The Farm That Was..That May Be Again

I have often wondered what was really happening economically on our farm before 1950. Oh, I know they had beef and sheep and dairy and chickens and bees and an array of field crops. But how many? And in what numbers? This is important to me because it at that time my son is almost the same age my grandfather was when grandpa took over management of the farm. What would that look like today?

I don’t have those answers but I have a better idea of sales figures since dad found a Report of the account of C. Thomas Chism & Marian H. Chism, Executors of the estate of Charles A. Chism. I’m afraid I know very little of the people involved here but it appears the trust was set up to care for Granna Tim (my great grandma) and her handicapped son Billy. I have only seen a picture or two of my great uncle Billy.

Click image for source

He looked a lot like grandpa Tom but my uncle Jack sent me this picture of Uncle Billy in words:

He was a big man, about the size of my dad, but had dark hair and less pattern baldness. He liked walking around outdoors, and they always assigned him chores. (Gathering eggs; chopping wood.) He sang most of the time when he was outdoors–various songs he remembered from the radio; but his favorite seemed to be “Happy Birthday.”

He was the firstborn to a couple who had to wait until ages 42 and 35 to get married. After he came, they went ahead and had two more kids.  It was the job of the whole family to care for [Billy]. He occasionally had epileptic seizures, and it was younger brother Tom’s job to restrain him to keep him from hurting himself.

At 16 grandpa took over the farm when his father had a stroke. In 1948 grandpa would have been 27. Here he is at 29 or 30 just to lend a little context.

Click image for source

What you are about to see is an accounting of stewardship. Let’s skip to the end, looks like everything earned is being reinvested into the farm leaving $12.14 “held in trust by said Executors as Trustees under descendant’s Will for the benefit of the beneficiaries and purposes therein set forth.” But what they are earning is almost 5 times the average annual income…and they still had other work they did for themselves. Aunt Marian kept a job in town!

Pretty cool. SO what did they sell off of the old farm in 1948? Let me show you.


I found a few resources online to try to give this listing some meaning but, really, I was only able to guess what the numbers meant. Profit on Livestock Purchased & Resold could be anything. I see expenses on the other side of the page detailing how many dollars they spent in several categories of livestock but nothing to indicate what earned this specific sum. I just have to imagine it follows the formula that less than 1% of overall farm income came from sheep and 27% of farm income came from pigs as suggested by the brochure  Twenty Years of Prices and Incomes Received by Illinois Farmers. From what I understand they sold fluid milk and milked 14 cows by hand. If my guess at their milk check is correct they were selling around 12 gallons each day, leaving some milk on the farm for the household and for pigs. Based on a guess of wholesale egg prices and my understanding of layer reliability of the era they kept a flock of 60-80 chickens. But those are just guesses and, as such, are mostly useless.

So how can I make that spreadsheet useful? What can we really see in it? That my grandpa, who passed away 16 years ago, and his sister just took me to school. Look at that list! And that list doesn’t include other things grandpa did on his own including custom plowing. They even had to fix the barn (the barn their father built). I had to fix the barn too!


But it’s what I don’t see that interests me most. Why is there so little income from grain? Probably for the same reason they spent $7,000 on livestock feed. Grain was grown to fatten livestock (not people). But the items listed above aren’t the things it takes to run a household and they aren’t the only things the farm produced, just what got sold. There was an orchard east of the yellow house. Somehow they had time to maintain that orchard and can up the produce. And keep a garden. And butcher for their own table. And care for an older brother.

Grandpa Charlie was at least four years older than I am now when he started having children. He was at least 20 years older than me when he had a stroke. Looking at this document I can only reflect on the success he had training his children to take over. They brought in a farm income of $15,000 at a time when the average household income was $3,600. I have a son who is 14. Could I step out of his way in two years, allowing him to run the farm? Should I? He is already larger than me…like grandpa was. I have a 12 year old daughter who is in many ways similar to my Aunt Marian. She works hard, volunteers frequently, gives selflessly, seems to enjoy working with her hands and she has a sharp wit. What will she do with the farm? Could the two of them generate $250,000 in farm sales each year (5x 2014 median income)? What about the other two children? One wants to be a preacher and open a taco restaurant, one wants to stay here and help us.

