Before “Farm to fork:”

American farming in the wake of World War II
Fri, 09/30/2022 - 2:00pm

The farms and ranches of the United States experienced nothing short of a revolution during the decade of the 1950s. Mechanization, stemming from advances developed in World War II, including mass production, yielded a range of machinery including advanced tractors, combines and hay bailers. This mechanization impacted thousands of farming families spanning the corn and wheat belts of the Midwest, the fruit and nut production of California’s Central Valley, and of course the centuries old farms of New England. At the start of the decade in 1950, over eighteen million hours of labor took place on American farms. By 1960 that amount of labor hours
was reduced by half to just nine million. In short, fewer farmers and ranchers, utilizing newly designed machinery, could produce more. Thus, small farms, like the majority of those in New England, were becoming less and less economically competitive.
A glimpse into what the islanders witnessed in the postwar period can be heard in a twenty-year-old interview with Kathryn Champlin who lived from 1918-2008. She grew up on Champlin Farm, located on the western edge of the Great Salt Pond, in a house constructed in 1827 by her great-great grandfather. During an interview in the year 2000, while in her early 80s, she recalled a time on the island before World War II when Champlin Farm offered commanding views in all directions with a landscape with no bayberry and few trees. Champlin Farm used teams of horses to farm and feed 20 cattle and 200 sheep. In the summer lambs were sold to island hotels and deliveries also included milk, corn, and potatoes. Her earliest memories were riding in a horse-drawn wagon pulled into town to get the mail. She proudly recalled that all farm hands, both black and white, ate their meals
at the same table as her family. In hindsight, she reminisced that these farm hands helped raise her as she rode with them in horse-drawn farm equipment. When asked when farming changed on the island, she pointed
toward the Second World War where nearly all the young men left the island. She said, “Farming went with the war.” When asked what the island looked like, she recalled her favorite view as a young girl from the farm was to
the south towards Beacon Hill. Before the war, when farm animals across the island continuously grazed, they protected these island views such as her remembrance of
the view of Beacon Hill from Champlin Farm.
The revolution in American agriculture in the postwar period not only led to the disappearance of most of the farm animals on Block Island, but opened the door for bayberry to slowly began to consume island views. As early has 1957, island historian Mazie Rose wrote, “You perhaps have observed how much of the island, once tilled farmland, is quite overrun with bayberry growth.” Of course, locally produced agricultural products from the island are still possible (shoutout to Sprague and Payne Farms) via the relatively recently-coined term “farm to fork,” but Block Island farmers, and those across the nation, had been doing this for centuries.