a flat smooth stone (see below), picking cotton (with an eye out for water moccasins), and baking crispy cornbread in the wood-burning stove. The more interested I became in agriculture, the more those stories fascinated me.
So, what started out as a little daydream at the airport, turned into a conversation with my parents to test the waters (oh, they were excited!), and then a call to my sister Paula to see if she would join in on the adventures. All were in alignment for an October trip, first to Arkansas for two days, then off to Minnesota for two days, before my parents and sister headed back for Seattle, and I made my way to Chicago for the Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo.
My sister and I were fully aware that three things could very likely go wrong on our farm discovery quest:
- We might not find the farms. My parents lived there during the Depression and World War II. There were no street addresses, nothing to enter into Google Maps. No relatives left in Brainerd, one cousin left in Ash Flat. We were headed there with only memories, for the most part. My parents hadn’t been to their homesteads in several decades.
- The farms might not be there any longer. What with urban sprawl and the age of larger farms swallowing up smaller farms, who knew what would be left of our family farms, even if we did find them?
- The new owners might not let us in. Even if we were lucky enough to get past the first two steps, what would happen if there was a big, fat “no trespassing” sign on the front gate, and nobody that would let us in?
I’m happy to report that we were lucky on all three counts for both of my parents’ farms.
My Mom’s Farm in Ash Flat, Arkansas
When we found my mom’s farm in Arkansas, we discovered that the land was being used for grazing cattle, and the old homestead and barn were still there, though they were crumbling. It was so exciting to see the old gate my mom used to swing on as a child, the flat stone where she played jacks, the barn where she milked the cows, and the home where her meals were prepared in a wood-burning stove.
My mother, Cora Louretta Pemberton, was born in 1934 in Strawberry River, Arkansas (what a delightful name!), where the young family lived with her grandfather on a farm with sheep and cows. My mother’s father was sharecropping that land from a relative—which was a hard life in those days. In 1939, he was able to buy his own land in Ash Flat, a small town in Sharp County, Arkansas. “The advantage was that during the Depression we had a lot of food, but lots of people lost their homes for taxes, my dad almost did too,” recalls my mother.
The farm was comprised of 80 acres, with milking cows (20-30), a hog, some chickens; fields for cotton, corn, wheat, and sorghum; and a kitchen garden that grew just about every vegetable you can imagine—green beans, black-eyed peas, pink beans, potatoes, turnips, carrots, onions, tomatoes, squash, peanuts, and sweet potatoes. There was a barn for the cows, and some pear, apple, and peach trees. And the neighboring forest was full of wild berries and greens.
The farm provided complete subsistence for the family. The milk from the cows was sold to a local creamery to make cheese, the eggs were eaten or sold to neighbors, the only meat consumed was from the hog, which was butchered and then ground up for sausage, or from the chickens (in case you’re wondering, by the time I came around, my parents had become semi-vegetarian). The daily diet was packed with whatever fruits or vegetables were growing in the garden. During the summer bounty, produce was “put up” (canned) to last through the winter. “The government gave my mom a pressure cooker,” says my mom, who still uses said pressure cooker to can her own produce to this day.
My mom’s chores were to feed the chickens, gather eggs, feed the calves, help with the milking, and to pick wild greens (i.e., poke, lambs quarter) in the woods, among many other odd jobs. Cotton was the cash crop, which brought in the little bit of income to the household. Neighboring families would help each other pick their cotton crops. No outside help was needed, because the family provided all of the farm labor. The animal manure was carefully piled up and spread on the fields. “My dad never bought fertilizer.” The animals would graze outside daily, and their diet was supplemented with corn from the farm.
For a small amount as payment, a neighbor would grind their wheat and corn with a mule-powered grist for family cooking and baking. The same arrangement was made for sorghum, which was turned into molasses. “My favorite memory from the farm is when my dad cut the sorghum, and with a mule they would grind out the syrup, and there would be a big kettle cooking it down.”
No pesticides or fertilizers were ever applied to the land. “My dad took care of bugs with three kids and a bucket. We picked them off by hand,” says my mom. The family learned about composting from a local extension, which improved the fertility of the fields.
A typical meal was cooked beans, cornbread, vegetables, and onions. “We lived a lot like a plant-based diet,” says my mom, who recalls harvesting the peanuts, carrying them to the barn, and putting them up in the loft, and then climbing up in the loft to pull out peanuts and roast them in a big baking pan (yum!).
