Life on a Hungarian farm 1946-1951: recollections of Gyula Ficsor, February 1996.
As I looked at my students in my Environment and Health Problems class, where among other things we talked about the energy wastefulness and energy dependence of developed countries, it occurred to me that my students just can't imagine life without the "conveniences" available to us in the 1990s. All of a sudden I remembered that I once lived in a time and place where much less energy was used and while we were not living in a state of permanent bliss, neither did we live in a state of physical and mental deprivation. In the meantime we were probably a lot closer to sustainable agricultural land use than we are in the farm belt of the US and other developed countries with a significant agricultural presence. So how was life on a Hungarian family farm in the late 1940s?
Public education: An 8th grade education became compulsory in this time replacing a 6 grade general education during the preceding hundred or so years. Most Hungarians could read and write, although many of the farm workers were taken out of school early and many could only barely read and write. However, the owners or purchasers of family farms like my parents could read, write and use simple arithmetic quite well. Children walked to and from school up to 3 miles each way.
Public Health services were remarkably good. All children were immunized against infectious diseases for which immunizations were then available. When a child entered compulsory first grade they had to provide their immunization certificate (ujraoltasi bizonyitvany). Babies (including this writer) were delivered right in their own homes by a trained midwife. Advice about children and women's health was provided by little health centers out in the sticks staffed by a mid-wife and a nurse. Poor families who provided farm labor usually did not own a cow (although many had a goat or two). Children of these families were given free milk coupons by the public health service redeemable at nearby farms.
The role of flies in spreading disease was well recognized. It was shown by big cartoons posted in public places how a fly can carry disease-causing bacteria from the manure pile or from a pit toilet to food or to the body. Similarly, cartoons have shown how contamination may seep into shallow wells.
There was a hospital in the nearest town (Kiskunhalas) 10 miles away or about 2.5 hours by horse-drawn wagon. In life-threatening emergencies a gasoline powered ambulance was available which could be contacted by phone from the nearest railroad station or post office. When a hand-cranked haychopper caught my middle finger when I was 5 years old (it was not caught by the blade but by a couple of cogs) it took about two hours to get me in the hospital. My finger was temporarily dressed with clean cotton cloth. People were well educated about infections. The operation was successful, but I am still short of one digit.
Transportation: Railroads (powered by steam) reached all cities and larger villages. Main roads were so called McAdam hard-surfaced roads. Farm families had to walk up to 6 miles (10 km) to get to public transportation. Many farms were several miles away from hard-surfaced roads. Farmers along our farm road formed an association to maintain the dirt road leading to the nearest hard surface road. Wagons and light carts still had steel rims. To prevent deep ruts, straw or discarded plant material was applied to the dirt roads.
The family farm as a economic and social unit: The farm at 75 acres was about medium size along the farm road. There was no electricity or running water, or any kind of power- driven implement or vehicle. Everything was powered by humans or horses.
The family lived in a well built old farm house (perhaps a hundred years old then) at Goboljaras 85 (Beef Pasture 85; now Balotaszallas). The parents and 6 children shared the 2 bedrooms, while the maid slept in the kitchen. There was a room size (perhaps 400 sq ft) food storage area off the kitchen, where canned goods, smoked hams, sausage, flour, kerosene and everything that would be needed by a large household were stored. In a less well built addition to the big house was a long building with the following areas: a wine cellar, summer kitchen with a large wood heated oven (kemence), granary (magtar), and a chicken coup at the end of the building. A pit toilet was located adjacent to the main house. The toilet was covered to keep out flies. To the excrement chopped straw was added. The fecal material was removed yearly and used as fertilizer to be plowed under for corn or cereals.
Only one bedroom was heated by a nice cast iron stove with wood or corn cobs. The 3 older boys (yours truly included) slept in an unheated room under generous goose down covers. It was not unusual that water froze in the drinking glass on the night table alongside the bed. The kitchen was heated by a sophisticated, tastefully enameled (with flower motif or similar decoration) wood burning stove (often corn cobs and chopped twigs were used in place of wood). This stove was used for cooking, small batch baking and for a constant supply of warm water heated in a tank which was part of the stove. Major baking of bread and cakes was done weekly in a large clay oven. This oven was first heated up to a high temperature with dry cornstalks (which the cattle did not eat) or with dry grape stems or twigs. Then the oven was loaded until the contents were baked.
There were sufficient stables and corrals for 2 horses, 3-4 milk cows, 6-8 other cattle (mostly juveniles), 10-30 pigs of various ages. During the October-March winter months all the animals were kept inside stables so they "would not catch cold". The horses and cattle were tied with rope to their respective rows of mangers. The horses were fed hay and the cows and other cattle corn stalks, wheat and oat straw. The dairy cows also got alfalfa hay. Rye straw was used for bedding. The manure was removed daily and fresh rye straw and uneaten oat or wheat straw was used for bedding. In addition to hay, the horses were also fed chopped oat straw mixed with chopped beets or pumpkins and laced with ground corn and some oats. The horses worked a lot all year around and they needed to be fed well. We always had a coach man (usually an unmarried man in their late teens or early twenties). They kept the stable immaculate and they actually slept in a corner of the stable on a bed suspended from the ceiling. Being in the stable they could be aware if anything unusual happened or if there was a cow ready to deliver.
