Monday, March 24, 2014

Thoughts About My Farming Query

So, a few posts back, I asked readers to write in and tell me how many generations they had to trace their families back in order to find a farmer.

I had a general theory that Americans have a bigger tradition of family farms than do people living in Europe or other parts of the globe. While the results of my little poll are anything but scientific, I think my theory does hold some water.

So here are the results in general. Things got a tad bit iffy for a lot of reasons that I'll discuss below, but this is as close as my tabulations can get:

Americans: I got info from or about 22 Americans (some people wrote about their own families as well as the families of their spouse or significant other - I included both myself and CatMan in the survey.)  Of those 22 all but 3 could trace their family back to a farmer - so that's roughly 86%. The average number of generations that those Americans who had farmers in their families had to go back to find one was 2 (meaning their grandparents were farmers).

Canadians: Three Canadians responded, and all could trace their families back to farmers. Here again, the average was 2 generations.

Europeans (2 from UK, one from Netherlands): Three responded, none of them could find a farmer in their history.

Australians: One responded, no farmers in her family.

Points of confusion. Throughout the discussion in the comments I started to note a number of things that throw a bit of confusion into the mix.

First of all, what exactly defines someone as being a farmer?

  • Does one have to support oneself completely "off of the land" in order to be a farmer? 
  • What if you need an alternate source of income? 
  • Do you have to own the land in order to be a farmer? 
  • What about agricultural workers? 
  • Can a person be considered a farmer if they grow vegetables but don't raise livestock? 
  • What if you have a huge garden, and some pigs, goats and chickens in the backyard? 
  • What if you raise cash crops but not food?

I'm not sure I have the answers to any of those questions, but it does give me a lot to think about.

The other thing that became increasingly clear to me as I read all of the comments is that determining where someone is "from" is a complicated question.

Most of the Americans could pretty quickly trace their family roots back to Europe - and it seemed that the quicker the roots went back to Europe, the less likely it was that there were farmers on that side of the family.

I guess when you look at the history of it all, none of this is particularly surprising.

I mean, a big reason that people left Europe to come to the "new world" was because it offered them the opportunity to own land which simply wasn't possible in their home countries where much of the property rights had been gobbled up hundreds if not thousands of years before.

When you throw in the Homestead act of 1862 (which basically said that you could claim 160 acres of public land, and if you could stay on it for at least 5 years it was yours) well... it's not really surprising that America became a country full of farmers!

And I think it's fair to assume that many of the folks who became farmers hadn't actually been farmers before they came to America.

Discussing this whole topic really opened my eyes to some things that I hadn't previously considered, largely because my picture of the past is greatly colored by my geographical location as well as the fact that I am of European descent.

Several people mentioned that their ancestors were fisherman or otherwise worked in the fishing industry.

While it should be obvious that people have been fishing for centuries and centuries, it's something that my land-locked little brain never really considers.

I guess I always think that fishing is something limited to those "few people" who live on a coast - but in reality roughly half of the world's population lives near a coast.

I also tend to take land ownership for granted, and while one can argue about the ideology behind whether one can really "own" land or not, the reality is that having access to land for the purpose of producing one's food is one of the main sources of human conflict throughout the ages.

I think my picture of the family history of the "average American" would be quite different if I was the descendant of African slaves or migrant farm workers from Mexico or Latin America.

The other thing that really surprised me in this discussion was the prevalence of farmers in places like Canada and the northern United States. I'm not sure why this came as such a shock, but it does point out that my picture of other parts of the world is just way, WAAAAYYY off.

I guess I tend to think that anybody living north of Wyoming is off in the "frozen tundra" somewhere. My mental image is sort of an endless forest full of trees, snow, moose (meese?) and grizzly bears. Obviously, this is not the case!

Anyhow, I want to thank everybody who participated in my little informal poll. It was a very enlightening little exercise, and I really enjoyed getting to read about everybody's family history.

So tell me, did you draw any interesting conclusions from our little discussion?


  1. I'm glad that you posted the update. I was just getting ready to go back to the original post to see if you did any summaries in the comments. I think it's always interesting to think about things outside of your background and this can be done best with personal stories--which is exactly what we got from this post. I found it quite interesting. Also, what I discovered most from this post is that I am proud to come from generations of people who lived off the land. They were just generations before me until I started to tell about them to others.

    1. I too love to hear stories about the past. I think it's one of the greatest shames about our educational system that history is taught the way it is. I mean, yes, I suppose it's helpful to know about the wars and politics etc, but to me it's must much more interesting to know how people really lived on a day to day basis.

  2. discusses when a garden becomes a farm--in case you need a little light reading. I think you can definitely call it a farm if: 1) you are making a living from it or 2) you are doing it as a major part of your lifestyle (maybe not fully supporting your food needs from it, but putting in close to full-time work on it) but is there a more scientific answer? Who knows? You definitely can be considered a farmer if you only raise crops ... and if you do all the work but don't own the land/animals, technically I think you are a farm laborer (although I believe in US history many slaves had their own gardens which was separate from their owner's property that they "farmed"). Anywho, this has been fun! :)

    1. Thanks for your analysis! I was just finishing up my taxes and noticed that on the schedule C (self-employment) there are all sorts of provisions for farmers. So if we wanted to really complicate things, I suppose we could delve into how the IRS determines who is or isn't a farmer! And I suppose these days the answer gets even crazier when you consider things like co-ops and clubs where people trade veggies and homemade goods to get around the regulations that pop up as soon as you start "selling" your goods. But I think to a certain extent it's a moot point. Though it is quite interesting to hear everyone's family stories!

