Last week when I was researching what a well-dressed farmer of the mid- twentieth century was wearing to work, I paged idly through my old Farm Quarterly magazines from the mid-1950s which, incidentally, I got from Bob Evans of fast food fame. (He knew a really good farm magazine when he saw one. When he found out that I shared his views on this (and many other subjects) he gave me his collection of old issues.) With something of a shock, I noted that many of the farmers depicted candidly in the magazine were downright skinny. Not just the young ones, but the older ones too. At first I thought it was just a coincidence, but the more copies of the magazine I riffled through, the more starkly apparent was the evidence: farmers, generally speaking, were noticeably thinner three fourths of a century ago.
I don’t intend to be critical of that observation at all. Two of my closest farmer friends have girths that extend in front of them so far as to nearly defy the law of gravity. I can’t be critical anyway. Unless I suck in my breath and hold it tight, my stomach tends to sag over my belt buckle too these days. I am aware that the average age of the farmer has been going up for some time — around 58 now I think — so farmers on average almost have to be more heavy-set today. But the contrast between 1955 and 2014 is quite dramatic. You can, of course, find ample-bodied farmers in those old magazines too, but on average, the ones in the pictures are not just abs-rippling thin but rib-tickling skinny. By comparison, the average farmer over 30 today is not only big in the stomach but big and thick all over.
We all can think of reasons why this is the case but it is too simple to say that farmers just eat more fattening food today. I can vouch for the fact that they pigged down fatty foods in the 1950s at home as wantonly as anyone does now at fast food restaurants. And much of that good old home-cooked food was greased with lard and butter. Meat, potatoes and gravy sopped up with white bread followed by lard-crust pie for dessert was the standard fare. Many farmers would barely tolerate green vegetables on the table and where I lived, stuff like broccoli, zucchini, and kale simply didn’t exist.
So of course, the proper answer seems to be that farmers today don’t get as much exercise as farmers of yesterday. As fast as the tractor replaced the horse, so the body fat soaked up the unburned calories. But Amish farmers tend to billow into overweight just as fast as other farmers today so that’s not quite the whole truth. I theorize that an Amish farm tends to be a large multi-generational operation and Dad can slyly avoid heavy duty physical work by finding something lighter to do on the other side of the farm.
I suppose one could argue that as humans have been growing genetically taller over the last century, they need to eat more to fill those longer hollow legs. Once developing the habit of eating more, they continue to do it even after the hollow legs are brim full. But I theorize that it is more than food. Even if not as physically exhausting as it used to be, farming is a nervous occupation requiring lots of thirst-quenching to soothe stress-induced and environmentally-caused dryness of throat. Often that means beer and soft drinks to the rescue. So the bulging beer belly becomes the standard profile of the American farmer over thirty, as he and sometimes she, resolutely plows through the vicissitudes of nature like a ship’s prow plowing through stormy waters. How could it be otherwise after all those long hours sitting in a tractor cab or in front of the computer worrying about what on earth will happen next.