The pigs were in a separate stable of their own. They also received fresh bedding weekly. Pigs are actually quite clean and friendly if they are given plenty of straw for bedding and slop and other feed. Usually they choose one corner of the stable to defecate. About 5 hogs were fattened (up to 400-500 lbs size; about 3 for use by the household and two for market). Pig manure was considered the most valuable (horse manure the least) and was used to put in the garden to support the growth of vegetables and melons. We had the best water melons one can imagine. Some of them reached 60 pounds in size! There were approx. 150 chickens (they were foraging around the farm), 15 geese and 10 ducks (ducks and geese were force fed for pate; most of them were sold). There were 2-3 sheep for wool and meat, again in their own shed. I mention all this manure thing, because manure was highly valued, carefully stored (preventing drying out) and then spread on the fields. There was no synthetic fertilizer used at all. My maternal grandfather used to say: using synthetic fertilizer is like applying the whip to the horse in place of oats. I thought my grandfather was real backward (maradi). He was more right than he knew. May he rest in peace.
Crops grown and other products: Wheat 4 acres (all of it for flour for the farm), Rye 15 (about half for flour for the farm, remainder cash crop), alfalfa 5, beets for feed 1, barley for feed 3 , Corn 13 with beans planted along the rows (for food, for hog fattening and as cash crop), potatoes 2 , sunflowers 3 (for oil and for sale), sugar beets for sale 1, garden 1 (vegetables, cantaloupes, water melon), pasture for grazing 5, hay 5, grapes 10 and orchard 2, forest and swamp and roads 5.
Farming methods: Only manure was used. Crop rotation was practiced. The soil improving quality of alfalfa was greatly appreciated. Wheat or rye followed corn. Corn followed beets, alfalfa or cereals. My father insisted of never leaving the soil surface open, that is without some kind of plant cover or stubble. After spring plowing and before planting slow starting crops such as beets, or even corn, we spread straw very thinly and worked it into the soil surface with the tip of a shovel. It was simply embarrassing for a farmer to see their soil carried by the wind. It was both a matter of pride and good conservation of precious water (drought was often a problem) to chop down every single weed in row crops. A horse drawn cultivator was used to keep the weeds down between the rows and we hoed the rows at least three times a season by hand.
The most labor intensive part of the farm was the 10 acres of vineyard and 2 acres of orchard. During early spring the orchard was scrubbed clean of dead bark to reveal insect eggs, grubs and pupa. During the winter the trees were sprayed with a sulfur mix, however no spraying was done during the growing season (apricots, prunes, pears and apples and tart cherries were grown). The grapes were trimmed in the spring. During the season the grapes were cultivated between the narrow rows with horse-drawn cultivator and hoed by hand. There were no weeds at all. The grapes were sprayed 4 or 5 times during the growing season with Bordeaux mix (mixture of copper sulfate and lime) with a hand pump sprayer carried on the back of the worker. Grapes were picked by hand. Most of the grapes were processed into wine. Only human powered grinder and presses were used. The human powered wine presses had quite sophisticated gear mechanism so plenty of pressure could be produced by moving the handle over greater distances. Some of the grapes were laid out in the attic and were eaten at least till January.
For planting new grapes the soil was turned over with a spade about 3 feet deep. This kept seasonal workers occupied through the late Fall and early spring. The workers doing the spading collected the grubs and at the end of the day exchanged 100 grubs for a liter (a little over a quart) of wine. If grubs were missed, they chewed the roots of the young grapes. Because this ingenious reward system, not many grubs were missed.
People occupied and employed on the farm: Father, Mother, 1 maid (szolgalo; helped mother with 6 children under 14, cooking, cleaning, poultry) , 1 coachman (kocsis), 4 different men and women helped with grapes and hoeing crops approx. 6 months of the year , (= 1. 25 full-time); children helped with watching livestock (fences were not used; too expensive). A seasonal crew of about 6 workers came to harvest cereals by scythe and sickle for 3 weeks. They entered into harvest contract (aratasi szerzodes) and received from 1/7 to 1/9 th of the harvest as grain. A thrashing machine crew of 18 came for about 3 days (the trashing machine was pulled from farm to farm and powered by a gasoline powered tractor). Thus approx. the equivalent of 7 people were employed on the farm (tanya) year around.
