Golfing Versus Farming

THERE is no doubt that the present generation and those yet to come have entered, and are to enter, a world of greatly changed conditions, a world of complicated machinery, of crowded cities, and of economic stress. Many of us are already sighing over ‘the good old times’ and wishing for their return, not seeing that the earlier, simpler conditions of life have vanished forever; that the times have changed permanently so far as most aspects of life in civilized countries are concerned.

For instance: few of those remaining of an older generation can fail to remember the great extravagance in food which characterized American tables of forty years or more ago: the board fairly groaned with the multitude of dishes, and abounding plenty was to be found in the homes of rich and poor alike. One could live in comfort, and even in luxury, at good hotels for two dollars per day — a charge which included lodging and three or four plentiful meals; and at the more sumptuous hostelries, such as the old Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York, and the Palmer House in Chicago, where the charges were four or five dollars per day, one required two hours or more, and the capacity of an ostrich, to get through the dinner alone.

No modern diner-out who remembers the times of which I write can fail to wonder at the great changes which a few years have brought about. Lodging alone in a first-class house to-day costs nearly double the price of room and board of those days; and the dinner, then given freely as part of the day’s board, costs ten or twelve dollars in the few places where such a dinner still can be had, to say nothing of the tips to the waiters, hat-check charge, and so forth, which were almost unknown in the period in question.

These great changes in conditions, and the pressure of population on our food supplies which brought them about, were among the primary causes of the recent war; and unless we take steps to remedy the situation, they will bring about even more severe conflicts in the future. After enjoying a period of surplus, we are now living in a time of scarcity, and may come, unless we provide a remedy and find means to increase our supplies of food, to actual want and misery. The ease with which the prohibition amendment was adopted was probably due, at least in part, to the widespread belief that thereby large quantities of food-stuffs hitherto used for the making of beer and spirits would be saved for food.

In a recent book1 on the American food-crisis, the author says: ‘The most serious and pressing question of to-day is: What is the matter with American agriculture that it is breaking down at the most critical period in our history?’ He points out that every other civilized country has in the last few years bettered its agricultural conditions and enormously increased its yield per acre, whereas we have failed to do so to any appreciable extent.

Such conditions should engage the attention of every serious person, as our future depends upon finding a solution for the difficulties, largely caused by want of adequate labor, that exist to-day on our farms.

The great vogue of the game of golf among the well-to-do classes in our cities is of comparatively recent growth. It has become popular, and a household word, in a single generation. Fostered, in the first instance, by physicians, who found in it a means of keeping their well-to-do patients in good physical condition, it has become popular with young and old alike, and is more universally resorted to than any other outdoor game or amusement.

Golf, moreover, not only caters to that gregarious instinct, that love for social company which is so pronounced a feature of modern life, but it also serves the purpose of many in business and professional pursuits by extending their acquaintance with men of wealth and leisure. As a well-known architect recently remarked: ‘I find that the hours I spend on the golf-links are often more profitable to me in a business way than a similar number of hours spent in my office.’ I remember, too, a publisher, now among the first in his profession, who secured the funds necessary to start his business career through forming an acquaintance on the links with one of our best-known and wealthiest golf enthusiasts.

Much may be said in favor of the game, and it serves well many of the purposes of the city man. Most of those, however, who derive health from its pursuit would be equally benefited by taking long walks; but few of us are strong-minded enough to take long walks persistently, alone, and companions for misery of this kind are hard to find. A well-known author in one of his books says that he knew only three men who took long walks on principle; and he adds that two of them were ‘cracked.’

I will not go so far as a popular novelist does who, in a recent book, makes one of his characters say, ‘ Golf is a beastly, silly, elderly, childish game; a retired tradesman’s consolation.’ But at the same time it cannot be said that golf is without its disadvantages from the nation’s standpoint. It takes large tracts of land in the aggregate, and often the best agricultural land, in our suburban communities from economic use; it often reduces materially the supply of farm-labor, especially during the building and laying out of the links; and during the Great War, now happily ended, the building of at least one well-known golf course deprived the farmers for miles around of their usual supply of labor.

Much of the discontent which has been so general among all classes of labor in the last few years, and which at one time since the Armistice came perilously near to an attempt to overthrow our present industrial system, has been caused by the idle pleasures of wealthy people and the ostentatious and vulgar display which accompanies them. Sunday golf has not been without its influence as one of the causes of envy and hatred of the poor for the wealthy classes.

