Learn From the Past; Prepare for the Future

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our Florida panhandle ancestors produced their food, preserved it for the long winter and protected it from bad weather. While there is much about our current way of life that has its benefits, our fragility in the face of bad weather events is clearly laid out in front of us. These events should give us pause to ask ourselves if we should rebuild in the same way, live the same lifestyle and skate on the edge of the next disaster or maybe re-think what it means to be a 21st century resident in a country where fragility leaves us one step away from a life-threatening event. Hang with me here. This blog will be a combination of the past and the future and will hopefully give you some things to ponder.

While as a nation we seem to be more interested in dancing on the head of the pin when discussing climate change and how much humans are contributing to it, most of us can come through the current storms and acknowledge that they sure seem to be more intense, more frequent and more weird than when we were kids. If that is the case, what we have witnessed with Harvey, Irma, Marie (3 category 4/5 storms hitting U.S. land in one hurricane season) and now Nate is likely to repeat sometime in the future. Let’s ask ourselves what our ancestors, say 150-100 years ago would have done if this would have happened to them. How would they have been prepared and how would they have recovered? Would their vulnerabilities have been the same? What can that tell us about our own preparation for the next really nasty hurricane season.

This nation was built around family or yeoman farmers. Thomas Jefferson waxed eloquent on America becoming a nation of small farmers and the Florida panhandle was certainly that at the turn of the 20th century. These families owned, or had access to, acreage that they farmed with one or more cash crops and they had a “kitchen” garden and field crops that would feed the family through the year. In addition, they sometimes had a milk cow and in the south pigs were raised for meat. Chickens were also raised for meat and eggs. Fruit and nut trees were a long term investment in both food and a potential cash crop. If there was room, the family might have an acre or two in cane for molasses, again for both personal use and as a cash crop. In addition to cane syrup, having honey bees was a means of producing a sweetener that naturally had a long shelf life and added pleasure to a meal.  This production fed the family, provided some cash for things like taxes and the items needed that were not produced, and for exchange items with neighbors.

In 1885, the State of Florida agreed to conduct an agricultural census along with a state population census. The agricultural census on our ancestors is often overlooked because we tend to think of censuses as just population information. For the State of Florida, 1885 was a good year to do an agricultural census. There had been some recovery from the Civil War and Reconstruction but the severe price recession that occurred from 1882-1885 and the Panic of 1884 had impacted many family farmers. Whether we view the records for individuals, or for whole communities, it tells us how our ancestors conceived of their place in the economy and their responsibility in providing for their families both with food grown and with cash crops that generated money to purchase items.

I’ve been analyzing the 1885 agricultural census for the northeast corner in what is now Okaloosa County, for an upcoming book I’m writing on the community of Oak Grove. The total number of farmers was 122, with 102 of them owning their farms and the remainder being tenant farmers. There were 116 White and 6 Black farmers. Two of the white farmers were women. One page had all of the data but no names attached to each farm. The acreage owned ranged from a total of 8 acres owned by George HASKILL to 850 acres owned by Arch LINDSAY. The tilled acreage for nearly all of the farms, regardless of how much acreage was owned, was between 10 and 30 acres. Farms, including buildings, fences and land were valued from $50 to $1000 ($1260 to $25,200 today). Livestock valuation for the entire population of farmers was $32,228 in 1885 dollars while the total for the farm buildings and houses was only $20,910.

61% of the farmers had milk cows. Most of the farmers plowed with oxen but some used horses. About 60% raised pigs and 79% raised chickens. All but 11 raised Indian corn, which was ground into corn meal and grits. Oats and rice were also grown in the area but at a much smaller production. About half grew cow peas (most likely black-eyes).  About a third of the farmers raised cane for molasses and 17 had honey bees. 92 grew sweet potatoes (how many have had a meal of sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas with a bit of fatback and cornbread?) and peach trees were THE fruit of choice for this area of the Florida panhandle. Sixteen of these farmers raised cash crops for the local market.

The agricultural census didn’t ask about kitchen garden production because that was strictly for home consumption but I am told that the kitchen garden of the 1930s usually had tomatoes, onions, peppers, cabbage, turnips, collards, mustard, and beans. At harvest time items were individually canned or were combined as relishes and then preserved. Peas and beans would have been canned or dried in 1885 and frozen as electricity in the area became more abundant after WWII. Sweet potatoes, onions, cabbage, and turnip roots were wintered over as roots and corn would have been kept as a whole grain until needed and then taken to the grist mill for grinding.  Unfortunately, local grist mills for grinding grain quickly gave way to buying already milled grains at the local general store.  Food was at hand, little was needed from a store but most communities, even in rural areas had a small general store that carried basic goods and cloth.  And although the garden could be destroyed by the storm or fire or flood, chances would be that all wouldn’t be and your neighbor’s or family nearby might have less damage.  There was no FEMA and little to no help from outside your local community.  Neighbors helped neighbors.


