Have You Seen A Skinny Farmer Lately?


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.


Hello Gene,
I spent 2011-2012 in a fun filled vacation land call Afghanistan. We worked 12/7, for nearly a year (I did get time off to goto Paris to meet my sister, BIL and daughter to spend Christmas together, for 7 days). Nothing better to do then work out. I was running a 5k 2 days on, one day off. There was weight lifting involved too.
Upon my return to the States, land of Liberty and Freedom, I bought a farm.
And I am skinnier now then I was in Afghanistan. My 34s that fit just right in that fun filled country, I NEED a belt now! I am using my old tactical belts, because my leather belts dont have enough holes in them to fit!
By the way, I do not own a tractor. I do everything old school style. Hauling water (5gal buckets) to the livestock, mowing hay with a 30inch grass blade scythe, walking the property rather then taking the ATV.
To be honest, I have not felt better!

Recently I read that after the second war, people found themselves out of a job and decided that there was money to be made in agriculture. Someone had the bright idea to take what had been used to kill people and turn it into pesticides and the ingredients for bombs into fertilizer. The decline in the quality of food and people’s health had it’s start due to greed. Not much has changed.

I also have adopted a “paleo” diet, largely of meat and veggies. I’ve never been overweight, if anything underweight, as I gained 10 needed pounds when I cut out grains. I’ve never felt healthier. Even with 10 more pounds on my frame I could pose in those old photos you write about.

Just stop and think about the effort it took our forefathers and mothers to put a meal on the table. Want hamburgers, potato salad, corn on the cob, baked beans, and blackberry pie on the 4th of July? Grow the potatoes, onions, corn and beans, tend the chickens for the eggs, make your own mayonnaise, rear and slaughter the steer for the beef and to render the lard for the pie crust, and then brave the briars and chiggers to pick the blackberries in the heat. Don’t forget to milk the cow and churn the butter for the corn on the cob. AND do all this while doing all your other daily living chores without the modern “conveniences.” Why you’d barely have time to sit down and enjoy your picnic! July is a very busy time on a homestead.

I’ll add “modern conveniences and stress” to the mix here of what’s making Americans fat. My farming grandparents were very skinny people, but I do not recall them being “stressed”?!

I’ll bet one thing is still true. Farmers fat or thin could whip anyone’s ass that calls them lazy. Especially some douche writing on some half assed blog dedicated to running down the farmer

Up to 40% of WWII draftees were rejected due to poor health and most of that was from malnutrition. You have to remember that many of these were children of the depression, and people actually came close to starvation in that time, particularly in the south. In fact, our school lunch program of today was founded at that time, as a way to ensure that children got at least once daily access to a balanced diet. We have the luxury at this time of being able to sit back and complain about obesity. While I think the processed foods of today may cause
long term health problems, I certainly cannot see any advantage in going back to a diet of cornbread, pork and collard greens (when in season). There was a reason granny-women used to cook up their “elixir” every spring-by winter’s end, people were suffering from incipient scurvy, and other deficiencies. To say nothing of Pellagra, hookworm, etc. The Good Ol’ Days weren’t so good for a lot of people.

And what is most amazing thing about all this?

The seeming lack of shame.

Every day everywhere in public and in broad daylight, the overweight lick enormous ice cream cones and drive one-handed with 32 oz sodas. Their arms go in and out at the drive ins for fist fulls of fries. At the grocery store, boxes of 3 dollar pizzas overflow in shopping carts.

Highly visible all of it.

You would think there would be a bit shyness involved.

Lack of exercise is surely part of the problem, but I’ll bet the real culprit is meal portion size. The Amish don’t use tractors but they do go grocery shopping and mechanized farming has made food cheap and abundant even for them. I believe we’re all eating too much.

I like the point about the Amish dad passing off work to his kids. Today at work (landscape company) we had to put down 225 bags of mulch and I had to do a lot of the heavy lifting simply because I’m the youngest guy on the crew. The same theory applies to almost every other job we do.

Interesting observation about the photographs. Equally interesting set of comments. There are as many theories about what’s gone wrong in the comments, as there are comments. I bet they’re all a little bit right.