Food: Other than sugar, salt, spices, preservatives, all food was grown on the farm. All people who worked on the farm were fed on the farm. Approx. 3 large hogs were butchered for salted or smoked back fat, sausage, ham, for fresh and smoked meat; wheat and rye was milled for flour (in the city) - all breads and cakes were baked on the farm. Poultry was an important source of meat year around, but especially when fresh hog meet was not available (hog butchering took place late fall and winter while the weather was cold, since of course there was no refrigeration and preservation by ice from frozen ponds was not practiced). All vegetables and fruits were canned on the farm. Apples, prunes, apricots and pears dried in the sun (plenty of this around in the summer), to be cooked in winter.
Cash crops and livestock: Approx. 1500 gal wine (the most valuable cash income), half of cereals, corn, sunflower, and potatoes , yearling cattle and young pigs, 2 fattened hogs, half the produce from the garden, milk and butter, eggs, poultry and some of the fruits were sold in the nearest town 10 miles away. The sugar beets were delivered to the nearest railroad station 1.5 miles away.
Cash outlays: Cash was needed for wages of all workers; for purchase and maintenance of farm implements, e.g. wagons, plows, sowing machine, copper sulfate for spraying grapes (Bordeaux mix), horse-drawn cultivator, hoes, scythes, shodding horses, corn sheller, clothes for the family, maid and stockman, train tickets, medical needs for humans and animals, presents, donation to church, mortgage payments on 15 acres of land which my parents bought when adjacent land went on sale.
Overall impression: Farming in this area went back to about 150 years. Prior to farming and before drainage, the area was mostly grassland, forests and swamps. With the farming methods used sustainibility was very likely. Air and water pollution was minimal. Nothing was land filled except broken pottery and glass. People tended to work long hours from April to October.
At the end of World War II, Hungary was occupied militarily by the Soviet Union, but was allowed to remain a state. In the 1945 election the Communist Party received about 12% of the popular vote, with the Small Holders Party as the biggest party in a non-communist coalition. By 1949 the Communist Party, with the support of the Red Army and Soviet Security forces, grabbed more and more power by illegal means, e.g. by kidnapping of non-communist political leaders right from the corridors of parliament. Some of these leaders died in Siberian exile while others returned 10-15 years later sick and broken only to be persecuted once more by the Kadar regime. The purpose of the Kommunist Party was to eliminate private property. They nationalized industry by 1950 and went after the farms like ours in the same time. The farmers were required to turn in enormous amounts of cereals, livestock and milk, wine, hay (beszolgaltatas) and pay very high taxes. Farmers were picked up by the security forces and taken to forced-labor camps. In September 1951 my parents were relieved when they were told to leave the farm in 48 hours without any compensation and move into a run-down old shack of a house a few miles away with an acre of land. Our farm became part of a collective farm where they used "modern" methods such as tractors. The owners of the farms were not allowed to join the collective farms because they were considered to be the enemy kulaks. The Vineyard and orchard was ruined within a season. The row crops could not be seen from the weeds. By 1953 Hungary, which till 1950 was a food exporter, was struggling with food shortages.
The Hungarian collective farms by the 1970s became nearly as mechanized and chemicalized as their Eastern and Western counterparts and eventually did produce sufficient amount of food and fiber and some was exported to the Soviet Union in exchange for raw materials, cars and energy.
In 1980 my wife, a brother and two of our then small children walked by the house where both my brother and I were born and where we lived as children. The house was now owned by the collective farm and was inhabited by a couple who worked on the collective farm (and before 1950 worked for us ). The building adjacent to the main house was now just a pile of dirt. One of the two barns was gone as well as the nice wooden corn bin (gore). Many of the beautiful old fashioned roof tiles were missing from the main house and one side of the roof was ready to cave in. The roof leak was hastily repaired with plastic sheets to prevent soaking through the ceiling. Where meticulously cared for fruit trees once stood now trash was strewn around. The couple invited us inside. We thanked them but declined the invitation. The several other farm houses along the still dirt farm road were in even poorer state or were gone altogether. We were sorry to see this oldest and best built farmhouse miles around go down the drain. What was used to be our farm was now half planted in corn monoculture and the other half was planted over with cotton trees for pulp (including the area where our precious vineyard used to be).
In 1989 the communist gave up power. The democratically elected government attempted to compensate farmers for the lands they lost in the early 50s the best they could. The compensation was more of a moral satisfaction than financial gain.
Fifteen years later in 1995, I drove by the old farm house expecting to see a bigger pile of dirt. To my delight what I saw instead was a tastefully renovated old farm house. The roof was straightened out and the missing tiles replaced with matching ones. There was a nice wood fence around to keep out livestock and deer. I thanked that wonderful person or persons in my heart who saved the house
where my family once lived and I was born. And there was one more surprise: electricity!
For those who are thinking about or are practicing sustainable agriculture (regardless of scale), the following article is a must reading: "A farming revolution" by V. Klingenborg and J. Richardson. The National Geographic. December 1995, pp. 61-89.