A tough winter, yes, but our ancestors had it worse

The winter of 2021-22 has been hard, in a variety of ways. But it pales in comparison to the hardships faced by our ancestors in the region's agriculture.

 A group of Black Angus cows stands in a field of corn stubble while snow falls.
The winter of 2021-22 has been difficult, but Jonathan Knutson argues that our ancestors had it worse, no matter how many blizzards or unusual world events we've experienced.
Shelby Chesnut / Grand Vale Creative LLC
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I saw them in my home growing up. I saw them on living room walls and mantles of some of the rural agriculturalists whom I interviewed through the years. And I know that quite a few Agweek readers, especially older ones, have their own framed photos of aged ancestors who helped to settle the Upper Midwest in the second half of the 19th century and first few decades of the 20th.

The hardships endured by those pioneers often are reflected in the photos. Look closely and you see faces seared by brutal weather and backs stooped by extreme physical labor. You also see pride and a sense of accomplishment, and deservedly so. But there's no denying that decades of fighting a low-tech, high-challenge world aged them prematurely. By modern standards, they appear to be in their late 70s or 80s — but in reality were two decades younger.

I think of those pioneers as the miserable winter of 2021-22 has ended, or nearly so. The weather alone made it a bad one: snowfall and bitter wind chill were relentless at times, putting special stress on ranchers and others who needed to work outside.

It wasn't only the weather that made this winter so difficult. The ongoing battle against COVID, the resurgence of inflation and high energy prices, continued nonsense about who really won the 2020 presidential election, the deplorable Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the detestable attempts by certain U.S. political and media figures to cast Putin and Russia as heroes and America and Ukraine as villains — these, too, worked to make this one of the worst winters in recent memory.

Not everybody agrees that our homesteading ancestors had it worse than we do. I once had a co-worker who insisted that people today face greater challenges. Modern life is more complicated and folks now are pulled in multiple directions, she argued.


There's truth in that, of course. But I'll gladly take a little extra complication in exchange for such niceties as washing machines, modern bathrooms and cars and tractors with electrical plug-ins. Though living close to nature has its charms, a fair amount of insulation from nature's downsides makes life easier and better.

True, there's a certain glamour and nobility attached to those early days: staunch men and women determined to overcome incredible odds and build a lasting way of life for themselves and their children. In my book, that's about as special as life gets. But the glamour and nobility came with a high failure rate and grinding physical work every single work.

Credit where it's due

Like all Agweek readers, I anxiously await the final end of winter. And like many of you, at least those of a similar age and background, I take a certain solace in knowing that winter was even more burdensome for homesteading ancestors — in my case, my great-grandparents Halvor and Mathea Knutson of North Dakota's Nelson County. I honor their sacrifices and accomplishments, especially as this long, difficult winter finally nears its end.

If you have pioneering ancestors — and many of you do — I respectfully suggest that you take a moment to honor them, too.

Opinion by Jonathan Knutson
Plain Living
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