    Agreed, T.M. Many factors contribute to our current health and weight problems, though processed carbohydrates are no doubt the most significant problem. As the primal/paleo and Weston A. Price folks point out, past generations derived the bulk of their calories (which energy they burned profusely during long hours of hard work) from FATS, mostly animal derived, rather than from carbohydrates. Processed sugar simply didn’t exists for most of human history, and natural sugars were relatively scarce compared to today — let alone that now-ubiquitous synthetic freak slow-poison molecule called High Fructose Corn Syrup (a nod to Jamie’s comment). Grain, prior to mechanized engine-driven agriculture, was expensive to produce and so consumed sparingly — certainly rarely fed to animals.

    Dr. Weston Price’s research found that the traditional cultures that enjoyed the most robust health and absence of degenerative disease (as are common today) were those that ate the most fats, especially animal fats — some as much as 50 times the amount that modern peoples eat. Commenter Carmine pointed out the fact that the ‘lipid hypothesis’ (the supposed “science” claiming that dietary fat is harmful) has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked, yet it persists as a foundation for modern dietary instruction. And as commenter Pat mentions, the study of epigenetics is finding that we influence gene expression by our lifestyle activities, including diet, resulting in physiological propensities toward problems like obesity.

    Many factors contribute. Those skinny old boys in the photos were also amazingly strong (I knew a little guy who could throw a hay bale clean over the top of the stack), and could outwork most modern youngsters.

Good evening Gene,

The commodity farmers in our valley are on the heavy side as a whole. A fair portion of the horsepower in the modern tractor seems to be there to haul the driver, not to pull the implements The smaller acreage food growers here tend to be closer to the old norms. The Amish locally are not showing any excess poundage. Must be the water in Ohio that causes them to fatten up.

The old photos show that most Americans of 60 or more years ago were as you put it “rib tickling” skinny. The GI’s that whooped the Axis were wiry as all get out. My uncles who served stayed trim until their deaths.

I recall some research that showed that gene switches can be toggled on or off due to environmental changes whether from food or the chemical world we are in. These changes are passed on to successive generations and by the third one the affects are glaring. This is one instance where I feel that what happens in mice probably reflects what can be observed in our species. We are three or four generations into this uncontrolled experiment that started with the “modernization” of the American diet following the Second War.

Have a safe Forth of July and celebrate the independence that being in control of your food brings.

High Fructose Corn Syrup is the main culprit for obesity today. It is in nearly 97% of the garbage you find on your local “grocer’s ” shelves. Breads, jams, jellies, puddings, cake frosting, crackers, cookies, snack cakes, yogurt, prepared meals, and a plethora of other “food” stuffs is polluted with this diabetes causing ingredient.

The Weston Price Foundation has done much research on this ingredient ubiquitous in the food industry. Most all franchise food has both MSG and HFCS in their products. When my sister, niece and I went to Cracker Barrel I asked the 300 pound waitress, ” Does your food contain HFCS or MSG?” She answered, ” Yes, and all of our food contains HFCS and MSG.”
We got up from the table an left the toxic eatery.

This is what is killing us “softly” and yet not a word of this truth from the AMA or the FDA.
At the age of 15 my youngest son had the triglycerides “Of an old man” , so I was told by his dermatologist. He was on his way to an early heart attack and that was just not going to happen. I removed ALL processed and convenience food from our diet ( cola too ) and within months his triglycerides returned to normal and he lost 30 pounds.
The HFCS had already damaged his gallbladder and he now has Liver damage…but you won’t hear one word about this from your doctor. I also suffered severe gallbladder damage that not only damaged my Liver but also my Pancreas and am now the proud owner of chronic pancreatitis….all due to the consumption of HFCS.
A doctor at U of M told me that over 60% of Americans have Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Syndrome but was not sure why.( I have a difficult time calling a person like that a “doctor”. )

Farmers ( and Americans in general ) are fatter because they have Liver damage. Please research this to understand what is actually happening to our health through eating toxic food.

I think a major problem contributing to obesity with farmers and society in general is heating and air conditioning. We burn a large amount of calories to keep warm or cool. Today everything is air conditioned in the summer so you never have to burn calories to sweat. Most people get into their air conditioned cars and drive to their air conditioned work and complain if they feel hot the 30 seconds they walk from the car to the outside. The other day I was at a doctor’s office and some of the reception staff were wearing sweaters and complaining they were cold because the air conditioning was blasting! Also you rarely see people with theri car windows down anymore even when it is pleasant outside (however they will pay a premium for a convertible!). I loved the “455” (4 windows down going 55mph) air conditioning as a kid (and as a matter of fact still do). Finally, I have friends who think it makes sense to have the heat set in the winter so they can wear shorts when it is freezing outside (no burning calories to keep warm). I think that if more people worked (i.e. chopped wood) to heat their homes they would be more judicious with heating. In fact they would burn more calories providing heat by chopping wood and by not having tropical temperatures in the home throughout the winter. So to help society battle obesity I say turn off the air conditioner, open the windows, and turn down the heat in winter!

