Self-sufficiency was once as essential a part of the American family farm as ample petroleum-based fuels are to modern day producers.
As recently as my grandfather's day, farmers relied on a modicum of “store-bought” goods. Sugar, coffee and salt came from whatever served as a grocery store. An occasional bolt of cloth or a few articles of work clothes and shoes came in from the nearest dry goods establishment or, in some cases, the Sears Roebuck Catalog.
Cloth didn't always come from the store, exactly. Granddaddy always grew his own wheat and took it to the flour mill where the miller ground it for a toll, a percentage of the yield, and sacked it. Those flour sacks, some in attractive gingham patterns, made nice work shirts as well as dresses and bonnets for the womenfolk.
My grandmother always wore a bonnet when she went outside to gather vegetables or eggs or to the feed the chickens.
And there were always plenty of vegetables, fruits, chickens, cattle and other livestock on the farm. I recall helping grandmother scatter cornbread crumbs for the chickens and occasionally helped granddaddy “slop the hogs.” Anything the family didn't eat went to the hog trough, which was considerably more efficient than an in-sink garbage disposal.
Melon rinds, bean strings, pea hulls, old bread, sour milk and fruit peels and cores helped fatten hogs for slaughter. They got an ear of corn and some ground feed occasionally, but slop was the main staple of their diets.
Granddaddy raised enough corn to feed two milk cows, the hogs, an occasional steer or two, chickens and two plow horses. And he turned the corn into feed with an old hammer mill, powered by the power take-off on his old Case tractor.
He'd mix in some molasses for flavor and energy. I can still smell livestock feed and recall his old cow barn and the sweet smell of that hammered corn.
He milked two cows twice a day. They always had fresh milk and Grandmother made butter in an old earthenware churn. She could move the handle up and down so fast it shook the floor. I tried it a time or two but never could get the hang of it.
Just as well, it looked like hard work.
I also remember the butter molds — round, wooden cups with a hole on top through with a handle and disk fit. Grandmother pushed the handle and disk to the top of the mold, packed the churned butter in and set it in a cool place to harden. When she pushed the handle down out popped a solid chunk of butter.
The disk had a pattern carved into it and left that impression on top of the molded butter.
Grandmother spent the better part of her summer picking, shelling, peeling, and canning peas, beans, tomatoes, blackberries, muscadines and peaches. Her cupboards were as gaily patterned as a Crayola box. Red, yellow and orange fruits and berries mingled with the more drab green, brown and gray vegetable jars.
And granddaddy got those hogs fat by mid-fall and was prepared to make bacon with the first hard freeze. He put the hams in his smokehouse, where they hung from the ceiling, smoked, salted, and wrapped in burlap.
The smokehouse was dark and a bit musty but it always produced the most amazing aroma when granddaddy opened the door to pull out a ham, a side of bacon or just to make sure the meat was properly cured and safe.
They made sausage with a hand-turned meat grinder and varied the pepper content for different tastes. Granddaddy liked his a bit on the hot side so he added some hot peppers to the recipe. Grandmother preferred a milder flavor, so she made a batch with less kick.
They didn't use much bought fuel. They heated the house with woodstoves and fireplaces, fueled by wood from the farm. They felled trees with an axe or two-man crosscut saw and then chopped it into fireplace lengths with the crosscut or a portable sawmill powered by the Case PTO.
They used a little gasoline for the pick-up and the tractor, but mostly they were fairly energy efficient.
High fuel prices, such as farmers face today, would have hurt some, but would not have taken as big a chunk out of their meager supplies of hard cash. Fossil fuels hardly played a role in fertilizers, either. Most of the crop nutrients came out of the cow and horse barns.
I recall helping with that chore a time or two and shoveling manure from an enclosed, rank, humid cow stall falls way down the list of things I remember fondly about life on a small farm.
Granddaddy used energy efficiently. He used his horses to plow fields to make corn to feed the horses, which returned the favor by supplying fertilizer for the corn crop. It was a simple yet effective system.
Modern conveniences have taken away the need to be as self-sufficient as farmers had to be even by the middle part of the last century. And the demand for fuel on a farm has increased so much that energy costs often make up a significant part of the budget.
Recent legislation and forward-thinking commodity associations may put a bit more self-reliance back on farms. With new incentives and potential new facilities on the way, farmers may produce the raw materials for the energy they need to run their farms and to manufacture fertilizers.
It sure beats mucking out manure.