Living on a Self-Sustaining Farm in Mid-20th Century Virginia

Reader Contribution by The Mother Earth News Editors
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This story is from Sarah Kohrs and submitted as part of our Wisdom from Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.

Grape-stained fingers work stealthily to separate stems from the sticky purple fruit. Jelly, from the generations-old grape vines behind the farmhouse where my mother’s father was born, is still my favorite harvest each autumn. Diligently, my mother and I savor preservation practices that she enjoyed with her own mother many years ago. A resurgence of interest in living on a self-sustaining farm is making the farming way of life seem less like work and more like real living.

For my grandparents, Olen and Anna Mae Showman, who worked an almost 100-acre self-sustaining farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in the mid-1900s, farming was a means of survival. Milking the cow, slopping hogs, gathering eggs, bridling the work horse or mule, and mending fences was a hard reality. Each day required daily chores most children nowadays consider part of the history books. Anna Mae baked bread daily, as well as washed laundry, sewed, and scrubbed floors on different days of the week. The black potbelly stove churned out more delicious food than smoke under her experienced hands. In the winter months, Anna Mae made quilts from clothing scraps while Olen sliced paths through snow for cows so that they could drink water from holes.

Beef cattle, beloved as calves, were sold to pay for expenses, kept to replace older cows by producing more offspring, or isolated in a separate lot where they were fed hearty grains and grass and nicknamed Sirloin or Porterhouse awaiting that unknown day when they would sustain the family’s health. One year when my mother, Sharon, was a teenager, two of the family’s cows had twins — a fabulous stroke of luck. Another year, one of the more docile cows, Cheera, allowed the Showman sisters to take turns riding her about the farm. The Showmans held a respectful appreciation for their animals.

My mother and father, whose parents owned a farm across the Massanutten Mountains in Page Valley, have tons of stories that I love hearing in addition to recollecting my own childhood. Growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s, my sisters and I would help our family butcher hogs — cutting up fat to make lard and cracklings, cleaning the bladder and catskins to use in stuffing sausage, etc. — every Thanksgiving. Some of the ladies would whip up delicious meals and snacks inside while many of the men and older children worked on the task at hand. Although it has been 15 years since we butchered, these memories are still fresh in my mind.

As a girl, we had few channels on the TV’s antenna, thus we spent most of our time outdoors playing in the woods. I often scampered up a maple tree in our yard and read until my legs needed
stretching. Occasionally, we would help in the garden, gleaning flowers or helping dig potatoes. On days we felt bored, I would weave hot pads on a lap loom, invent some imaginative game, draw, read, or write.

Now, my husband, sons, and I own only an acre plot surrounded by that farm. Every summer our families work together to harvest hay and alfalfa for the farm. My mother drives the tractor, and my father, my sister, and the sons-in-law stack the hay; I make dinner for when they come back in from the fields. Harvest time usually occurs two to four times a year, depending on how much rain falls throughout the summer. On warm winter days and throughout the rest of the year, my toddlers, Joey and Ezra, love going on walks with me over the fields in order to check the cows looking for pink eye, a new baby, or a cow in trouble.

We endeavor to uphold many of the self-sustaining farming traditions of Olen and Anna Mae while incorporating modern farming strategies that enhance these older practices. We practice farming with zero tillage, using chickens to keep the population of unbeneficial bugs at bay, gathering eggs, harvesting homegrown garden produce, foraging for edible plants, incorporating solar panels for cutting dependence on the electric company, and canning and preserving which are all examples of how rediscovering a rich heritage of self-sustainable farming practices can provide a life more meaningful to our family and to the world.

Photos by Sarah Kohrs

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