Some of the farmers around here are still thin. It’s the help that are fat.

Gene i’ve been a truck driver/small farmer for the last 20+ years . Before that i worked on a 100+ sow hog farm. I also worked out 5 nights a week and would walk1/2-3-4 miles a night or ride a bike that distance to relax and calm my restless leg. I fell fueling an overhead gas tank and hit the round metal cow tank used as a containment unit then actually according to witnesses bounced onto the hot asphalt writhing in pain. After climbing back into my tank wagon and driving myself back to the yard i went to a work clinic where they told me it was just a flesh would and had ‘t hurt anything . I never realized it but it started me into severe spinal stenosis . The “farmers /truckers usual lower aching back. SLowly without realizing it between that and the long days i put in driving a truck and living in the city with no safe place to walk i went from 200 # s to about 390+#s . I taught myself to drive a semi and drove regionly which is pretty much over the road , , You start eating out of boredom and for the sugar and caffeine to stay awake .So it happens so slowly that i didnt realize my ability to walk very far was slipping away.No i am in the process of filing for disability because i can walk or stand for just 5 minutes then have to sit for 5-10 to ease the pressure and pain on my back. So the 30 acre farm ive bought sits with weeds and trees growing up in it since i bought it. {it”s 80-100 miles away } and when i can work on my dream that i had i have to have the tractor or a 5 gallon bucket around to sit on . Plus since no buildings in usable condition and the trailor i had moved there at great exspense that they just got off the road and unhooked and left instead of placing where it should so everytime i go i am either weedeating the drive to get into the place or working on the machinery to get it running. THats how this farmer went from being a skinny little kid to a 400 pounder. Sorry so long but i know all of us small farmers on here like the details. lol

Gene, I know you meant this tongue in cheek, but the piece of the equation no one is really talking about is obesogens — the chemicals in our food, water and air, not to mention many of the items we come into contact with on a daily basis, such as wallpaper, tile and vinyl blinds. The key is that it’s not just humans who are getting fatter, but animals, including the wild ones. Read this article for a hair-curling experience: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3279464/

I’ll start with three quotes that you might find relevant, then I’ll share some of my own experience:

“In Framingham, Massachusetts, the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower people’s serum cholesterol. . . we found that the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories weighed the least and were the most physically active.”

William Castelli, MD, Director,
The Framingham Study

“The diet-heart hypothesis has been repeatedly shown to be wrong, and yet, for complicated reasons of pride, profit and prejudice, the hypothesis continues to be exploited by scientists, fund-raising enterprises, food companies and even governmental agencies. The public is being deceived by the greatest health scam of the century.”

George Mann, SsD, MD, Former Co-Director,
The Framingham Study

“An analysis of cholesterol values . . . in 1,700 patients with atherosclerotic disease revealed no definite correlation between serum cholesterol levels and the nature and extent of atherosclerotic disease.”

Michael DeBakey, MD,
Famous heart surgeon

For over 40 years I was a low-fat, high-complex carb vegetarian doing everything right according to the wisdom of the time. All though the 70s and 80s I worked in health food stores and read all the nutrient information, ate lots of fruits and veggies, got my fuel from healthy organic whole grains, bread, pasta and stayed away from the “bad stuff” such as saturated fats from animals and so on. Well ok. That gave me IBS, arthritis, high blood pressure, serious belly fat, wrecked my teeth, made me pre-diabetic and gave me a massive heart attack that killed me at the ripe old age of 57.

They brought me back of course, but I was utterly baffled. How the hell did THAT happen. During my recovery (took about 18 months, I was weak as a fresh-born baby) I had a lot of time to research and eventually I stumbled on conversations about the lipid hypothesis. Naturaly I decided to test it out. I started with bacon. If you have a half hour I will gladly tell you all about the instant bliss that first half pound of bacon brought me. My body was starved for those nutrients.

It took me about 3 years to make the switch, constantly testing, checking my blood chemistry and watching what was going on in my body. Now I am a dedicated primal eater, eating very much like my grandfather who was a farmer, skinny as a rail and who died at the age of 104.

