I was raised by parents who had grown up in a time when families provided for their own basic needs. My mother and father, children of immigrants, survived the Great Depression and knew how to make something out of nearly nothing. When I was a little girl, my mother grew most of the vegetables we ate. She tilled, planted and weeded a huge garden. She grew strawberries, raspberries, and currants by the gallons. She made jams and jellies from the wild plum trees and chokecherry bushes in the shelter belt. We ate beef from our own cattle and chickens plucked by my mother’s hands. Many of the clothes I wore were hand made by my multitalented mother.
We lived a long way from town, but not so far from the rest of the world that we weren’t influenced by the attitudes of the society around us. School, radio, television and magazines taught us different values. I learned that things bought in the store were worth more than things that were “home made.” I was embarrassed by the fact that my dresses had been sewn by my mother, even if my friends never made fun of them. The superior quality of the sewing in my clothes was lost on me. I yearned for clothes that were “store bought” and new, not handmade or handed down. Gradually, we acquired a taste for foods that were processed elsewhere, such as pizza that came in a box, frozen French fries, and packaged macaroni and cheese.
The delicious vegetables grown in my mother’s garden were shared freely with others when they were in surplus. Strawberries, juicy and rich with flavor, were given away when our freezer would hold no more. My mother shared her talents with the neighbors and they shared with us.
Somehow, that sharing and giving was not viewed as having worth, possibly because no money was exchanged in the transaction. Perhaps these foods, services and clothing grown and created with my mother’s labor seemed cheap because women’s labor was not, at the time, deemed to be worth much. Because she was not paid a salary, my mother, who got up at sunrise and worked until dark to do all these things, was not really considered to be working. The modern, industrial model of post World War II America implied that working for a wage and buying what we needed was more modern and promised a higher standard of living. Those of us wearing home made clothes and eating handmade bread were depicted as being backward. Fresh garden grown, home cooked food and hand made clothing became less valuable than things bought in a store. We were convinced that eating out, buying clothes and importing all our necessities was a better way.
We still expect locally grown and made products to cost us less than the mass produced, generic, cheap commodities shipped from around the world. Not only do we devalue things grown or made in our local community, we consider even our community to be of lesser value. We are proud of our children who live somewhere else and work at important jobs, as well we should be. We’ve all been guilty of thinking, on the other hand, that those who stay here are somehow setting their sights too low. Since we, ourselves, are here, that must also reflect our own self image. We value the opinions of experts from somewhere else more highly than our own. When someone moves here, we ask, “Why would they want to move HERE?” When we seek an inspirational speaker we find an expert from far away or at least a local person who has left and been successful somewhere else.
Values are changing. People are recognizing the wonderful taste and nutrition of locally grown, fresh foods. Farmers markets are appearing all over. Chefs at high end restaurants are serving locally produced food on tables covered with tablecloths and folded napkins. Young people are learning to cook more than packages of ramen noodles. A new appreciation for the craftsmanship of handmade things is resulting in expanding markets for products made one at a time. Handmade goods can be found at thousands of art and fine craft fairs any summer weekend or on internet sites like Etsy. The skills my mother used to feed and clothe us are again being admired and valued especially by those who don’t share them.
Most of us will never go back to the self-sufficient lifestyle my mother practiced, but we can learn to value what is nearby and handcrafted. We can learn to appreciate homegrown in new ways.
Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains