We are living in a time of change. Politics, race, class, gender – these facets of our culture are all metamorphosing like never before.

I got to wondering about what some people might call a simpler time (although I’m inclined to name any time without the internet simpler) and, in our rapidly expanding social climate, what we might learn about not only agriculture but also about women in agriculture.

What was it like to be a woman then, one living and working on a farm? What lessons might we learn from her that are applicable now as our future changes before us?

In seeking my answers, I thought perhaps the best person to ask would be a woman who had already been there, done that.

Mrs. Reta Johnson.


It takes determination

My husband’s maternal grandmother was born on March 25, 1928. Doing quick math, you’ll know we recently celebrated her 90th birthday.

I sat down with Gramma and her husband, 88-year-old Alex Johnson (who still farms with us), to ask her about what it was like growing up, making a living and raising a family on a dairy farm.

Thinking of my own future on the farm, I was curious to hear her stories and absorb her wisdom.

“I was always on a dairy farm, and I had a lot of fun,” she says. “I was outnumbered (by brothers) and played with the boys a lot. But once I got to a certain age, I helped milk cows at night. I was probably 10 at that time.”

The role of women was strong on the farm. “My mother always milked, morning and night. And believe me, she was like a machine. She had done it for years, so was right comfortable and went at it. The hired men stood with their mouths open – they didn’t have that much speed,” she says with a laugh.

Gramma’s mother milked while her father and brothers did the fieldwork. Gramma helped her mother in the barn, working with her grandfather when she was very young, then eventually helping out on her own.

She was determined to spend as little time in the house as possible, a role her mother fulfilled in between milking hours, as Gramma much preferred being outdoors.

It takes a willingness to learn

I was curious to know how Gramma J balanced farm and family life. She and Grampa purchased the farm in 1957; it’s where my family and I live now. Gramma is honest when she talks about what’s now known as “work-life balance.”

“I wasn’t very good at first,” she laughs. “I had never had anything to do with housework. Back in those days, if anybody came to work, you fed them. Well, that was a real shock to my system because I had never cooked a meal.

My mother liked to do that kind of work, so I cut the lawn, hoed the garden, did all the odd jobs that needed doing. I had never cooked. You can imagine when I started out. It was pretty wild.”

They milked 18 cows at first. “I never, ever milked in the morning. Alex milked in the morning; I milked at night. Then, in the middle of the day, I did chores.”

Gramma’s way of balancing farm work and family life was to combine the two. “The kids were always with me. You know the kind of fence you make with bales? We had an old buffalo robe; it was really good so the cement wouldn’t bother them. They settled in there, with food, cats, the dog and them. And a few dolls.”

Her daughters, Carol and Phyllis (my mother-in-law), went everywhere with Gramma. “They got so they could feed calves and help in the barn, around age 8 or 10. Working allows them to entertain themselves – and to learn. It’s good for the kids.”

It takes partnership

Gramma J has always had a mind and opinions of her own (her husband will second that) and believes a marriage needs to be made on equal ground.

“My mother always said – and this is something about married life – whatever decision came up, ‘Oh, my husband will decide that.’ I vowed when I got married, I was gonna know what we were doing. I maybe wouldn’t be making all the decisions, but I needed to know what was happening because otherwise I felt like cheap help. I don’t care to be cheap help. It’s mine and thine. I feel strongly about that.”

While they didn’t start out with much – “I had $200, and she had a car,” says Grampa – Gramma is certainly proud of all they accomplished while farming.

Having respect and love for one another helps, but you have to have it for yourself too, she says. “You have to stand up and be counted sometimes, whether you’re popular or not.”

Gramma’s sage words for me included tried, tested and true statements. “You can’t be in two places at once, you know. So don’t get a guilt complex about being with the kids and not in the barn. There are only so many hours in a day, my dear.”

Hard work, determination, a willingness to learn and a strong respect for your partner, family and for yourself – these are the things that will help women continue to flourish.

The rear-view mirror is small for a reason, as the saying goes. But perhaps it’s good to turn around once in a while and learn from where we’ve come from so the way ahead is a little smoother.  end mark

A sincere and heartfelt thanks and I love you to Reta and Alex Johnson for agreeing to be interviewed for this piece (and for agreeing to share their ages, too).

  • Jess Campbell

  • Bellson Farms
  • Strathroy, Ontario