Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Guest Post: Farming on the Great Frontier by Lisa Wilson

The books of Laura Ingalls have been entertaining and enchanting young readers for generations, due in part to the adventurous life portrayed on the great frontier. The life they led was not an easy one. It was full of the everyday challenges farmers face today such as generating good crop growth, but on the wild frontier the challenges seemed far greater. Laura documented her early life as part of a pioneer family and her books still educate readers today about the hardships often endured during the 1800s in the Midwest.

On the Ingalls Farm

Laura was one of five children born to Charles and Caroline Ingalls. The children’s parents worked hard to ensure the family’s survival on the plains. The couple shared chores such as managing and milking the cows and making butter and cheese from the dairy produced. They also planted gardens on the farm, killed hogs and smoked the meat. They made sugar from maple sap and soft leather from the hides of deer. Charles farmed his land, working hard all day he set animal traps and shot wild game. Caroline managed the garden and was in charge of the house and the family’s clothes.

The family endured severe blizzards that ravaged the town and they ran out of food and also wood to heat the house. To make flour they would grind their wheat in a coffee grinder and used hay for heat.

One of the worst challenges was the loss of their crops due to locust plagues that ravaged the plants two years in a row. 1874 was named the Year of the Locust in the West. The insects swarmed over several states including Minnesota, Dakota and Wyoming, and they decimated the Great Plains. The Rocky Mountain locusts ate the crops, the leaves from trees, all the grass, even the wool from the sheep. The locusts thrived on the drought that had already made pioneering farming a nightmare for families. After a hard winter during 1873 to 1874, and the dry summer that followed, farmers were looking to the skies for rain, but the plague of locusts came instead, leaving nothing in their wake.

When Laura grew up and married Almanzo Wilder, they began farming as a young couple and struggled against harsh weather conditions to harvest their crops. Hailstorms destroyed the Wilder’s wheat crop and soon afterwards their barn burnt down with all the grain and hay inside it. The couple then lost their crops to drought, two years in a row, followed by the tragic death of their baby son.

Life on the Prairie for Pioneers

An American Professor of History at Yale University wrote his award winning book, Small Places, Wider WorldsSugar Creek and Settler Colonialism in North America, about life for pioneer farmers in the Midwest during the 1800s. He researched the topic by talking to descendants of the farmers and exploring the history of the area of Sangamon County. The Great Plains were thought of as an ideal place for men but not for women and oxen. The women had to help farm, planting and harvesting the vegetables, picking and spinning cotton to darn the clothes with, cook and keep house, tend to the children and animals and make soap, butter and candles. While the men went on long hunts with friends, the women had little time for companionship with their own friends because they were so busy on the farm.

The diet of pioneer farmers was fairly simple and consisted of wheat, beans, coffee, sugar and game that was hunted and captured. Food was seasonal, as there were no fridges or freezers. Breakfast was likely to have included corn bread, boiled eggs, fried potatoes or hot cakes. Occasionally it might include pork chops or sausages. Potatoes lasted through the year and were served at most mealtimes. Pigs were farmed to raise money and farms often had a smokehouse to preserve the pork.

Back to Basics: Farming Today       
Pioneer farming may seem like a world away from the industrial age we live in today, but with processed, pesticide ridden food stocked on supermarket shelves comes an awareness that a healthy, simple diet is better for us. The pioneer farmers ate bread, potatoes and vegetables that were free from chemicals and their meat did not contain the antibiotics commonly found in beef today. The media celebrates new terms for foodies such as 'clean cooking,' which means going back to basics with recipes and using only natural, locally sourced food. It makes sense. The pioneers enjoyed a basic diet with all their food grown on the farm. They did struggle with plagues of locusts and droughts during the summers, but their diet was simple and healthy.

Today, bills are passed in Congress to support America’s small farms as the demand for organic, locally sourced food rises. Organic dairy farming is growing day by day, and for farmers it is proving to be a sensible investment, while consumers are appreciating knowing what exactly goes into their milk and other dairy products. Natural whey has far greater health benefits than processed alternatives, as it does not contain pesticides found in dairy products from cows that do not feed on natural, chemical free land. Organic farmers achieve sustainable farming with good quality soil and natural techniques. The back to basics farming ideals are a return, in many ways, to the techniques used in pioneering farming. We now have the technology to manage farms more efficiently than our ancestors, but with our understanding about how a healthy diet helps our lifestyles we are craving more naturally sourced, preservative-free food, bringing us closer to the pioneer days of farming on the Great Plains.

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