TOM TREINEN, FARM BOY TURNED LIFELONG GARDENER

Born and raised on a small Wisconsin farm, Tom Treinen grew up immersed in the culture of farming, but realized it was not a career that interested him. He did, however, become a lifelong home gardener.

Born and raised on a small Wisconsin farm, Tom Treinen grew up immersed in the culture of farming, but realized it was not a career that interested him. He did, however, become a lifelong home gardener.

When my Grandpa came to America from Germany in the late 1800s, he built a house and a barn. That house and barn transformed into the place I called home. I grew up on a farm located outside of Lodi, Wisconsin. Since I left the farm, it has stayed in the family. My sister’s son lives on the farm currently. When I was young, the farm specialized in grain, corn, and alfalfa. All of these crops were successful to feed the dairy cattle, chicken and hogs. The farm does not milk cows anymore; it now has mostly cash crops. The farm is still located where we cleared the original stones. However, I’ve been off the farm since 1957, but have fond memories of the farm and it sparked my current love for gardening.

Growing up, my family got all our food we ate from the farm. The only thing we bought at the store was butter, lard, sugar, flour, and main staples to help make the food. We would can and freeze all of the fresh vegetables, but I enjoyed the canned beef the best. It was canned with good gravy. You would open it up, and poor it over potatoes. We usually canned it every six months. We butchered all our own meat and raised all our own vegetables. I felt that all my meals were healthy and fresh. There were rarely any left overs. 

Although I enjoyed eating all the food my family produced, we did not have any other choice. The children had to keep the garden clean and keep weeds out, otherwise we would get in trouble with our parents because that is where our food came from all winter and year long. My family’s food supply never struggled in the winter; we always had enough. We kept carrots and potatoes under sacks on our dirt basement floor. The dirt preserved the vegetables.  My family would swap produce with the neighbors if a family was in need of a specific food item. My neighbor had a special spring-fed well. We could go down there and get fresh produce from their root cellar that we could not preserve on our own. They were friendly neighbors, and we would swap something extra we had at that time.

I started working on the farm at age five or six. My first job was to be in charge of keeping the wood stalked for our heater and wood stove in our kitchen; every day, every night, summer and winter. I also fed the chickens, picked up eggs, and fought with the hens. My favorite task was to work in the garden. I enjoyed pulling vegetables and eating the raw vegetables. I did not like to milk the cows and feed the hogs. The hogs were sassy. I did not enjoy milking the cows because it was hard labor. I did not have to do this until I was older, because my older brother, father, and grandfather assumed those roles. My older brother was four years older. Our parents gave us specific tasks at a young age. He worked in barns and I worked with chicken and the pigs. The milking machines required heavy buckets, and chickens required smaller, lighter buckets, so it made sense because he was older he worked with the heavy buckets.

Farming required a lot of heavy work. The wintertime was the hardest on the farm. The water tanks and pipes would freeze, and it was hard to keep the animals warm. However, the physical work was harder in the summer because I would itch so much from the chaff of the corn.

Back then people shared workers when needed. If you needed help your neighbor would help you, and if they needed help we would help them. There were 3-4 other farmers near by who would help us. We never hired other help. All the farmer’s work was evenly divided. There was never anyone mad because someone else got more help than him or her. Everyone was willing to help.

My favorite memory of working on this farm was there were always cold beverages in the cow tank at the end of the day. This is the only time we had pop. We belonged to a thrashing ring, which is a group of five farmers who would rotate farms together. There was “thrashing of the grain” and “shredding the corn” once in Spring, once in Fall.  The ladies would cook great big meals and the kids would be there too. There were always good desserts and beverages.

I decided to stop working on the farm when I got out of high school. I realized it was not my cup of tea. I graduated and I went to work at a canning factory. I planted peas and sweet corn, and worked on fields for the canning campy. Although still hard work, I got paid for it. It was probably around 2-2.50 dollars an hour back in 1956. It was not considered a well paying job, but it was money. I quit that job and decided to work in town meat-cutting. Then I went to work for a hospital and then I finally ended up, and retired, at the post office.

I am happy I didn’t decide to become a farmer, but I wish I still had the space to garden. I love to garden and get my hands in the ground. The biggest thing I miss about farming is the openness of the land. A main skill I learned from farming that has transferred into my other careers is knowing how to be prompt in doing a lot of things. On the farm you had to do your job at the right time otherwise the crops would not turn out. I know the value of being told you have a job, and you need to get it done.

I had a garden that was about 1/4 of an acre big. I plant the same crops every year: radishes, lettuce, carrots, beets, parsnips, potatoes, sweet corn, asparagus, rhubarb, and tomatoes. The first crop to come out of the garden in the spring is always the best. I used to give a lot of the vegetables to everyone else and we ate them ourselves. The similarity between farming and gardening is that you are growing things for other people and animals to eat. Gardening is much more meticulous, while farming is much more mechanized. I like being in control of what I grow.

My favorite crop to grow is lettuce and tomatoes because I like to eat them both. The most difficult crop to grow are parsnips. They look like a big white carrot because all the seeds don’t germinate. You plant in spring, grow all summer long, in the fall you leave them in the ground, and then you dig them in the spring and eat them. It is a long process, but it is very good.

The basics of gardening I learned as a child on the farm, but every year I learn new things about gardening. Now you can grow things with little dirt and use mulch, which makes it easier so you don’t have to dig up the dirt. There are also new varieties of vegetables such as zucchini squash.

I try to use little pesticides, but sometimes you need to use a little because it gets too bad. With potato bugs, I would take a pail with water and use a stick to knock the bug into the bucket. A lot of plants now are bug resistant; the earlier the plant grows in the season the less pests. That is why I plant most of my crops in the spring. I don’t like using pesticides because I don’t think it is healthy for people, and I don’t want to get sick or give it to someone and have them get sick. If I have to use pesticides, I soak the produce in vinegar water before consuming it. I just don’t like using pesticides.

My garden used to be a reliable source of food for my family, but now I just have a small garden, so it is not very reliable. The farmer’s market is where we get most of our food. I really enjoy buying the fresh produce from the farmer’s market. I gave a lot of my own produce away. People were really happy when we gave them our produce because many did not have the knowledge of how to grow their own.  I never sold what I grew in my garden, I enjoyed giving it away so much.

It seems like a lot of people are going back to gardening because they like more organic crops. People have better control of how their produce is grown. The grocery stores and farmer’s market have really provided people with fresh options, so I don’t believe that this coming generation will fully rely on gardening.

— Jenna York