Food Independence on a 1930s Farm

A young man and his family relished the seasonal bounty of their garden and orchard, especially the green chili chow-chow they made each fall.

| August/September 2011

Braided Onions

We braided onions and hung them to dry in the cellar. 


This account was told to me by my former neighbor, Harold Oliver, who has since passed away. He was a young boy during the Depression, and his farming family had food self-sufficiency thanks to their livestock, orchard and extensive garden. — Peter Kohler 

I was born in 1929 and raised on a little farm in western Boone County, Mo. I was 16 years old before I ate my first slice of store-bought bread. My mother baked biscuits from scratch every morning in a wood cookstove, before the family got up. On Sundays, she made a second batch for dinner.

There were six of us kids in the family, plus Mom and Dad, and a stray uncle who wandered in and out of the household. We all spent much of our chore time in the garden. We grew sweet corn, cucumbers, potatoes, green beans, onions, peppers, melons and tomatoes. We had a few apple trees and peach trees in a fenced orchard with a wooden gate. Raspberry bushes grew up and “ruined” a corner of the yard. For a couple of weeks every summer, the red-winged blackbirds dive-bombed us kids while we tried to pick those raspberries.

We kept a milk cow, and some hogs in a pen. There were chickens that would raid the garden plot and wreck some tomatoes, but they also kept the hornworms at bay and the ticks out of the yard.

‘Eggs and Legs!’

Throughout the growing season, we ate whatever was ripe in the garden. In summer, when we dug potatoes and the green beans were coming on strong, we would always have a huge pot of new potatoes and green beans on the stove with a fat hambone and a ladle in it. When the sweet corn was ripe, that’s what we’d eat for supper — six or eight ears of corn on the cob, dripping with fresh butter. There were weeks in summer when we would bust open a watermelon every day. When we boys caught frogs at night, the next morning you’d hear Mom yelling from downstairs, “Eggs and legs!” Also on the breakfast table would be a big platter covered with freshly sliced tomatoes.

We made cucumbers into bread-and-butter pickles. We stored potatoes in piles of oak leaves in the corner of the root cellar. We braided the green tops of onions into plaits and hung them to dry for a couple of weeks before we put them in the cellar. Every fall, we made apple butter in an iron kettle over a slow, smoky fire. We took turns stirring it all day with a wide wooden paddle that had been whittled from barn siding. We also canned peach preserves.

8/9/2017 6:25:56 PM

I don't really consider what I do farming. I do not make a whole lot of money off of my land. I do, however, have the luxury of being a stay at home grandma now, and was even a stay at home mom for a few years. I do most of my gardening in raised beds or containers. I do till the field to plant some melons, corn and monster pumpkins. I lay down weed barriers and only have to run the mantis through the corn once a week. The rest of my weeding is pretty easy, occasionally a stray weed will grow in my containers. I have 1 tom and 5 hen turkeys,1 rooster and 10 chickens, 1 buck and 8 female rabbits, and 3 little goats that go see there boyfriend at intervals throughout the year so that I can keep them in milk and have offspring for sale or freezer. I feed them every day, and water them and keep an eye on their health. I milk twice a day and look at the goats while I am doing that. There is always something growing under lights in the house, there is always something that needs attention, but I guess once you get into the daily habit of doing your chores instead of going to work it doesn't seem so hard.

8/4/2017 2:18:12 PM

All I hear is the complaining about it is too hard to farm - BULLhockey! I've been doing it since my divorce in 1995! I raise all of my food needs, other than the occasional "junk" food. Farming today is nothing like it was in the 1930's. We have many improved ways to grow plants and animals that make for less work. With motorized tools we can till, mow, cultivate, pump water, and can the product faster and easier than 90-100 years ago. We can go inside to cool off in air conditioning, or get an ice cold drink. Small acreage no-till and wood chip gardening as in the "back to eden" style make it quicker and easier and require less fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides/weeding. The biggest problem today is that people require instant gratification and convenience, they no longer have the patience to wait for a chicken to grow up, blueberries to ripen, etc. nor do they want to get "dirty". When the SHTF it will be too late for most to learn to farm or to start a farm!

9/7/2011 4:10:16 PM

I agree with Britesea. Farm work is hard work for some, but for the ones that are passionate about being stewards of the land and being self-sufficient, farm work isn't work at all. There are some people, like me, that would give up their day jobs to become farmers, regardless of the workload.

8/4/2011 8:16:05 PM

Yes, farm work is hard work. That's why the kids all headed to the city and left the farming to agribusiness, transients, and stubborn old people. But still... somehow... there's people that wouldn't want any other life. Especially when you take a few minutes from the chores to sit outside of an evening, sipping iced tea, watching the swallows and listening to the wind in the trees.

8/3/2011 5:38:58 PM

I agree; its a whole lot of work to take care of a farm like "the good old days". And you don't have to be a kid from the Depression to have that memory burned into your brain. I was raised in the 60's and 70's, and that's the way I remember it too. Butchering was my least desirable job, but one that was done out of necessity nonetheless. Plucking and cleaning chickens on a hot summer day? - blech! The "Good Old Days" they weren't, but the memory retains a bittersweet quality that bears recalling today. When money (cash money, anyway) is tight and getting tighter, we'll all be thinking about taking back a few of those chores we've relegated to big farms, migrant workers, and trucking companies. And that, perhaps, might be a "good thing" in the long run.

Becky Phillips
8/3/2011 4:14:05 PM

That is exactly how we were raised...60 dairy cows, 40 pigs, 120 chickens, a half acre garden where we put up yearly 75 qts tomatoes, 70 qts green beans, 60 qts corn,plus applesauce, peaches, frozen bluberries, frozen and canned meat. It's real easy to glorify the "Good old days". They weren't. The work does not end. I'd like to know how many want to get up and 4:30 a.m. and till the farm, weed the garden, and tend the animals (plus all the house hold and yard work) till it is too dark to see.

8/3/2011 12:19:30 PM

People need to get back to growing as much of their own food as possible. In addition to the financial savings, the vegetables are healthier, and taste better!

Paul Wade
8/3/2011 11:50:52 AM

Those were the good ol' days, Harold. The USA of today isn't the same one we grew up in. It has changed dramatically, for the worst.

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