Another Look Back at MacDonald’s Farm

Last week I painted a brief picture of the environmental impacts of pre-modern agriculture. While it is important to dispel the idyllic myth of “Old MacDonald’s Farm” being some sort of naturalist utopia, there’s another aspect that often gets missed in the great farming debate. That would be the humans of yesteryear, the last people that most Americans have as a contact to agriculture, the real “Old MacDonalds”. For some, this would be their parents or grandparents. For others, they never met a family member in their life that was a farmer.

I come from a unique location in that I grew up surrounded by the farmers of pre-modern agriculture. Still to this day, I will work with a few remaining people who farmed in “the good old days”. In addition, because as “the kid” I was low man on the leadership chain, I’ve spent most of my childhood taking part in what you might term early-modern agriculture. Having this perspective gives me the opportunity to see where some things have changed for the better, some for the worse, and how some things will never change.

Grandpa riding an appaloosa

Back in his day, if someone wanted a horse, my grandpa would have an “app” for that. Until he switched to raising paints.

The people who stand out in particular for me are my Grandpa Bob and Great-Grandpa Elmer. My Grandpa Carl died when I was eleven, so I didn’t have the opportunity to work with him as much as the other two, who were alive until and through the time I went to college. Grandpa Elmer was born in 1907, and spent most of his life as a horse breeder and trader. Papa Bob, as we kids all called him, was born in ’35, and in addition to farming worked for the USDA as an egg and turkey inspector.

Between the two of them I was immersed in stories of old days and old ways. Their management philosophies had advanced from their youth, but quite frankly had not caught up with the early 2000s when I worked with them. A lot of what we did together would have been standard practice in the 1950s, 60s or 70s. There were in essence the Old MacDonald’s that everyone likes to hold up as the standard for farmers and ranchers. So to truly understand the small, local farmer model some wish to re-create, I can give you a description of what type of person that farmer was.

What may surprise many is the primary concern for Old MacDonald was money. Make the most money you possibly could with what you had. Now before you lose your head, remember the philosophy behind this mindset. The more money they made farming, the more they had to feed and clothe their kids, to give their wives a nicer life, and to purchase equipment that could make life easier.

They remembered hard times, the real hard ones that most middle class Americans have no idea about. You worked hard to save money and you horded it, because you never knew when hard times were coming again. This is one aspect of agriculture (and American life in general) that has changed for the worse, because we’ve forgotten how to delay gratification. So when the money runs out, everything that was built on borrowed money disappears in a flash.

Part of making money at all costs was that things like safety went by the wayside. Farm safety did not exist for Old MacDonald, or if it did it was in a rudimentary form like “don’t stand right behind the horse so you don’t get kicked in the head!”. I wish I could count the number of cut trees that fell on my head (thanks Dad), how many times I was kicked by calves, or the number of hours spent on a very loud, open cab tractor or running a chainsaw without hearing protection.

Old tractor by Martin, SD

This picture is the essence of safety.

Back then, it was not a matter of if you would get hurt farming, it was when. My Grandpa Carl was missing a finger from a corn picker accident (another was gone from a World War Two injury). Several families lost their father in tractor rollovers through the years. Cattle also injured a lot of folks, and killed a few. It took a few generations before farm safety became a priority, but it finally has.

If anything was a lower priority than safety, it was having a good work/life balance. The mantra of working “sunup to sundown” wasn’t just a saying for MacDonald. He had to work like that to keep his head above water in the hard times, and when times were good, look at all the money he was making! Of course, that didn’t leave much time for family. Family time was actually building fence or walking beans together. Not this was all a bad thing–it built a strong work ethic in his children, which served our nation well though the 20th century.

Family time for my Grandpa Rerucha was playing polkas together…in dance halls so they could afford to eat the next day. For real. The Depression sucked.

On a positive note, Old MacDonald was a handy son-of-a-buck. Because he was so cheap, he fix almost anything. Tractors back then (or now, if you still use Allis tractors like we do) were a lot simpler, so fixing them at home just involved a little trouble shooting and a trip to the parts store. And Thomas Edison would be proud of the ways old, worn out things were put together to make clever new devices that made work easier.

Although much is different since his time, the saying “the more things change, them more they stay the same” applies to some of agriculture as well. The most important topic of conversation with every person Old MacDonald encountered and today’s farmer run into is, “How much rain did you get last night?”. When you go to sell your calves or corn, the market drops that day. And if someone has health issues in the family or any other sort of trouble, there are always a bunch of neighbors there to lend a hand.

I learned a lot from the folks who came before me. Sometimes it was learning what to do, and other times it was learning what not to do. But that’s the idea–each generation is trying to do better than the last. And in 60 years, I want my children and grandchildren to keep what I did well, but still be ahead of where I’m at today.