Changes in Agriculture: Farming in the 1940s

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
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This is the sixth story from Ruth Zwald, written by her father, Robert Zwald, and submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear. She compiled her father’s stories in his own words, and they are posted in eight parts. Read the other parts: 1900s Farming in Washington County Minnesota; Growing Up on a Farm; Catching Frogs for Money; One Room School House;Borrowing Against Life InsuranceCourtship and Marriage and The Wisconsin Farm

The first alfalfa I ever seeded was probably in the late 1930s or early 1940s. The seeder was like a wheelbarrow, but it had a 12 foot box on it about 4 or 6 inches square. There were holes in the bottom of the box, with a rope through the seed. This rope went back and forth driven by the wheel, and it worked the seed out. You would put stakes on the ends and middle of the field, moving the stakes every other round. You would aim at the stakes, then harrow it in the ground with horses.

I sold sweet corn in St. Paul in the 1940s. I filled the trunk and the back seat, and went from door to door. I got 10-15 cents for a dozen. I made enough to buy a $19 suit of clothes (nice, too). I also raised muskmelon and watermelon on a sandy patch. I took them to St. Paul and peddled them, too: 10-15 cents a piece. If any wouldn’t sell, I remember getting 50 cents for a bushel. One year, after selling most of the melons, a bunch of Stillwater prisoners came with a truck to clean them up. It was right before a frost. They backed through the patch and picked 400 melons. I think the prisoners ate that many as they picked, too. I got 5 cents a melon or $20 for the load of 400. That night it froze.

Probably the biggest change in my life was a rubber-tire tractor with a two-row cultivator and wagons, too. You could go the speed you wanted when the corn was small. I remember a neighbor who bought rubber on his tractor and the other neighbors laughed and said, “Oh, we’ve got a good team to pull him out.”

The next big thing was baling hay. I had one of the first balers around. It was a Case baler for $1200 in about 1946 – a wire baler. One man on the tractor and two on the baler wire tied 100 pound bales. We dropped the bales on the ground in the daytime and picked ’em up at night. Everyone said I could haul the hay out spoiled. I had to apply for the baler during the war.

During the war, gas was rationed. You had to apply for coupons. “A” coupons were for city people and “B” coupons were for farmers. “B” were easy to get. Sugar was rationed, too. You had to be a good friend of the grocer, so we were never without sugar. (Don’t tell President Bush!)

In the 1940s, gas was 6 gallons for $1. Cars cost $600-$800. Ice cream cones (big) were 5 cents; hamburgers were 10 cents; movies were 10 or 15 cents; candy bars were all 5 cents; and a cup of coffee was 5 cents. Veal calves were $5 to $10 apiece.  We had an egg route, and went door-to-door selling eggs for 40 cents a dozen.

Photos from Ruth Zwald: (1) Selling melons in 1941. (2) Wire Tie Case Baler – A dirty job but it beats the fork! Bob and Merrill Lind and Dale Brookman.

Please send email submissions to with the subject line “Elder Wisdom” or send mail to: attn: Heidi Hunt, Re: Elder Wisdom, Mother Earth News, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609.

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