Farm To Table: Then and Now

The nostalgic farm to table concept is often used today in marketing. It conjurs the idea of fresh, wholesome, directly sourced food. The phrase harkens to a simpler time, when family farms were diverse and provided mostly for the family with a small surplus for the neighbors or local community. As usual, the marketing picture may not match the reality. I recently shared part of my great uncle Merle’s book, Growing Up on the Farm in the 30s and 40s*, as it related to International Women’s Day. I’m going to continue that today, as it relates to National Ag Day, and the 2021 theme Food Brings Everyone To the Table. To start here is what Merle had to say about putting food on the table during his youth (Trigger Warning: This is pretty graphic, so you might skip it if you’re squeamish):

I am sure you have decided by now we had very little money during the 30’s and 40’s when I was growing up. You are right! But I never remember going hungry. We would probably have eaten more if it had been on the table, but we always had food to eat. Not food as you think of it today as nearly everything we ate was raised in our garden and stuff from the farm. Remember we had no electricity, no refrigerator, no freezer, no electric lights. The only place we could keep anything cool was in the cellar and it was not cool enough to keep anything very long.

Of course we had fresh milk twice a day, when we went out and milked. Then we had fresh eggs every day when we gathered the eggs. From these two sources, we had milk, cream, butter and fried eggs, boiled eggs, and chickens to eat anytime you wanted to kill and dress a chicken. We generally raised a few hogs and in the winter when the meat would keep because of the cold weather we would butcher a hog.

What would you think if now when you wanted some ham or pork chops or bacon, you got down your 22 rifle, went out in the hog lot and picked out the pig you wanted to eat, took careful aim at his brain and shot him? He then fell dead on the ground. You ran up to him with a sharp butcher knife and slashed his throat real deep and let his blood all run out on the ground. Then you had to drag him over in the corner of the chicken lot where we had a platform built. There was a big wooden barrel at the end of it about 1/2 full of scalding hot water, which you had already heated in the big cast iron kettle with a wood fire under it. Then you had to scald the dead hog by letting him slide in to the hot water head first and then turn him around and scald his rear end. Then you could yank on the hair and if it pulled out easy, he was ready to scrape all the hair off  and get him cleaned up good. Next you tied his hind legs to a wood single tree and used a rope pulley tied up in the tree next to the platform to hang him up to finish butchering him. Of course then you cut off his head and then cut him open and gutted him. Then you let him hang and cool off. Later then he was cut up so you could carry him into the smoke house where he was cut up so you could cook your meat.

Now you are done butchering, except for trimming all the heavy fat off, cutting it into small pieces and cooking it in the big cast iron kettle with the wood fire and then squeezing the lard out of it with the lard press. Then you cut up all the meat you wanted to go into sausage and ground it all up and seasoned it with salt, pepper and put it in the lard press and pressed it into your long casings that held your sausage. What casings are (don’t get sick now): when you gutted the hog, you saved some of the long small intestines, then you had to clean them up and squeeze the “you know what” out of the them and scrape them off with the knife and “presto” you have a nice long tube you slipped over the tube coming out of the lard press and turned the crank and it filled this tube up with the already ground sausage meat.

Now you don’t have all this fun as when you want some sausage, you go in the store and there it is all ready to place in the skillet and heat. If this seems sort of gorey to you, it was. I didn’t like to see the hog shot. Dad would say “don’t you want to shoot the hog?” and I don’t think I ever did. I know Ernest used to, but he was older than me…Well, so much for butchering day. I am glad you and I don’t have to do this any more.

