The cost of food today shocks me. My parents worked hard becoming self-reliant, saving a portion of my father’s yearly salary and growing most of our foodstuffs. Growing up in rural Cowlesville during the Great Depression, my father made cheese for Hasselbeck Cheese Co. in a one-man-and-wife cheese factory. He earned a penny per pound, plus all the milk, butter and cheese his family needed.
To augment our food supply we raised a couple of pigs, some chickens and grew a huge garden. We canned fruits and vegetables to feed the family all year. In autumn, we picked peaches, pears, apples to make cider and cabbage for sauerkraut. As the weather cooled, we slaughtered our pigs and made pork sausage, canned meat, smoked our hams and bacon in our own smokehouse and rendered the lard.
With our chickens and eggs, we never needed to buy meat. We often traded pork for beef from a neighboring farmer who slaughtered a cow. We made ice cream with a hand-crank ice cream maker. In the summertime, we picked mushrooms, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries and made jelly and jam.
In winter, mom baked bread, sweet rolls and pies. The wood oven always warmed the kitchen and filled the air with a wonderful aroma. Also it augmented heating the house with the wood we cut in nearby woods. Father always said, “Wood warms you twice – when you cut it and when you burn it.”
Occasionally we went to the Red and White store to buy sugar, flour, coffee and gasoline.
During the Depression, and especially World War II, Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture emphasized farm management and home economics. Extension agents taught farmers efficient farm management, and women agents came to local Home Bureaus to disseminate information on nutrition, handling foods, home gardening, poultry production, nursing and sewing to help families survive the economic downturn.
Victory gardens were popular with 4-H clubs during the war. For my 4-H project, I bought 24 duck eggs. We had brood chickens, and they sat on these eggs, hatching them. My responsibility was raising them. I was so intrigued that I always checked the eggs for ducklings. Dad said, “Don’t count the chickens before they hatch.” However, all 24 eggs hatched ducklings. I sold the ducks and netted $25. I thought I was rich.
It is estimated that 15 million farm families planted victory gardens in 1942 and 1943. Some 20 million victory gardens produced more than 40 percent of the vegetables in America.
Today it takes two family incomes working longer hours to enjoy our standard of living. We now buy more consumer goods and electronic gadgets.
Maybe we should stop for a moment and ponder our past. Now community groups in cities are experimenting with garden plots.
I had the great experience of working for 12 years in Russian agriculture after the collapse of communism. Nobody went hungry. Out of necessity, the people in rural areas had to become self-sufficient. Since most of your friends and neighbors were doing the same, everyone worked together and helped each other. I felt like I was back in Cowlesville in the ’30s. It was like going home again.