Updated: Apr 1, 2020
In late January I had the opportunity to attend the Palouse-Clearwater Food Coalition’s Food Summit and give a short presentation entitled “Farming Across Generations.” I was invited to speak by summit organizers and for a time I wondered what I could possibly share with a group of folks who are far more knowledgeable about our local food systems than I am. A simple retelling of agricultural advances didn’t seem an engaging option. In hopes of finding my way, I began searching the Latah County Oral History Collection. As has been the case so many times before, I was both inspired and humbled by the stories captured in the interviews. Three themes stood out to me in particular, which I shared with the summit attendees.
First, our agricultural heritage demonstrates to us the importance of teamwork, camaraderie, and collaboration. In the early days of farming on the Palouse, it took massive amounts of human power to harvest grains and cut hay. No farmer could possibly manage his field without help, hired or otherwise. Several oral history interviewees suggested that labor was traded to keep costs down between neighbors. Edward Ramsdale recalled “back then, we used to trade work too you know, quite a bit in them days. Like during thrashing, one guy helped the other one. They exchanged work back and forth to hold down the overhead of hiring out to have some that done…I helped my neighbor Nick too up here, I worked a forty for him and then he let me use some of his horses once in a while.” Other times, help was offered when a neighbor was in need. “You didn’t call on your neighbors for help,” Glen Gilder told the interviewer. “The neighbors knew you needed help and they volunteered it. One or two cases where in harvest if somebody would be hurt or sick, we’d just all get together, go and take care of a farm, get it out of the way so he would have his money to pay bills, if there were any.”
Next, I was reminded that the Palouse is a tremendous incubator of innovation. Our unique topography and climate have required farmers, engineers, and scientists to think creatively. One such example of ingenuity was the development of the Idaho National Harvester combine, often called the Little Idaho, which was lighter and more agile than horse-pulled combines produced in other regions of the country. Traditional combines had to be pulled by as many as forty horses, which meant a sizable amount of grain was lost simply to being trampled. The Little Idaho, by comparison, could be pushed through the field by as few as two horses. With a weight of just over one ton, it could also be righted more easily if it tipped over on a steep hillside. Although the combine was only produced for about ten years, it was an important piece of transitional technology. The introduction of seed peas to the Palouse by Willes Crites in the 1930s was another example of innovative thinking that has significantly altered the landscape of the region. Before Crites convinced a handful of forward-thinking farmers to plant a test plot of peas, the Palouse was known only for its grains.
Lastly, a survey of our farming history illuminates that change is inevitable. If we can take the time to consider past experiences, we may be able to build resiliency into our communities. The people of our region have fallen on hard times before, so how did they make it through to the other side? One wisdom that rose to the top of many oral history interviews was that the Great Depression was a time of monetary scarcity, but those closest to food production rarely went hungry and in fact were among the most generous members of our community. Lola Clyde, for example, recounted how she and her husband provided for a number of seasonal workers well after harvest had wrapped up. “In those days, really the hired men, you just had ‘em in the summer and after harvest they went to the woods or they went someplace else to work…But goodness with winter coming on and these young boys no place to go, we couldn’t do it. And I said, ‘Well, we have a cellar full of food, we have pigs we can butcher, and these men helped us get it. They can stay and eat with us.’ They did. And one of them stayed with us twenty years afterward and worked for us all those years and he’s like our own boy. But that was how bad times were.” Economic challenges are not the only changes that farmers on the Palouse have faced. Revolutionary advances in technology certainly changed the face of employment as fewer men were needed to operate machinery, implement production was outsourced to faraway factories, and professions like harness makers became nearly obsolete. Changes to our environment were also of concern. Indeed in the middle of the 20th century, Latah County was identified as the second worst site of erosion in the entire United States. Farming practices had to adapt to new best practices. What can we glean from these experiences as our community collectively faces new realities, like a changing climate and declining aquifer?
The most valuable application of history is not found in memorizing dates, but in studying the experiences of those that came before us. History is essential to creating vital places to live and work because it brings us together and allows us to share stories that are relevant to our contemporary lives.