Growing up on a Delaware farm was a wonderful and rewarding experience for me.
I grew up in an area where a couple of dozen families in an area of about hundred square miles had farmed, married each other and been a stable community for centuries, along Delaware Rout One just north of Lewes.
In my early youth, I grew up on a farm where we had 33 cows, 18 we milked twice a day, 3 horses, some chickens, 60 acres of corn, hay and pasture. It was a farm that my maternal grandparents owned. There were barns, tractors, long hours and Sundays in church. We grew corn, hay and pasture. We had a large garden and some fruit trees. We hunted, foraged, and grew what we ate and used in most cases. We ate duck, goose, pigeon, muskrat, fish, crabs, shell fish, groundhog, mustard greens, collards, wild garlic, onion, persimmons, wild cherry, wild strawberries, blueberries, figs, mint, wild carrots, herbs and wild spices.
We had plenty of beef, chicken, milk, cream and our own homemade butter, as well as at least two kinds of handmade soap. We cooked on a wood stove which also heated the house. I slept under quilts and on feather beds that were over a hundred years old. We had a little coal furnace but coal was expensive and that was only for the coldest times. We had electric and a phone too. We shucked and shelled corn, some of which we traded to neighbors for pork, veal or turkey.
I lived on my grandparent’s farm and my great grandmother lived with us as well. My grandmother and great grandmother were both school teachers by profession. I was doted upon, taught and encouraged to read several hours a day. The home was filled with old books and I was the only student they had at home. In the attic were books handed down through the family from the 1500’s and since. We lived on land, some pieces of which had been in our family ownership for hundreds of years and is now divided down from thousands of acres to small pieces. We lived much the same as people lived on farms in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Yet, we had phone and TV, neither of which was used much.
My grandfather taught me much; to milk cows by hand and by machine and much more. I shoveled tons of sloppy manure, fed the cows and horses and learned to carpenter, make tools, and to keep things repaired. I learned to make do and keep it going. I learned to mend harness, to render pine resin from the sap of local trees and mix it with bee’s wax to treat the home-made linen thread that was used to mend harness. I learned to do minor animal surgery such as castration, de-horning and at least once I helped pull an infected tooth in a cow. I learned to make my own knife at age 4. By 5 I was driving the old Ford some. At 6, I was able to drive the tractors and the truck. By 7 I could work a full day in the field by myself driving the largest tractor Dad had.
Dad bought the adjacent farm when I was five and later bought several other adjacent or nearby farms and timber land as it came available. He eventually owned and rented over 3,000 acres by the time I left the farm. We lived well from Dad’s industrious work and his advanced techniques.
My grandparents were not very modernized. Dad was not a usual person for his time either. He was 20 to 50 years ahead of his time in farming. I helped out on Dad’s farms once I started school. By eleven I worked at least 20 hours a week during the school year, often 40. By age 12 my summer weeks were typically 60 hours or more and sometimes over 100 hours. I tried to go for 120 to 130 hours a week for the added money. Many nights I slept in the dirt, in the field, to eliminate going home to sleep so I could make more money. I learned to go to sleep in a matter of seconds and to be up, dressed and working in less than four minutes when I slept at home.
Summertime, when there was no school, and being paid for the long hours I worked -- I made considerable income even at the low hourly wage. I saved most of it. I didn’t have much time or opportunity to spend it. As a teenager, I made more, many months than some grown men of our area and I had few expenses. We didn’t work all the time but we enjoyed work. I don’t recall anyone that didn’t like working. I arranged to do the hardest and least popular jobs, mostly hauling hay and irrigation. Doing the hardest jobs gave me job security. We got Sunday’s off to go to the little country church that our family founded and built on the farm. We worked hard and loved the work and the life it earned us!
Dad, ahead of his time, had irrigation, high density crops, no-till farming, airplanes to spray the crops, and used every modern or experimental tool and technique available or being tested. As a youngster, I was accustomed to Dad being in or on the cover of some magazine nearly every month it seemed. Some of the things he helped pioneer 30-40 years ago are becoming customary and ordinary now, some will be more common later.
Dad grew his farm from nothing and by the time I was a teen he was farming over 3,000 acres, seeking to profit from the economies of scale and mechanization. Smaller farmers were often making far less than minimum wage by the 70s. He rented thousands of acres of farm land but owned many hundreds of acres of tillable land as well.
Sure I miss the rural farming that I grew up in. We decided, several years too late, to sell most of our farm land into development when the government decided to make pawns of farmers, farms and farm products. First went the domestic farm commodities market with one crop after another and then in the international market with the corn, wheat, soybean debacles with Russia and China – where our government contracted to feed the USSR and China for decades with our farm products. This contractual agreement multiplied the need and value of American farm products.
The smell of diesel fuel may be the smell of life in some cases. I don’t like the smell of it either and starting at 7 years old I pumped a lot of it into our tractors and burned it long hours as I drove those tractors. It’s probably some sort of illegal activity to let kids work on the farm today. There was a lot more diesel in the air before the developments were here. The tractors are gone now for the most part. And they seldom wake up the late rising city folks anymore. Our democratic interests don’t allow any manufacturing down here in Sussex so we have no high income support base. The highest income employment we have is banking and outlet manager jobs. Other than that we have self employment, waiting on tables, minimum wage and production based income and it’s not usually farming. We have a few, very few people who have been able to stay here and serve non-farm interests. Few remain who still farm and those few have either other income, extreme government subsidy with our tax dollars of some sort or will be gone soon.