My Dad’s Farm in Brainerd, Minnesota
It was a challenge tracking down my father’s farm, with no relatives in the region. Suburban sprawl had made its way to Brainerd, but some of the farmland was intact. Finally we spotted a landmark (an old tavern), and my father remembered just how many miles it took to walk to his farm from that spot, so we plotted our route. Miraculously, the original, old homestead (pictured at the very top) came into sight and we found the farm, which was now owned by a young farm family, whose own family had a long history of farming in the region. It was pretty enough to be on a post card.
My father, Glen Palmer, was born in Ottawa, Illinois. When he was six months old, the family moved to Brainerd, Minnesota, where they lived on a smaller parcel until they were able to purchase the family farm. In 1938, at the beginning of World War II, his father went to Oregon to work in the shipyards, and they rented out the farm in Minnesota. That was the year my father got really sick with rheumatic fever and missed a whole school year. Meanwhile, back at home on the farm, there was a tornado, and they had to return to rebuild the barn.
In 1943, my dad’s father had a heart attack. “I was 13 years old, and my dad was laid up and couldn’t work. So my brother Don and I ran the farm for quite awhile,” recalls my father. The farm had 14 cows for milking. “My job was to milk the cows by hand every morning. It took two and a half hours each morning and evening. Then I would go to school in between milking the cows. Don would feed the cows and calves, and later on when we got sheep.” Eventually, the family sold the farm in 1945.
The farm, which was 80 acres and about two-thirds to three-fourths cultivated for crops, was self-sustaining in many ways. They grew corn and hay for the cows. They eventually added 200 head of ewes. On the property, they had a sheep barn, which was 80 feet long and 28 feet wide. “The sheep barn was solar, but we didn’t know it back then. The south wall had glass, and you could walk in there in the middle of winter, when it was 20 below, and the sheep were warm and comfortable,” says my father.
“In the summer time, every morning we would take off for state land to the east with the sheep and two dogs to keep the sheep from wondering away. The dogs would come up in front and bark, and the sheep would back up and run back to the rest of them. We never trained the dogs, but it was natural for them. We would shear them in the spring—my cousin would do it. It would take three days to do them all, and we would sell all of that wool, and in the fall we would sell the lambs. So it took very little cost to raise them.”
They had a big kitchen garden, where they would grow everything that would manage to thrive in that region in the short growing season: tomatoes, melons, strawberries, raspberries, beans, sweet corn, peas, cabbage, broccoli, rhubarb, beets, and potatoes. “My mom canned a lot, because we had no freezers. Just about everything we ate came from the farm, except for flour and sugar. We would buy very little.” They also had apple trees.
“The farm had 14 head of cows, mostly Guernsey because they had richer milk, and the milk was sold for cream for an ice cream place in Brainerd. We sold it separated, and we would separate it. They would pick it up.” The leftover skim milk was fed to the calves, which they would buy one day-old from dairies. They had a machine to grind an ear of corn into flour to feed to the cows. They also had chickens—but no pigs—for their own family use.
My dad recalls they never used pesticides, and spread manure from the animals to fertilize the cornfields and vegetable garden. One-fourth to one-third of the land was wooded and pastureland, so the animals roamed into that land and ate the grass that grew there. “Even in the winter time, we would let the cows out for an hour or so during the day.”
“The farm was really well set up, with a gas engine that pumped into the trough. We knew how much the cows would drink. And we couldn’t leave it in the trough, because it would freeze solid in the winter.” I could get 20-30 degrees below zero on the farm, but even then the cows would stay warm in the barn. The farm was equipped with an above well platform, which pumped water into a big tank, and drained what wasn’t used. In the summer they could keep it full. “We had running water in the kitchen, which was unheard of at that time.” They didn’t get electricity until after the war, which was shortly before they sold the farm. “We thought we were really getting modern when we got electricity; we only had one plug in each room, with no switches, just a light bulb in the middle of the room with a pull string to turn it on and off,” says my father.
It was striking to visit both of my parents’ farms, and see their similarities, despite the drastic differences in climate and geography, during a specific point in the agricultural history of America. My parents both left these farms to move to Idaho to farm, where they ended up being next-door neighbors. Eventually they were married in Nevada and moved to Seattle, where I was born. Even when we lived in the suburbs, we had a large vegetable garden. And now things have turned full circle and I am interested in agriculture.
I would like to close this amazing story with a plea: find out about your own agricultural roots. America’s history was hard-fought by farmers working the land to survive. But before them, Native Americans lived on the land, forging a symbiotic relationship with their natural surroundings, which they planted, as well as foraged and hunted in, all in balance with their environment. So dig a little deeper, and get connected with your own agricultural roots.