Food for Our Table

By Stephana Landwehr

As the daughter of a first generation German immigrant Missouri farmer in the 1940’s, our family always had plenty of salads, vegetables,  fruit and dairy food at our table.  I grew up working in the gardens and fields.  From my father, my mother, and aunt, I learned how to plant peas, beans, corn, and other vegetables and grains in rows, how to make compost, how to put some plants together and some in tiers to save space.  I learned how to spread animal and green manure, and how to mix certain plants with others.  We always had flowers mixed with the vegetable plants and large orchards for apples, pears, and peaches.  I grew up thinking this was the way all crop growing and raising food was done by farmers, but I always was interested in raising plants and food production.

Eventually, I was interested in German traditions and learned about German farming practices.  I discovered that these practices, which I learned as a youth, were unique to German farming.  Also, I learned that these practices were not only productive at that time, but are continued on today in best agricultural practices, including not only raising crops, but also soil conservation.

Some of the most interesting German practices I learned as an adult involved the history of German farming in Missouri.  One thing of special interest was the fact that German farmers were settling in the area of Missouri before the Louisiana Purchase.  According to  Houck, both France and Spain specifically encouraged German immigrant farmers to come to Missouri because they provided strength and stability to the settlements.  Most of the settlements were in southeastern Missouri along the rivers.  They were individual Germans, living in the settlements along with other nationalities.  Some were living in these settlements since the mid 1770’s.  Houck identifies German settlers by land grant documents including names, purpose of land granted, use, and occupations.  Louis Houck, A History of Missouri From the Earliest  Explorations and Settlements Until the Admission of the State Into the Union Vols. I, II, III. Chicago,  R.R. Donnelley, 1908.  They were not only involved in plant raising, but also processing grains at mills and mining salt.  One of the salt mines was owned by a community leader, Nicholas Burckhartt who was also a member of the state convention which established the Missouri Constitution in 1821.   

Two other Germans  very active at that time in southeast Missouri, were George Bollinger and Louis Lorimier, who both built water mills for grinding grain for flour.   

Most  often, at this time, other non-German farmers had diets only of meat and potatoes.  Potatoes were the only edible crop they grew.  Many also did not replenish the soil, and simply moved to other land where crops had not been grown and the soil had not been depleted.

Among the crops grown on these German farms were green vegetables,  like lettuce and spinach.  Even in the early days and when I was young,  in the 1940’s these German farmers inherently knew the importance of a balanced diet.  They raised cabbage, as a staple, but certainly not to the exclusion of other fruits and vegetables.  “German Food Customs and Traditions in the Missouri Ozarks”  Ozarks Watch, Vol. III. No 3. Winter 199.  In our family, we had large orchards for fruit.  There are some examples of early German production.   

Here are pictures from a 1920’s German farm children with their apples and watermelons.  They are Minnie Landwehr and her brothers, Louis, Ben, and Fred Landwehr, in Cole County Missouri.  Also, included were grapes.  They were raised at Herman, Missouri, especially.   Some descendants of those planted in the 1830’s are still growing in the gardens at Deutschheim in Herman.

Germans usually planted their gardens in plots of four squares with rows in each square, separated by about a foot or18 inches.  “Nineteenth Century German Gardening Practices,”Historical Gardener, Vol. 3, No 4; Vol. 4, Nos. 1 and 2, Winter 1994-Summer 1995.  Dr. Erin McCawley Wren.  Crops were strictly rotated from season to season among the four squares.  Most of the time, these plots had tiers of plants, with taller plants to the back with medium sized plants close to them, like green beans, and underground plants next.  The higher tiers.  They also used a technique called “Hugelkultur,” which was placing plants in elevated mounds or berms or in wooden boxes.  This is used by Master Gardeners today and recommended.  See for example, “Hugelkultur,” in News and Tribune, Jefferson City, Mo. April 19,2022.  They used plenty of fertilizer, including green and animal manure.  They used lime spreads as well, which restored and maintained productivity.  Most farms had a small garden, a kitchen garden, close to the back door of the house for easy meal preparation.  Other larger plots in fields produced greater volumne.  Crops such as apples and potatoes were preserved in underground cellars for winter use all year round.   These practices are recommended today.  Most of these early practices were carried out with hand tools.  

Here are some examples of 1920’s  German farm children with their garden tools.  Additional research and information can be found especially in  Herman and from the Missouri Extension Councils.