Survival skills honed in hard times still evident in the tree rows

Our past generations faced hard times, too. If you look around the farmsteads, you might find some evidence of it.

Carefully rolled and discarded wire stored in the tree rows decades earlier is a remnant of the Great Depression mindset. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service

“Why is all this stuff here?”

My daughter’s question, as we sorted through scrap metal, was a legitimate one. Why were trees growing up through carefully rolled, rusted wire? Why were there tractor parts, for tractors no one had used in a generation, frozen into the ground and covered in decades of composted leaves? Why were there old cars in the tree rows, their long-flattened tires sunk into the earth?

“Well,” I said, and then I paused as I tried to come up with the best 8-year-old friendly answer I could. She’s a pretty smart kid and watches the news with us, so it’s not like we’ve ever tried to shield her from reality. But it’s also never easy to pull back the curtain of innocence.

“You know how a lot of people are having a hard time right now, right? How they talk on the news about people not working because of coronavirus and how everyone seems kind of worried? Well, back when all my grandparents and your dad’s grandparents were kids, there was an even harder time. People didn’t have jobs; the stuff on farms wasn’t worth anything. There wasn’t enough to eat. They couldn’t get new clothes or anything else. And it went on for, like, 10 years. So people who lived back then learned to save everything just in case they needed it someday. And a lot of them never quit doing that. Great-grandpa saved a lot of this stuff just in case he needed it someday,” I told her.

She seemed to understand, as much as a kid who’s never known hunger, who’s never had to worry about staying warm, who only knows the bounty of the stores where we overload our carts could really understand. And really, that’s about as much as I can understand, too.


The remnants of the Great Depression are all around us, if you look in the tree rows. My husband’s grandfather is far from the only person of that generation who held onto things “just in case.” When we were cleaning out our house, which had been his house, we saw it in the random items he’d held onto over the years, some of them useful, some of them that left us scratching our heads. But we knew he, like many others, had never forgotten what it was like to not have enough.

I remember when we’d ask my grandpa why he did something or saved something that none of us could understand, he’d say, “I’m a child of the Depression.” And we’d kind of laugh, because he was born in the early 1930s. How much could he remember of those hard days? But as I watch my kids forming memories now, I imagine their happy, carefree early lives being replaced with poverty and hardship. No doubt that would stick with them forever.

It’s no wonder our grandmothers saved plastic containers in which to put every last leftover. It’s no wonder we find random pieces of machinery and wire tucked away. It’s no wonder the people who grew up in those days all seem to know so much more than we know today, things like gardening and cooking and sewing and fixing and being content with what they have.

We’re going through a tough time right now. But the thing I hope comes back to us through all this is a little more of the resilience and preparation that the older generations already have. We don’t have to tuck away parts in the tree rows for our great-grandchildren to pick up. But it won’t hurt if we all come out of this with the knowledge we need less than we think and we can do more for ourselves than we ever imagined.

Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's content manager. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at or 701-595-0425.

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at or 701-595-0425.
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