What will they do with the farm? Will they raise sheep and horses and mules and cattle and chickens and ducks? Will they maintain an orchard? Will they build fences and put up hay? Will they be able to tell me what a disc hayloader is? Will they convert it into a park they visit on weekends while busying themselves with work in town? Maybe the answer depends on me. I’ll come back to that.

I am also struck by what is listed and what I have never seen here.Why weren’t there sheep and ducks and chickens when I was a kid? Where were the dairy cows? I asked uncle Jack what he thought:

Sheep: My dad despised them for some reason. Goats: He got three nannies and kept them for awhile; then came out one morning and he had twelve: three sets of triplets. For some reason he decided he was tired of goats.

Can’t tell you anything about the cattle, except that when I was small around 1950, I do remember we still had a milk truck stopping each morning to pick up big milk cans in front of the house. The milking barn was over at the other place; but the current road south of the pond didn’t exist then—not until they built the pond. So the road by our house which went over past the windmill was the private lane of the home place. So my dad brought the milk cans out to the mouth of the road, next to your house. And this means that 2-3 years after the document you’re looking at, we still had a number of dairy cows. And I always assumed in those early years that there were beef cattle around—usually black ones at that time. Around 58-60 we got Herefords from Montana and raised those for awhile.

“The home place” is the yellow house…the barn Julie and I milk in. Grandpa and Aunt Marian were born at the yellow house. My folks lived there when I was born. But for most of my life it was the place grandpa housed his hired help. It is just storage now. Things change.

But some things don’t change. Just like my elders, I need to make the most of what I’ve got. To do that I need more livestock. I need more cows. I need to add sheep. I need more chickens. But I also need to prepare the next generation to take over. Great grandpa Charlie was, apparently, better at this than grandpa Tom but maybe only out of necessity. Great grandpa Charlie had a stroke but was still around to advise grandpa Tom. But grandpa Tom farmed into his 70’s. One son bought a farm of his own, the other children moved away. Mom and dad moved to another farm nearby when I was 16 but by that time most of my generation of cousins had grown up away from farming. Only one cousin was (is) still here. Maybe that’s why the sheep, chickens, ducks and dairy departed. It is a lot of work without youth to help. Involving the kids now is a big part of making the most of what I’ve got. I don’t need more land. I need additional responsible decision makers.

Henderson includes this quote near the end of The Farming Ladder:

…the pupils are the farmers of the future, and therefore the most valuable and important stock on the farm; for it is their youth and energy which have contributed so largely to [the success of the farm].

Every morning my body reminds me that I am no spring chicken. I need the youth and energy of my own children. We will need the youth and energy of their children. And their children. None of this can continue without a regular infusion of youth and energy. Fences have to be maintained. Barns have to be repaired. Livestock have to be managed. Trees have to be planted, pruned and picked. Firewood has to be cut. New ideas have to be tried out. Failures have to be recovered from. Grandpa and Aunt Marian brought youth and energy and innovation (tractors) to the farm. My parents and aunts and uncles brought covered dishes to the farm at Christmas. My grandma cried when I said I would like to buy the farm. She thought nobody wanted it. Will my children bring life and energy to the farm or will they bring covered dishes? Will an elderly, widowed Grandma Julie cry wondering if any of her children will want to continue here?

How can I encourage my children to take ownership…to protect it, to multiply it, to give it their very best? I have to make it theirs. I have to stop being so critical and step back into a supportive role. Mom and dad and Julie and I have to show them what is possible.

4 thoughts on “The Farm That Was..That May Be Again

  1. Hello, a question about what to grow on a 30 acre field, that used to harvest peanuts, now has 2 years worth of weeds. I am looking for a share cropper man. I don’t own a tractor right now, but do own a small ploy.

    The Shaw Place.

    • What to grow on thirty acres where? Peanuts are grown in the southern states if you are in North America so that helps some. If my Google-Fu is working you are near Dallas, Texas so that helps more. So..OK. Dallas, Texas. If I had 30 weedy acres north of Dallas, TX and no tractor what would I do with it?

      But wait, there’s more. Do I have any money in this scenario? If so I might buy 10 or 15 cows and put them to work. If not…or even if I do I might, instead, look for somebody else’s cows I can manage on my 30 acres. Say they brought me 30 dry, pregnant cows and enough hay to last the winter. Then it’s just a matter of setting the bales on the field and exposing a grazing laneway to the bales a little at a time. You would have much less of a weed problem in the spring and your fertility would be through the roof. Plus the cows would seed the place for you. No tractor or spreader required as the cows have already made the delivery.

