Many of you know that we are a first-generation farm family, but many of you may not know that agriculture has been ingrained in our family for generations.
I’m going to talk about my side of the family, particularly my paternal side of the family. It all started with my great-great-great-grandfather John Butler Wick Leonard. He, along with his wife, bought railroad land northeast of Saxman in 1878. From there my great-great-grandfather was born, the youngest of six children. His name was E.S. Leonard. He married my great-great-grandmother and they had eight children, two deceased at very young ages. My great-grandfather Glenn Leonard was the eldest of these children.
Confuse you yet? All have one thing in common: They were all farmers and ranchers. My great-great grandfather E.S. Leonard and his son, great-grandfather Glenn Leonard, owned and operated Leonard Mill & Elevator Co. until it burned down in the 1930s. Glenn Leonard stayed in the Saxman area farming.
My grandfather Melvin Leonard was born in 1923, one of six. After World War II, my grandfather returned home to marry his one true love and work on the farm. They had four children; my father was the youngest. Grandpa farmed his own ground and leased others.
One day they were plowing a field, and my grandfather got done with his share of the field in the afternoon. He was driving a Model A or B type of tractor, also known as a tricycle tractor. This tractor had no cab or rollover bar. These tractors are no longer produced, and you’ll soon realize why. As he was trying to pull out of the ditch that was next to the field, with the implement behind him, the tractor flipped over and pinned my grandfather under it, killing him instantly. My grandpa’s father-in-law at the time was still in the field and just happened to see the tractor overturning. By the time he got to his son-in-law, he had passed on.
It was 1958, and my grandmother had just lost her husband and became a young widow with four young mouths to feed. Her only option was to sell whatever she could. This included the farm. This unforeseen accident altered my father’s side of the family. They moved away from the farm and into the city. The eldest of the Leonard clan didn’t want to take over farming from my great-grandad, Glenn Leonard; hence the halt and skip of a generation of farming - from one horrible accident.
Today I hear more and more consumers say we should farm like my grandfather or great-grandfather did. I gave you one example of why farming has changed: safety. Tractors now have cabs and rollover bars, just in case they do tip. Let’s look to see what else would happen if we went back:
Along with no cabs on tractors or harvesters, there would be no air conditioning or getting away from the dust. Also, there would be no rollover bars. Imagine if the tractor my granddad used had a rollover bar: He possibly could still be alive and the Leonard family farm might still have been operational. Things like safety guards help because, with things spinning on a mechanical device at top speed, it is an easy way to lose a finger or your life.
The food we grow is among the safest in the world. This is due to agriculture scientists and chemists who are constantly working to increase the safety of the food that goes to your table: people like Norman Borlaug, who worked with other researchers around the world, and in other countries, to produce higher-yielding crops and, in some cases, helped prevent diseases in crops. This saved untold number of people from starvation.
An increase in population and exports means an increase in food demand. Back in my grandfather's and great-grandfather's time, they could feed only 19 people. These days, each farmer feeds 155 people. Better technology from motorized vehicles, modified housing for animals, better irrigation and biotechnology have allowed us to produce more with fewer acres and a smaller labor force.
In 1936 the first soil conservation and commodity programs were started by the USDA. Farmers were working with the government and researchers on ways to take care of the land better, from crop rotation and reduced tillage to water conservation and planting tree belts to help with the wind blowing the topsoil away.
What if I were to tell you to go back to what your grandfathers used? Let’s take some of your technology or advancements away.
Now, with all the advancements we have made over the years, why would you want us to go back? Is it the romanticized idea that you’ve seen on TV or social media? Is the idea of progress and moving forward scary perhaps? There are many reasons agriculture has advanced as it has.
I’m glad it did.
Things were inefficient, slow, dangerous and not sustainable. Staying in one place and never changing isn’t sustainable. Our farm now may not have all the gadgets, because these cost lots of money we don’t have, but, given the chance, we would have them. They would help us to be even better stewards of the land and better competitors. The way we farm now isn’t wrong; it’s just different and progressive. I wouldn’t want to live in another Dust Bowl age.
Our grandfathers probably would never have dreamed of the technology that is used nowadays. But I’m sure my great-great-great-grandfather thought the single-bladed plow was the best technology at the time, and it was!
Yes, not all advancements are great. But how would we know if we didn’t try?
Jenny Burgess and her husband, Geoff, farm near Nickerson. They are first-generation farmers and have two young children. To read her blog, visit farmwifetransperancy.wordpress.com.