To pursue a golf-ball over hill and dale and through streams and across bunkers seemed to me, when I tried the game (and I attained a fair proficiency at it), a somewhat idle pastime — it might serve to amuse children and perhaps very old men. There was a lack of usefulness in it, a waste of time which, before long, made it appear to me as a not altogether creditable pursuit for a man of able body and energetic habits.

In 1907 I purchased an abandoned farm in the hills of western Connecticut. The low, rolling hills, with their frequent glimpses of the Sound, their open plateaus broken into by deep, wooded, narrow valleys, are an ideal spot for the homes of busy city-workers. They have a summer-night temperature many degrees lower than that of the coast. The absence of mosquitoes and the invigorating atmosphere are in marked contrast to the enervating climate and surroundings of the lower altitudes only a few miles distant. It is the only part of our Eastern countryside nearer to the city than the Maine coast, where a man may work with vigor and enjoyment in our depressing, energy-exhausting summer climate.

There was no intention on my part of ever working this farm, or of growing crops on its sixty acres or so of arable land, or of making a business of farming. We found in it a summer home, where we could be out of doors all day and find peaceful, quiet sleep at night in outdoor sleeping-porches, and where we were free from the scandal and gossip, general inanity, and dreary waste of time characteristic of the seaside and mountain resorts in which we had hitherto spent our summers.

There is a widely prevalent idea that farming for the amateur farmer is an expensive operation. One remembers in this connection the oft-repeated story of the gentleman farmer’s milk, which was as costly (in pre-prohibition days) as his champagne. This is far from the truth. These abandoned farms, which may be found by the thousand in some of the Eastern states, can often be had literally ‘ for a song,’ and one may spend as much or as little as one chooses on their upkeep. Certainly one may buy and put in thorough repair one of these abandoned farms for less than the entrance-fee to at least one of the best-known golf clubs; and when one considers the cost of golf-balls and caddies, and other attendant expenses, farming would, I think, prove the less expensive amusement of the two.

‘I have noticed,’ a physician said to me recently, ‘that when one of my patients takes to farming he almost at once abandons golf, and the links see him no more.’

Golf accordingly now became a thing of the past with me, and I spent my spare time (usually two days a week) in cutting trails in the hundred-acre wood-lot or removing the tree weeds from the younger growth of the forest, and in setting out clumps and single trees in the fields, so as to give a parklike effect to the open plateaus on the hills. The work was often laborious, and one got dirty and wore one’s old clothes; but every moment was thoroughly enjoyable and interesting, and there was the added satisfaction in the thought that something was being accomplished, even that the country itself was being benefited by the growth of noble trees and the saving of the woodland from possible destruction by fire. The benefit to my health was immeasurable — for the first time in many years I was neither sick nor sorry. My revived health and energy were also of the greatest value to my business affairs in the city.

In these early years on the farm I gave my time and attention largely to work in the woods. Growing trees is one of the most useful of outdoor occupations, and no work is more delightful or more healthful than the varied tasks connected with forestry on either a large or a small scale, and no farming crop is so profitable on many tracts of land in the East, if you are not too anxious for early or immediate returns. Many of the large Eastern states, including both New York and Pennsylvania, now import from the far Northwest most of the lumber used for building, although there is sufficient idle land in these states to grow all the needed lumber — land which is unfitted, for one reason or another, for agricultural purposes. Much of the scarcity of timber in the East is due — according to a late forestry report — to the growth of tree weeds in the cutover forest. No suitable seed trees are left to reseed the forests with the better sorts of timber trees, and no proper methods of reforestation are undertaken.

Came the time of the Great War. Working on the Liberty Loan committees and on various commissions seemed, even for a man of sixty-odd, a poor substitute when his son was fighting in France with a million or so of his comrades. So the plough went into the park-lands, and crops were sown on the farm for the first time since it had come into our possession. The amateur farmer is not usually the proudest boast of the countryside, and the real tiller of the soil generally looks upon his efforts with contemptuous amusement. But we managed, even in this first year of our farming, to carry off first prize for corn and second prize for barley at our county fair; and our produce, chiefly hay, cereals, and rootcrops, was worth a little over seven thousand dollars at the end of the harvest season. It would not have been a bad speculation even if we had gone into it with that end in view.

