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Using the old farm to sell the new

Historians like to say that we can’t “go back” to the past and that certainly is true in a general sort of way. But as a matter of fact, in farming circles, we are always “going back” one way or another. In every generation there are people who decide that “going back” is a way to escape what they dislike in the present and there are a whole lot of people, now and historically, who dislike what is going on in agriculture.

Today, we so-called “back to the landers” would rather say that we are going forward to the land and a new attitude toward farming. But the way we make our forward-looking local farm products appeal to consumers often harks back to the old agrarianism. For example, an appealing way to sell locally-grown whole grain products is to call your store or web site a “granary.” It has a sort of romantic ring to it that was hardly a part of the real thing back when every farm had one. Ours lasted until 1958 and the word was common in our everyday conversation. The “grain-ree,” as we pronounced it, was about 30 by 30 feet in size, built up off the ground so that it would be easier to keep rat-proof. Inside it was divided into bins in which we stored whole oats, wheat, and milled grains for the chickens and livestock. I would never have dreamed then that the word as well as the building would almost pass out of existence. Now, with the return of small scale grain raising, lots of homesteads would find one of those granaries very handy.

Using the sentimental past to sell the practical future is so like America. A building lot in a subdivision named Cowpath Meadows will sell faster than in one named Laptop Square. If you want to sell more garden seeds and tools in your store, call it a shed or a barn. If you sell kitchen utensils call your shop a pantry. We get a catalog in the mail called “The Loft.” It is full of fancy clothes. The only clothes you’d ever find in a real loft were grimy overalls and sweaty shirts as the haymakers stowed away hay under a barn roof where the temperature was over a hundred degrees, the kind of heat that kills football players today. Bibb overalls were selling in upscale Philadelphia stores when I worked there in 1970 about as briskly as they were selling in Montgomery Ward catalogs in 1930. In the 1940s we farm children were ridiculed by classmates for coming to school in bibs and I finally refused to wear them. Today farmers wear bibs with pride, having learned that their farm market customers find them cool.

It does inspire at least a philosophical pause. You can hardly call this appeal to the old farm just sentimental. Most of the people who find it appealing never experienced agrarian farming enough to get sentimental about it. In fact, for them, granary or creamery or hayloft or cowshed, are new words. Rather, it seems to me, more and more people are becoming convinced that some of that old stuff really is worth holding on to, nothing sentimental about it.

One of my close friends still refers to a room off his kitchen, where the refrigerator and cupboards are located, as the buttery, pronounced but-tree. He is the only person I’ve ever known who casually uses this ancient word that originally meant a room off the milkhouse for, obviously, making butter. I am thinking, hopefully, that one of these days I will see advertised in spiffy, upscale magazines, like the Edible chain of publications sprouting up in many of our major cities, a new food shop called “The Buttery,” to sell homemade versions of my favorite food. Wouldn’t be surprised if there is one already. [Yup: here, etc. -DS]

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