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Harvest widows

The editor's column

In the December issue of Grainews we ran a story by freelance writer Marianne Stamm about “harvest widows” — women coping with the strain of having their husbands out of the house for long hours, day after day during the harvest season.

When Marianne submitted this story, I was excited. Everything in the article rang true for me, both in my own life and what I hear from my female friends who are married to farmers. Scheduling work, organizing child care, running the house, keeping up the yard — all of those things get complicated when you’re married to a farmer and it’s harvest time.

I ran the story assuming that everyone who read it would nod to themselves, thinking, “It’s just like that at our place.” Or, better yet, “It’s nice to hear I’m not the only one!”

Instead, I received this fax from C. Pike at Waseca:

I can’t believe that farm women would complain about harvest time. Oh, if they have a bad-tempered husband who turns into a veritable terror at harvest, I could see it — but to complain because they are left to mow the lawn?

Let us turn back the clock to harvest time when the women of the farms would have to feed a dozen hungry men, with no electric stove, no hot and cold water on tap, no refrigerator, no freezer, no microwave, no cell phone.

Before the men arrived the husband would have chores to do, including getting the horses ready, but he or the older children would fill the wood box for the cookstove and bring in several pails of water from the well.

In many homes, the wife milked the cows by hand, washed the cream separator, prepared breakfast, made school lunches, baked bread — and with feeding the crew and the family that meant baking every day, dig vegetables from the garden, make a dozen pies. Then in the afternoon the hardworking men required a tea break which meant tea, sandwiches cake. The men would go to their own homes at supper time, for they had chores and besides, horses couldn’t keep working like a machine. In this area a travelling crew with their own cook was rare.

True that harvest on each farm couldn’t last more than a week at the most, unlike today when it can go on for weeks. On quite a few farms the wife drives the combine as well as provides the meals. Mind you, with today’s conveniences, the meals can be prepared and frozen ahead of time.

I can’t understand how anyone can complain about the year’s income being brought in. Perhaps they should have married an accountant. One who would mow the lawn, of course.

That’s me told.

From the Manitoba Co-operator website: An up-close look at what farming is really like

I considered rebutting with comments like, “expectations about driving children to activities have changed,” or “so many women have off-farm jobs these days,” but really, lounging in a lawn chair in the park while my son plays soccer is not quite as gruelling as baking bread daily in a wood-fired cookstove.

And I wouldn’t be fooling anyone who knows me. The other day I caught myself complaining about our SUV because “there’s a weird buzzing noise when I have my iPod plugged into the stereo and then turn on the seat heater.” I would have been the world’s worst pioneer.

There’s no doubt — things are easier now than they ever were. Both on the farm and in the house. C. Pike has a point.

When someone invents time travel, I’ll be the first one in line to take short trips into other eras to see history being made. But if they offered me the option of permanently relocating to any time in the past, I’d have to say no. There is really no better time or place to be a woman — on a farm or not. In Victorian England, even a woman married to an accountant wouldn’t have it nearly as good as I have it now (remember poor Bob Cratchit’s wife from A Christmas Carol?)

Our lot has been gradually improving over time.

So I’ll concede to C. Pike that she is definitely right, and we should try to remember that our complaints are really not that serious. Being a woman on a farm back in the days of threshing machines and hand cow-milking would have been much more difficult than the life we live today. Even in the middle of September.

But I’m willing to bet that While Mrs. Pike’s grandmother was kneading the fourth loaf of bread, her grandmother was sitting on a chair in the corner, mumbling something along the lines of, “You women today don’t appreciate how easy you’ve got it. You’re lucky to have all this flour to make bread. Back in the old country, my mother had to fight tooth and nail with her brothers every day, just to get a bite of the last diseased potato.”

Thanks for reading the article and sending in the great feedback, Mrs. Pike!

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