      But what do you do in the spring?

      Well. Hmmm. 30 acres. Summer gets hot down there. How about a batch of broilers in the early spring? They need a small footprint so your broiler operation could overlap your winter custom cattle operation by a bit. You could (emphasis on COULD) run 500 birds per acre per year so theoretically you could run 15,000 broilers. Maybe run those half in the spring and half starting in September. But then again, you may not want to run a fall batch. You may want to let your ground rest after the spring broilers leave so you build up forage again for next winter’s custom cattle operation.

      The cattle operation will cycle minerals and build fertility. The chicken operation will build quick cash. But you’ll need to find some way to spend your idle summers.

      You know, you could plant pecan trees. Your chicken tractors could run down the rows between the pecan trees. No tractor required.

      Once you have shade you’ll have a surplus of grass. You may be cornered into buying cattle for yourself just to manage your forage. And the pecan market may not be what you were hoping for so you may need to buy some pigs to help with your pecan surplus.

      But you may not want rows and rows of pecans. You may want rows and rows of pecans and mimosa. That would fix nitrogen and provide a source of forage for your cattle during a drought. Throw in some elderberries and mulberries and….heck I don’t know…other stuff.

      But it all starts by getting hooves to work for you. Since you don’t list shade as an asset you should probably start by grazing in the winter. Carry open cows through and you might find a certain percentage of them aren’t really open. Buy open cows, learn to AI, put a little weight on them and sell them in the spring. But until you have trees I wouldn’t suggest trying to carry livestock through the summer.

      But I’m sure there are a million other agricultural things you could do with 30 acres. Maybe rent it to Charles Borrego. Hopefully he’ll read this and chime in.

  2. I have read this post quite a few times now, and thoroughly enjoyed going through the genealogy provided by the links with the photos – you have a forebear called Cinderella – how cool is that!
    I’ve drafted a reply more than once, but it always turns into a huge essay, mainly justifying my perspective on why my farm is not how I dreamed it would become when we first took it over back in 1998, when I was much the same age my mother was when she and my Dad bought it 1970. But I won’t do that to you. :)., cuz I’m totally over that.
    Instead I’ll say that anything’s possible, and the possibilities happen in their own time, as I’m slowly learning. It sounds to me like your own return to the farm was reasonably unanticipated, while the people in the family who might have been expected to take it on, didn’t. Will one or more of your kids take on the farm when it’s their turn? It’s the big question isn’t it…because if they don’t, who will? And is all this worth it if they don’t? Quite a gamble, but worthwhile, I believe.

    • Is all this worth it if they don’t?


      Hang on a minute. My kids sat near the fire yesterday reading. Then they all put on their snow pants and went sledding. When they came in we hung up their wet clothes on the clothesline by the fire and served hot cocoa.

      There. Done. Worth it.

      But wait! there’s more!

      My kids have seen life at all stages. Things are born. Sometimes those newborns die and it’s really, really heartbreaking. But sometimes those newborns live…and grow…and fatten. Some of those animals are served on our table. Some animals are not food but are also not pets. I held a litter of newborn barn cats in my hands trying to decide their fate. I decided to keep them. One of those, Hawkeye, was special to us. He was a great cat. Our youngest would carry him around like a dolly and he would never complain. When you went out to the pasture he was at your heels. Good kitty. Something happened to him recently…maybe a car. We comforted him and kept him warm in our living room for 10 or 12 hours until he passed. We cried. Our darling daughter lost her favorite kitty. We held a service to bury him in the pasture where every dog I have owned but one is buried. My kids understand the value and fragility of life.

      It’s worth it.

      My children work. We get up in the morning, we do our chores and we pitch in and get it done. It’s not just dishes and laundry, things every child has to do. We cut and stack firewood. We put up hay. We lead the cows to fresh pasture and rest them beside the still water. It restores our soul. We are strong. We are healthy. We are windburned and suntanned and calloused and we see the value in our accomplishments.

      It’s worth it.

      So what if the kids decide to move elsewhere? I don’t know. I’m not too concerned. My kids will be ok. The bucket potty, the drafty house and unheated bedrooms, the ….You know what? This should be a blog post.

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