My Great-Grandfather’s General Store in Oak Grove, Okaloosa Co, FL

Most of us these days think that sounds like way too much hard work just to eat, especially when ready meals can be bought at the grocery store or the fast food restaurant. But if you are facing an emergency, which would you rather do: 1) drive to the grocery store and battle everyone else trying to “stock up”, or 2) go out the back door, harvest what might be ready in the garden and get out some of your prepared foods. The advantage we have today is we do have forewarning about storms. Intensity, path and speed is all pretty accurate and well in advance and yet many don’t seem to know how to be prepared without making themselves crazy beforehand (what is this thing about bottled water lines before storms?!) or dependent on outside help for basics afterwards. I think sometimes the gift of readily available stuff actually makes us more prone to fragility in the face of nature’s impacts.  And coupled with two or three generations that aren’t sure what the kitchen is for other than warming up a meal in the microwave and we are seriously vulnerable!

Now please, don’t misunderstand me. Regardless of how much we work at trying to be less fragile, some of us will always be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is the nature of living on planet earth. But I do think we could, as individuals, make an effort to decrease our susceptibility to disasters (including structurally but that’s another post at another time) and economic downturns and thereby be less of a drain on community and national resources in the aftermath. While we may not be impacted by a storm, our food supply might be.  California, where fires have ravaged the countryside, and Florida, where Irma cut a path, are both significant food production centers. We will see those impacts next year. Disruption in gasoline distribution from Harvey in Houston impacts the cost and the ability to move food products from coast to coast. Flooding in the Midwest in the Fall can impact the harvesting of grains, which impacts both bread and meat prices. Whether we like it or not, we are part of an intricate and fragile web that will be impacted by storms of stronger intensity and increased frequency.

Migrant fruit pickers - Winter Haven

Family of Migrant Fruit Pickers from Tennessee – Winter Haven, Florida – 1937

The Great Depression in the 1930s put millions of people out of work. Hunger was prevalent and people picked up and moved to try and find work (many into Florida from other Southern states), or a better piece of land to farm, so the family could keep body and soul together (see The Great Depression: The Experiences of Samuel and Nealie Bell Nichols Marsh). That was slightly less than a century ago and at the time farmers were 21% of the population. There was 6,295,000 farms in 1930 and approximately 2,200,000 in 2010. That means unless you have some means of growing a few vegetables and you have some extra of the items you don’t grow, you are susceptible to disruption in your food supply after any number of disasters that might strike, especially if they come in multiples. Our food system is more concentrated and in the path of potential natural disasters.  Think about how lucky Houston and Florida were. If Harvey had made land fall at Galveston or the Houston Ship Channel as a cat 5 and then crept up over Houston and sat, how much of the grid would be down along with the massive flood damage? What if Irma had not brushed Cuba’s mountain area for a little over a day and made land fall at Miami before ripping north maintaining its strength through much of the peninsular? And then add the cat 4/5 land fall in Puerto Rico. How much worse would be all of the responses to the storms’ impacts?  And these are immediate impacts, not the ones we will feel over the next few years in our grocery bills and our national debt.

Our challenge today is not to go back and live as our ancestors did but to learn how they lived and survived and how we might apply that with the increased knowledge and technology we have today to make ourselves less vulnerable; physically, mentally and emotionally. Because we are vulnerable and the systems that surround us are much more fragile than we want to admit. Recently, Brock Long, the new FEMA director did a talk about the need for all Americans to develop “a true culture of preparedness”. I couldn’t agree more. And I’m not talking about wearing camo, hauling your rifle around with you and eating nothing but MREs. This is not a reality TV show about survival where you obsess on one possible scenario; it is about creating a lifestyle that is balanced, thoughtful, prepared and acknowledging of the gifts we have all been given. A bit more like our ancestors lived.  It is a part of your daily routine of preparedness and then you get on with enjoying the beauty and grace we have all been given between the storms.

Until Next Time.


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2 thoughts on “Learn From the Past; Prepare for the Future

  1. Great thoughts about such a complex issue. As a former Midwestern girl I often think of the Great Depression and how a lot of the farmers learned from that going forward. I hope we can take a cue and soon figure out something that works best for humans and Earth. Thanks for sharing!


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