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Is the farm a healthier place to grow up on?

Prairie Palate: Get Well Soon Meat Loaf

Boys on hay bale

As we head into the winter cold season, I am feeling quite smug. I rarely get colds. I have no allergies and a stomach as impervious as a cast iron pan. I attribute the healthy state of my immune system to growing up on a farm. Mucking about in the garden, eating bugs and dirt, playing with the barn cats and feeding the pigs.

We washed our hands before dinner (usually) but there was no such thing as antibacterial soap. As Grandma used to say, a little dirt won’t hurt you.

It seemed a healthy way to grow up, and now there’s new proof. A recent study found that Amish children are much less likely to have asthma than the general population. Since asthma is triggered like an allergy, the state of the immune system is a deciding factor. It’s proof that growing up on a farm is healthy. But it’s not that simple.

The study found that Hutterite children have the same incidence of asthma as the general population, about 20 per cent. This surprised the researchers since, on the surface, Amish and Hutterite children have many things in common: German heritage, isolated communities, big gardens and livestock barns. Why the difference? Are Amish kids down in the dirt? Are Hutterite kids better at washing their hands? Is it the Amish rejection of high tech and inorganic pesticides or the Hutterite penchant for communal living and big modern farms?

And where does my upbringing fit in that picture? I grew up eating fresh garden carrots (rubbed sort of clean with the fronds) but I also knew the sweet smell of wafting pesticides. What does this study say about me?

It turns out the deciding factor isn’t old-world farming or carrots clinging with soil. The protective factor is farm animals. Those children who grew up in close contact with livestock and their environments were less likely to suffer from asthma and allergies. Amish kids went everywhere by horse and buggy, whereas the Hutterite kids were less likely to hang out in their modern, intensive livestock barns.

Other studies in Europe found this protective factor begins in the womb. Children born of mothers exposed to livestock during pregnancy were the least likely to suffer from asthma.

Another interesting note: the study was conducted by sweeping up the dust in Amish and Hutterite homes and testing it. Thank goodness for dust! Perhaps someday I can devote my home to science.

One of my favourite play places as a kid was the barn. It was a big old white barn with stalls on ground level and a loft above with gaping holes in the floorboards for tossing down the hay. There were no animals in the barn — except the cats. My dad didn’t keep cattle, but his parents and grandparents did. Still, it was a dusty place. We had pigs, just a few for our own consumption. They lived in an older shed across the farm. When I was small — and they were small — I considered them playmates. We also had chickens. My earliest memories are of gathering the eggs in the warm, dusty, stinky henhouse.

It’s pretty safe to say I inhaled plenty of animal dander in my earliest years. And thank goodness for that.

Here’s a recipe for one of my favourite winter comfort foods. I make it when my husband gets a cold.

Get Well Soon Meat Loaf

  • 3 slices of hardy white bread
  • 1 c. milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp. fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp. dried
  • 1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 lb. lean ground beef
  • 1/2 lb. pork sausages, casings removed
  • 1 tbsp. parsley, chopped
  • 1 tsp. salt and several grinds of pepper
  • 1 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp. honey
  • 1 tsp. brown mustard
  • A fat pinch of ground coriander

Break the bread into pieces in a large bowl. In a blender combine the milk, egg, onion, thyme and vinegar. Pour over the bread and mix well, giving the bread a few minutes to soak up the milk. Add the meat, parsley, salt and pepper, mixing thoroughly. Pat the mixture into a bread loaf pan. Stir together the tomato paste, honey, mustard and coriander. Spread on meat loaf. Bake at 350 F for one hour. For a browned crust, turn on the broiler for a few minutes at the end of cooking.

Get Well Soon Meat Loaf.
Get Well Soon Meat Loaf. photo: Amy Jo Ehman

About the author


Amy Jo Ehman is the author of Prairie Feast: A Writer’s Journey Home for Dinner, and, Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens. She hails from Craik, Saskatchewan.

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