For those who are interested in the science (which at this point is both robust and inarguable) I would highly recommend the book by Nora Gedgaudas, “Primal Body, Primal Mind” which is available from Amazon or better yet, your local book store. That’s become my go to source about nutrition that really works.

By the way, I know insulin-dependent diabetics who no longer take meds at all, not even insulin anymore. They just eat very low carb, (less than 15 grams per day) moderate protein and very high fat. Remember, obesity is nothing more than metabolic starvation – people starving for fat and instead feeding themselves carbs.

In my own case, I lost 50 pounds as soon as I stopped eating cereal grains, bread, pasta, and cut all sugar from my food supply entirely. I get about 70 percent or more of my daily calories from animal fats (grass-fed on farms within a few miles of where I live in Central Maine). I eat birds, fish, meat, eggs and dairy. My total cholesterol was 168 at last check. Triglycerides are around 42. A1c is 5.6, BP is 70 over 110, blood glucose is between 74 and 85 regardless of when I ate last – 20 minutes ago or 12 hours. I’m 64 and can bench press 225 9 times, tho I’m not a weight lifter, just what I discovered while at a friend’s house who is. I heat with wood so I chop wood and carry water, shovel snow, mow lawns, garden a bit, walk about 45 minutes a day year round. I’m headed for my grandpa’s life span. Eating lots of fat and meat I suspect I might just make it.

For two million years our ancestors ate meat and fat, with some small amount of plants as medicine or garnish. Then 10,000 years ago or so some knucklehead discovered monocropping of cereal grains and human culture and health took a nose-dive from which damned few of us have ever recovered. And nowadays, as soon as we get back on track eating animals as we evolved, nearly all of our health problems just vanish. It’s amazing to me. All these years of failing health and I could have just listened to me ole grandad when he said, “Ayuh, vegetables are just God’s way of helping us eat more fat.” as he ladled the fresh bacon grease and butter onto his fiddleheads… 🙂

Gene, your comments about the Amish father finding the easier jobs on the farm hit home with me. I’m a female home farmer. I find as I get older I rely more and more on my grand kids and the kid down the street to help me with the heavier work. Perhaps if I’d chosen the same kind of work and been born way back when I wouldn’t have the weight problem I do now.
I remember my father leaning on the hoe and giving orders as his six children did the weeding and watering in our many gardens. I never saw him bend over to pull a weed! I was a little round in those days too.
As for Chris’ comment about the aliens….well, I’m thinking maybe those aliens have big shares in McDonald’s.

A good friends use to make this same observation through photographs of farmers in the 1920s and 1930s as compared to today’s farmers. The connection between technology and exercise is often obvious in the photos too. Today’s farmers are often photographed next to their tractors or combines whereas farmers in the 20s and 30s were often photographed with shovels, hoes, and other hand tools in their hands. Another contrast is that today’s farmers are typically photographed alone, whereas in much older photos the farmers tend to be in groups, sometime multigenerational.

Maybe “better living through modern chemistry” has allowed us to live longer, consume more highly processed food and on average get larger with age?….just a thought.

When my wife had to switch to a gluten free diet (which means I did as well) our weight, triglycerides, and total cholesterol dropped like a rock! I am sure some of it is living longer and less physical exercise but I will bet the American diet is to blame. Most farmers I know don’t grow what they eat anymore. A book by Wendell Berry I am reading expounds on that very subject.

Gene, all of my old neighbors whose fathers were whip-thin are now Walmart-Fat. They still eat like they are going to go out and shock wheat or clean heifer pens with a fork. What really strikes me is photos of crowds of men (baseball games, city streets) from the 1940s and 50s. It is difficult to find a single overweight person in the photos.
I have an acreage, a garden and I train horses and hand clean their stalls but I still have to watch my weight constantly. We just do not work ourselves to exhaustion from sunup to sundown anymore. I think that is a good thing, since my father was old at 55. So, here is the conundrum: we are all obese, supposedly in poor health, but we are all living longer.
Maybe some Alien race is watching us, slowly fattening us up for the eventual recipe.

There are some people who believe that eating “fatty foods” and “lard and butter” are actually healthier for us than eating grains. Instead of being an inscrutable mystery, perhaps the fact that these farmers remained skinny while eating such foods actually supports this hypothesis? Search for “Paleo” or “Primal” diets to learn more.

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