Thursday, December 30, 2010

Women, Poison, & Pork Chops

This is the second and final posting about one of my oldest treasures, The Farmer at His Work, a “Xmas 1943” gift from Nana and Poppy, my maternal grandparents.

In Part 1, I focused on how much farming has changed in the last three generations. In this posting, I’m going to discuss three things in The Farmer that I think today’s children’s books would discuss differently—role of farm women, use of pesticides, and origins of table meat.

Where are the farm women in The Farmer, I’ve often wondered? Of the 36 photos, not one shows a woman, though one includes a young girl watching her dad scour (clean or polish) a plow. The text does mention women twice. The threshing page notes, “The women cook a lot of food on threshing day, for they have many men to feed.” The haying page mentions that “the farmer must know when his hay is ‘done’ just as his wife must know when her pies are done.”

But farm women in South Jersey in the 1930s and 1940s weren’t invisible cooks only at home at the range.   My grandmother, Jennie Dickson, for example, gathered the eggs and sold them door-to-door in Salem, the county seat, for 24¢ a dozen to keep the farm financially afloat during the Great Depression.

On another farm I often visited as a child, the wife, Mary, worked side by side with her husband, Earl, milking a herd of Holsteins. On another farm, I watched Grace and Leona operate machinery that hoisted bales of hay and straw into the mow. My father’s sister Dot lost a finger while working with farm machinery. My Great-Aunt Marie Dickson worked far from the kitchen stove when she helped process muskrat meat for sale in the family raw-fur business.

The second change in perspective involves “poison.” Environmentalists today would go on war footing if a new children’s book approached pest control as The Farmer does. That discussion begins with a question: “You would not want to eat an apple with a big worm in it, would you? … That is why farmers who raise fruit must spray their orchards with poison. Sometimes they use poisoned water, and sometimes they used poisoned dust. … Some of the poison is sprayed onto every branch. As soon as the larvae hatch, they begin to eat and they get some of the poison along with the tender leaf or bud on which they are feeding.”

Today’s fruit growers don’t use “poison.” They use “pesticide” or “fungicide” or some other “-cide” designed to kill something but not to scare consumers. Today’s "poisons" may differ significantly from those of yesteryear, but millions of moms and dads play it safe by purchasing organic foods to avoid eating the chemical residues on much of today’s fruits and vegetables.

The third different perspective in The Farmer involves the origin of meat used for food. Every generation seems to get farther removed from basic food production. I imagine if you asked today’s first graders where pork chops or tomatoes come from, common answers would be “Safeway” or “Super Fresh” or “Food Lion.”

The Farmer takes young readers right to “butchering time.” A large photo shows a smiling farmer adding wood to a fire heating a cauldron to be used “to scald the hogs so that the hair can be removed from their bodies.” The next photo shows a farmer beginning to cut a hairless porker into ham, bacon, and loin and concludes, “That is where we get pork chops.”

Life on the farm has changed drastically since the 1940s. Tractors, combines, and other machinery have replaced horses and mules and most human laborers, such as the farmer in Photo 1 sitting in his field and manually husking corn. To see a horse-drawn plow or a threshing machine today you’d best visit an Amish farm—or a “living museum.”

But memories still linger here at Meadow Glenn, refreshed occasionally when I read through my ancient Christmas gift, The Farmer at His Work.

What memories of farm life do you treasure?


  1. Hello, Bob:
    I didn't grow up on a farm per se, though we did have a vegetable garden and once had chickens and a cow... oh, and horses. What I mean is, we didn't farm for a living. My mom was the primary "farmer", if you please, and what I remember is having fresh picked veggies, fresh eggs, all being a totally different sensory experience. Once I took a salt shaker to the garden and ate tomoatoes right off the vine, and then tried the green apples... mmmm!

  2. Hummm. Salt shaker to the garden to sprinkle on red-ripe tomatoes. Yes, yes, Gladys, I've done that in ancient times, and it's a summertime treat you can't buy in any store.