  3. Oh interesting. I missed your original post or I would have definitely chimed in.

    For what it's worth: On my father's side, my grandparents were farmers (as defined above by #2 and mostly #1. My grandfather worked for the state Power & Light as a lineman and a supervisor, but the family farm provided most of the food and support plus my grandmothers "pin" money from eggs and canned veggies for years.

    My mothers family were actually tenant farmers in Ireland (4 generations back roughly) but moved to the US and became railroad engineers. My great-great grandparents had a "home farm" that provided milk and eggs and a house-hold garden, but that was the women's work while the men were on the railroad. If you were to ask them, none of them would have considered themselves "farmers".

    Both of my sides of the family kept home-farms and Victory gardens during WWII, but again, not sure that counts as farming by the strictest definition.

    (Dad's family from Texas, Arkansas, & Missouri. Mom's family from Michigan, California, Ireland.)

    1. Ha! Well, I guess you're right there in the mix of the "sorta" farmers. I think it's quite interesting though, that even folks who didn't consider themselves to be farmers still produced a significant percentage of their own food.

  4. Hi Cat, When Rom was immigrating to Canada, he saw that one of the categories was Self-Employed, with a priority on athletes and farmers! To qualify as a farmer for immigration purposes, you need experience managing a farm, and the ability to purchase and manage a farm after you arrive, and remain self-employed as a farmer. But it can be a farm owned and operated by just one person. I do know someone who came in that way and is essentially homesteading, and making a small income at farmer's markets. Rom is not a farmer and he came in on the spousal sponsorship program!

    1. Ha! Athletes and farmers... now that's a bizarre combination of occupations that I would never have imagined would rank high on Canada's list for desirable immigrants! Every time politics here in the US start heading in a frightening direction, people start to talk about fleeing to Canada - perhaps I should clue them in that they'll have better luck if they get some experience farming - either that or become a professional speed skater! :-)

  5. I didn't join in because i tangled myself up thoroughly with some of the points you raised above! I'm in the UK (England)

    My Grandad on my father's side was a market gardener. His family and Granny's were 'country folk' - but never land owners and mixing their own toft-and-croft food (that's a bit of garden for veggies and a bit of land for hens and maybe a pig) with labouring of various kinds and a range of trades.

    My parents are keen suburban allotmenters and grew a lot of our vegetables and soft fruit (and still in their early 80s pride themselves on how few vegetables they need to buy from others,

    On my mother's side, my grandparents again were urban people with a garden and an allotment who grew a lot of food and had a lot of, well, country skills (Grandpa that side made extra money every Christmas killing and plucking turkeys after the war when money was tight), and my great-grandparents etc. on Grandma's side practiced a range of skilled rural trades - shepherding, horseman, that sort of thing - along with piecework (e.g. great-great-granny knitted "shooting stockings" and made enough money to keep the rent paid on their cottage when great-great-granda couldn't work) and even those who had jobs on the railways (a strong tradition on that side of the family) had toft-and-croft setups. My mother's father's family is the only lot without known rural affiliations and that's only because his dad was a charming rogue of a ne'er do well and gambler, and told Tall Tales about his background, and his mother had cut off from her own family and died when Grandpa was only a little boy, so we lose track of them.

    So no, I don't have farmer ancestors - but we were raised knowing where food came from and growing what we could ourselves (I had a little veggie garden before I started school and some of my earliest memories are being told off for eating berries not putting them in the basket - we were foraging for blackberries along the railway cutting).

    1. Wow! You've given me so many new phrases to think about! "Market Gardener" "Toft and Croft". And the whole tradition of the "allotment" thing - this is a very new phenomenon here, at least not one I ever heard of before the past 10-15 years or so.

      I wonder if some of the differences we're seeing on different sides of the pond have to do with the living arrangements and the urban/rural split. I mean... here in Denver, it was illegal to keep backyard chickens up until just this past year. I think the law was passed initially because the city was trying to distance itself from it's "cow town" reputation. But it's very common here that people who live in suburban settings are prohibited from having things like gardens and clotheslines because it's somehow considered "unseemly"

      I'm just getting a general sense that Americans are starting to "re-learn" some of these sorts of skills that people set aside in the past generation or two - and looking for ways to incorporate them into urban and suburban life. It sounds like in Europe and the UK, there wasn't quite the same desire to shed all connections to the land that we saw here in the latter half of the 20th century.

      Or maybe that's all just complete BS, and I just have an overly idealized picture of Europe and the UK! Anyhow, thanks for sharing your family story... I found it fascinating.

  6. While I can definitely trace my family history back to some farmers (my great grand parents), it's a tricky conclusion for me, simply because my family tree gets wider as I go back further. Each generation, the size of people I can draw from doubles. If I go back far enough, I'll find just about any occupation, you know?

    Still, I do think there's something to your theory. America has a rich history with farmers -- they're part of our fabric and our mythology.

    1. Ha! Oh... the truth of our family trees... they're not really "trees" at all, they're more like webs. Either direction you go, it just multiplies with each generation.

      I don't know... I mean obviously people have been farming forever, I think the difference is probably more in the availability of land, and the "newness" of the social structure than anything else.

  7. I have a hard time taking away any conclusion because the numbers are so skewed. Maybe you could make a free survey at SurveyMonkey or something to get more results that also includes a definition of farmer. This is probably just the researcher in me coming out ;)

    1. Well, you do have an excellent point - plus everybody has differing amounts of knowledge about their own family history. Some people can go back centuries, others just a generation or two.

      I fear I'm not quite energetic enough to set up a formal survey, but it was great fun hearing about everyone's family history! :-)


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