When Farmers Used To Be Poor

I grew up in the 1970s on the east coast of Florida, in a small town.  The population of this town was probably about 10,000 people.  Some of the poorest people in this town were the farmers.  There were not any wealthy farmers in the area.

The farms outside of town ranged from about 10 acres to 50 acres.  The farms were small like this because they were established in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when fields were still plowed with horses, or very simple tractors.  50 acres was about all one person could handle back then.

The farm houses were either “shot gun houses” or “dog run houses”.  These were one-story wood frame houses, built a couple of feet off the ground on brick or stone piers.  The “shot gun houses” were where room opened to room, from the front door to the back door.  The “dog run houses” had a center hallway from the front door to the back door, and you entered each room from the center hallway.  The walls had exterior clapboard nailed to the vertical wall studs, and usually there was no interior covering like lathe and plaster.  The sizes of these houses was about 30 ft x 30 ft.

The yards all around the houses were mostly dirt with a sparse amount of grass, because of the kids, adults, and animals constantly walking and playing around the house.  There was not any pavement.  Kids, dogs, cats, and chickens ran wild around the outside of the house.  Pigs were kept a couple of hundred feet from the house, far enough away to not have to smell them and hear them constantly, but close enough to haul food scraps and garbage to them regularly.

Barns were small and usually very primitive because animals did not have to be kept in the barn.  Horses or cows would try to find shade from the sun in the afternoon, or something to stand under when it rained, an overhang, shed, or thick trees would work for the animals.

So far, everything that I described above about the farms where I lived, was the same from the 1890s up until the 1970s.  In the 1940s more or less, many of the farm houses began adding indoor bathrooms with plumbing.  I imagine that many farm families in Florida continued to use wash basins and outhouses into the 1960s.

Prior to the 1960s, farm kids in Florida might not have worn shoes in the summer, except to go to church on Sunday.  Before the start of school in the Fall, they might get a new pair of shoes to wear to school, or be given hand-me-down shoes to wear to school.  Prior to the 1960s, the farm families had a very bare existence.

In order to have more cash money, farmers in Florida had other ways to make money: cutting trees to sell for timber, working in saw mills, doing carpentry for other people, hunting animals for meat and fur, hunting alligators for meat and hide, fishing, crabbing, shrimping, and making illegal alcohol.

As the population of Florida grew more and more due to real estate development, land became more controlled, animals and fish became more scarce, many farmers in Florida began to take regular jobs working in construction.  There would be five to eight years of a boom in construction, followed by a lull for several years, all through the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s.

When I was a kid in the 1970s in Florida, the farmers who did primarily farming, were very poor.  The fathers drove old, worn out, beat up trucks, there was nothing fancy about them, just single cab, torn vinyl bench seat, rusty two-wheel drive trucks.  The father’s clothes were old, stained, and ragged.  The farmer kids had very little of anything.

In the 1970s, the farmers who worked regular jobs, they wore nicer clothes, drove nicer four-wheel drive single cab trucks, and their kids had more, but they were not rich.

I didn’t see it until the 1980s in Florida, but some farmers said, “Fuck it, I am going to sell the farm because this property is worth so much money now.”  Real estate developers wanted 10 acre, 20 acre, 30 acre parcels of land that had been cleared and drained, so that they could put in a new housing development with 1/4 acre home lots.

The farmer kids who had grown up going barefoot, using wash basins and outhouses, being bit by mosquitoes constantly, now that they were adults struggling with finances, sometimes they could not resist the temptation to cash-in the family farm, and finally live a life of luxury.  They could move into a new modern home with central air conditioning, shag carpeting, a couple of bathrooms, and modern kitchen.  Buy a new luxury edition truck with a back seat, and have enough money for their kids to go to college.  So that is what many poor farmers did.

In the 1980s in Florida, the adult farm owners were aware how poor and how much of a struggle that their grandparents, parents, and themselves had gone through.  They weighed out in their mind what to do, should they continue to live poor and struggle, or should they sell their land and have a life of ease?

One thought that made up the adult farm owner’s mind was this, “If I continue to be poor and struggle with this farm for the rest of my life, when I die, my shit head son is just going to sell it and never have to work, so is it going to be me, or him that doesn’t have to work?  I pick me.”

In Florida, one by one, all of the farms were sold and developed.  It was just too hard to make money farming, and the land became worth so much money.  Who would want to continue to be poor, when they could sell their land and become a millionaire.

By the 1990s in Florida, the only people who retained inherited acreage or who obtained acreage, were not farmers, but doctors and lawyers.

In my next blog post, I would like to try to explain and compare this to farming in North Dakota.

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