These days we are so far removed from where our food comes from that rain can seem more of a nuisance than the life blood that it is. For our ancestors, it was a different story. Have you ever really considered just how dependent on the weather our ancestors were for their very survival? What they produced is more than likely in direct proportion to getting the right amount of rain at the right time? Too much, too little or not at the right time, rainfall was crucial for allowing families to produce the food they needed for their own consumption, for sale to neighbors to earn money for other necessities or to feed their animals.
Many people probably had a small (or even large) garden plot that could be watered, if necessary by pumping water from the well and transporting it in buckets. But when the farm in question was tens of acres or more in size, that was simply not feasible. And if you have ever closely examined an agricultural schedule for one of your families you'll see why. As an example, here is what my ggg-grandfather's farm produced in 1879, according to the 1880 agricultural census.
Michael Flynn, 1880, Washtenaw county, 40 acres
25 improved acres, 2 acres permanent pasture/orchard, 1 acre of woodland, 6 acres of mown grass lands, 12 acres unimproved
Hay: 6 tons produced
Horses: 2, 1 other cattle, 1 calf dropped
Milk cows: 1 animal, 100 lbs butter produced
Sheep: 2 animals, 2 fleeces produced (8 lbs)
Poultry: 20 birds, 80 dozen eggs produced
Indian corn: 5 acres planted, 200 bushels of indian corn produced
Wheat: 11 acres planted, 160 bushels of wheat produced
Irish potatoes: 1/2 acre planted, 40 bushels of potatoes produced
Although we don't know what or how much was grown in a vegetable garden, the production of this small farm makes clear that more than just food for the people was at stake due when bad weather struck. Without enough hay, your cows, oxen or horses may not survive the winter. With no oxen, how will you plow your fields? Without your dairy cow there won't be fresh milk, butter or cheese. If you want to see what a large farm (of 178 acres) produced, and therefore what they had to lose if rainfall was suboptimal, look at the bottom of this post. It is interesting to note (interesting for us, not so much for the farmer) that on the larger farm 10 of the 113 sheep died due to "stress of weather."
All of our farming ancestors, which admittedly means most of them, must have been scanning the skies on a daily basis, particularly during the growing season. Does that wind mean an impending storm? Do those clouds hold rain? Will there be enough?
We have a small garden and I always keep informal track of when it last rained and approximately how much. Unlike my ancestors, I am fortunate. If it doesn't rain enough I can drag about 150 feet of hose down to the garden and spend an hour or so watering our meager crops, but our ancestors didn't have that luxury. In the absence of rain it would be time to gather up all of the buckets, prime the pump, fill the buckets from the well and lug them to the garden while trying not to spill a precious drop. My family doesn't depend upon our garden the way our ancestors did. I can always go to the grocery store to buy what I need, but if money was scarce for our forebears what was their recourse?
So, the next time it rains on your picnic or if the clouds burst when you're grilling on the 4th of July, just remember that that precious, glorious water is ultimately where all of our food comes from. Put down that spatula, put on a rain hat and go out in the rain and do a little happy dance. I'm sure through all of the years, our ancestors must have done so at least once.
Abner Brown, 1880, Cass County, 178 acres
120 acres tilled, 2 permanent meadows/pastures/forest, 46 woodland
Grass lands: mown 15, not mown 40
Hay: 10 tons produced
Milk cows: 3 animals, 600 lbs. butter produced
Other cows: 10 animals, 3 calves dropped, 2 calves purchased, 5 sold living
Sheep: 113 animals, 54 lambs dropped, 1 lamb purchased, 113 fleeces of 672 lbs
Sheep deaths: 1 sheep slaughtered, 1 died of disease, 10 died of stress of weather
Poultry: 23 birds, 150 dozen eggs produced
Indian corn: 10 acres planted, 500 bushels produced
Wheat: 35 acres planted, 920 bushels produced
Flax seed: 16 tons flax straw produced
Irish potatoes: 0.5 acres planted, 60 bushels produced
Apple orchards: 2 acres, 100 bearing trees, 150 bushels produced
Wood cut: 20 cords
Now, if only I could get Ancestry.com to add the second page of the agricultural census for my Michigan people for 1850, 1860 and 1870! How else will I ever know how many bushels of potatoes they grew.