“Until that time, he hadn’t given money much thought. They’d never had much, but neither had anyone else they knew.
Money was something people in the towns and cities had: Mr. Taggert, the bank manager, or Mr. Fitzpatrick, who owned the sawmill – they had money. Most of the farmers in the area wouldn’t see more than $20 from one year to the next.
But they didn’t consider themselves poor. With the exception of salt and sugar and tea, they grew just about everything they ate, and for the other things they needed – tools, nails, shoes, gas for the truck, the odd bit of farm machinery when the bits they had were past mending – if you didn’t have the money, you paid in kind.
Even the doctor and the vet were happy if you paid them in chickens or ham or a bushel of corn.”
– The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson
One thing that most folks who have grown up on farms will tell you is that we all share the ability to land on our feet.
I remember 1969 as a particularly difficult year for my family, though I was too young to fully realize it at the time. My father had planted and re-planted several fields of corn by mid-June because heavy rains left several of his best fields under water, washing out the early stands of fragile sprouts.
Then came the Fourth of July flood. And with its fury all of our fields became lakes and that re-planting was washed away.
Bad luck. In between the two floods of 1969, we lost five of our best milk cows to electrocution while they stood in the stanchions being milked one evening, due to a faulty hot water heater. They were not covered by insurance since they all had been born and raised on the farm, not purchased outright.
Through it all, we were reminded daily that we were still lucky because we all were still together and everything was going to turn out all right. I realize now that my father simply didn’t want us to worry. He was doing enough worrying for the rest of us.
At some point during that school year, though, I overheard my father discussing his concerns about finances after what ended up being an incredibly short harvest. I was 10 years old and suddenly I had an awareness of money which I had never realized before that time.
Skipping lunch. I remember answering “no” when my mother asked if I needed lunch money. I had come up with the notion that if I managed to get by without eating lunch at school, perhaps that would turn the tide for the better on my family’s entire finances.
One thing my grandfather once told me is that he and my grandmother had learned to survive by “sharing work” in all sorts of creative ways with neighbors back during the years of the Great Depression. It was vital at that time to help with not only labor, but the prized possessions that kept a working farm working.
Farm dogs. For my grandparents, that included a great group of working farm dogs. Their English Shepherds became famous for doing the work of several men, and in order to produce enough of these puppies, my grandparents relied strongly on neighbors to help keep things going.
They would give a female to anyone in the community who expressed an interest in owning one, with the agreement that the female would be brought back to their farm to breed. When the puppies were old enough to leave their mama, my grandparents would buy the entire litter at a small fee – usually $1 or $2 per pup, and then sell them for $10 to a buyer, sometimes several states away.
I was given the ledger books that my dad’s mother kept with keen organization. My grandmother’s pretty handwriting abruptly ends in the spring of 1946. She died at age 36 after a tonsillectomy had gone tragically wrong.
By that time, she had built the business to several hundred sales annually and their prices had raised to $15 and $20 per puppy. They shipped pups to all 48 states by rail car, each puppy traveling in a hand-made crate.
Working together. While others were losing their farms, it was this hard work that helped them prosper during our country’s toughest time for farmers.
For them, relying on neighbors made all the difference. I believe that in today’s farming world, we are again seeing the return of the importance of neighboring farmers working together in order to stretch every dollar.
When we moved to this farm one year ago, we learned early on that we were blessed with great neighbors. Each day we count our lucky stars for each of them and try hard to make sure that the giving is as equal as the accepting.
That’s what keeps the farm wheels turning!
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