Of course, we killed and dressed all the chickens we ate also. The way we killed chickens was to set a stick of wood on one end and held the chicken in your left hand and laid his neck across the wood and chopped his head off with an axe or hatchet in your right hand. Then you dropped the chicken and got away from it because it jumped all over the place for a few seconds, scattering blood all over. Then you had to scald it and pick all the feathers off and then dress it and cut it up. I have often wondered if Mom got up early Sunday morning and dressed the chicken or chickens for dinner. Lots of times she would have the preacher or some relatives over for Sunday dinner. I think she probably did it at least in warm weather because we had no cold place to keep it…

So times were hard, but we raised most all our food. Mom always had a big garden and canned lots of beans, corn, tomatoes and much other stuff. About always raised some peanuts and several years had a patch of cane that we had to strip the leaves off of and haul to the sorghum mill to get made into molasses…Also in spring we tapped Sugar Maples and collected and boiled down the sap and had Maple syrup. So we had lots of good stuff to eat, but it was a lot of work to get it, but kept us boys busy and out of trouble.

Excerpt from Growing Up in the 30s and 40s by Merle Caldwell*

In other parts of the book, Merle also describes his mother baking most of their bread, as well as hunting and fishing for meals. This excerpt, though, highlights the more gruesome aspects that we likely choose to forget about the reality of raising all of your own food. Even for those of us on farms, Farm to Table often looks a lot different than it did in those days. Personally, we rely on other entities for processing both our beef (which we market direct) and milk (which our coop markets), and we get the majority of our food from the grocery store because we like to eat things besides meat and milk, and well, we can. I am unbelievably grateful that I’m able to get sausage, pre-cut chicken, and fresh fruit and vegetables in my grocery pick-up order year round. I’m also thankful for the farmers who produced those things and all those in the middle who helped get them to that store and onto my table.

If you think about it, all food, then and now, is farm to table. Whatever our cultural preferences, financial means, and nutritional priorities are, we all have to eat. All that food has to come from somewhere, generally a farm. There are of course exceptions, but for now let’s go with this simplification. As fewer people find themselves living on farms and procuring or producing their own food, the “to”, (i.e., the methods, entities, and processes involved in getting the food from farms to tables) has become increasingly important. It has also improved the safety and security of our food supply as a whole. Farms, processesors and retailers all must pass inspections and food must pass quality tests. Ingredients must also be accurately labeled, and common allergens must be plainly stated (something all allergy moms appreciate).

The importance of the “to” for all of us has never been more apparent than it was in 2020 as farmers continued to produce and everyone continued to eat, but weak links elsewhere in the supply chain led to shortages in grocery stores and excesses on farms. Specific to dairy, some farmers were forced to dump milk while in many places grocery store dairy cases sat empty. There were similar struggles in other sectors of agriculture. In addition to processors shifting gears from restaurant wholesale to retail packaging, the USDA developed the food box program, which I believe successfully helped both sides of the supply chain, and after a month or two the ship was mostly righted, if a little wobbly. We are still seeing the impact of the shift to direct beef purchases in local processing capacity, for example.

The take-away, though, is that when things get really dire, and you get down to needs instead of wants, food is a top priority for all of us. While we personally felt some security in having enough milk and meat available that we would not actually go hungry for a very long time, many were not so lucky. As I mentioned, today is National Agriculture Day, and the theme for 2021 is that Food Brings Everyone to the Table. Certainly, food truly connects us all. We need diversity in farming to provide the many options we enjoy with respect to types of foods, growing practices and even processing methods. I don’t have many answers, but I think similar diversity in the processing and distribution of food that happens between farms and tables, would improve the ability of the chain to keep the supply linked to the demand in the future. I hope that we can all meet at the table for conversations about the “to” that connects our farm and your table, and work together to make it stronger.

Last, but not least, thank you to everyone who buys beef from us directly or chooses milk from your grocery case for allowing us to continue to produce food that makes its way to your table.

* My great uncle Merle Caldwell wrote the book Growing Up on the Farm in the 30s and 40s for our family in 1997. I have had my grandparents’ copy for years and finished typing it into a digital format last fall. I plan to continue to share excerpts of it here with comparable or contrasting stories from our own farm almost a century later.

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