Roads have been built through the property, and marshes drained, and the old-fashioned ‘pocket-handkerchief’ fields so familiar to travelers in New England have been transformed into broad pastures and wide grain-fields. The assessors of the county, who have a keen eye for improvement values, now assess the property at something over three times the sum that I originally paid for it, and the local real-estate agent, looking, I have no doubt, to his own commission, recently asked me to let him sell it — at double the assessors’ valuation.

Nor has it proved an unwise move from another point of view. We had in the natural course of many years of married happiness given several hostages to fortune; and when they and their children spend the summer on the farm, we are quite a large family and consume great quantities of fruit, vegetables, milk, and what not; and the prices of these articles are by no means low in these days in our cities. Is it only fancy that makes them taste better at the farm than when we purchased them in the city?

I wonder sometimes whether our city populations will not in course of time forget the natural taste of food. Treated with preservatives, as many or nearly all our foodstuffs are, the flavor and quality are often entirely changed or lost. Again, the necessity for picking fruits before the sun has given them the last touch of sweetness which makes them wholly palatable, so that they may be safely transported long distances, deprives the city-dweller of the enjoyment even of the natural fruits of the earth in their finest perfection.

When winter drives us back cityward, the farm does not forget us, but sends us milk, cream, butter, and eggs, not to forget the hams which, milkand corn-fed and cured by ourselves, are more delicious than anything that can be found elsewhere; and our weekend visits to the farm, to enjoy the pleasures of the winter countryside, are looked forward to through the busy week with honest enjoyment.

The farm, too, is the best place for children. To play in the dirt, to cultivate their own little gardens, brings them health and independence; and to take part, in the daily happenings on the farm gives courage and character and enlarges the powers of observation. The child reared in the country receives a training in the homely virtues of industry, economy, and uprightness, which is a most important part of his education, and leads to habits of clear thinking, which are of the utmost value to him later on when he takes his place in the work of the world.

So that, when I see the city-dweller go forth with his bundle of golf-sticks, and reflect on the waste of his time and the uselessness of his energy, and remember the great need for labor under which this country is now suffering, I feel as if it were my duty to tell him how much pleasure and delight he is depriving himself of, and how unethical it is to waste in a childish game time and effort which, rightly expended on the soil, would bring him both pleasure and profit and a self-supporting home of which none could deprive him.

Hoeing potatoes or corn, or bedding out melons, is just as interesting and enjoyable as your finest strokes on the links. To stack hay on a sunny day in June, or to hasten its loading before a sudden thunder-shower, will give your muscles just as much exercise; and the glow and contentment which come with your cold shower before dinner, after a day spent at work in the fields, are finer, and give more satisfaction, than any game ever invented by man.

So great to-day are the exactions of the unions in the non-producing (of foods) trades; so many additional consumers are being added to the urban population by the exigence of modern life and by the invention of additional and unnecessary wants of fife; and so rapid has become the drift from country to city, with its consequent dearth of farm-labor, that it may well be that, in a few years, he alone will be able to live happily and have sufficient food who to-day purchases one of the thousands of abandoned farms that abound in the Eastern states, and produces on it the necessities of life.

Those who cultivate the soil are, for the most part, free from that muchabused bugbear, the high cost of living — or, as it should properly be called, the high cost of luxuries. Both in the city and country our family table still rejoices in the old-fashioned abundance, and not infrequently our own farm is the origin of all our food-supplies, with the exception of tea, coffee, and condiments. We grow our own grain, thrash and grind it, and make it into bread; and we find our sweets in the maples with which nearly every woodlot of the Northeastern states is well supplied, or in home-grown honey, which is free from the taint of syrupfed bees characteristic of much of the honey that is for sale.

If the wealth and energy now devoted so freely to golf and similar games could be used to rehabilitate our abandoned farms, and these country homes could be occupied by those of our city populations who have a little leisure and moderate means to cultivate them, and who now find it so difficult to secure homes in our large cities, it could not fail to result in incalculable value to the country at large and to the people who take up this valuable work; and it would also be the means of increasing the foodsupplies of the nation, which is the everpresent duty of us all.

I cannot, I fear, hope to convince or convert the confirmed golfer to what many will agree with me in believing is a better way. He regards his pastime as a recreation. Farming and treegrowing are recreations in the truest, most enjoyable meaning of the word; and either of these employments really re-creates what the country most needs, and with most pleasure and profit to the player. Play and healthful exercise must be sought in a change to outdoor occupation rather than in mere pastime, if the participator is to derive the fullest benefit from them.

  1. William Stull: The Food Crisis and Americanism.