Burlap- a product we couldn’t do without

By Rick Houser – 

It seems like almost every time I look back to my days on the farm, one thing seems to always appear in the picture. This thing leaves me with one major question and that is just how we would have survived without it. I am talking about burlap!
Yes, I said burlap. Not only did we bag our livestock feed in it, but burlap had as many purposes as say WD 40 or Duck Tape. Yes, burlap, that coarse and somewhat abrasive material that is also strong and able to endure a lot of abuse. For me burlap began at the Farm Bureau in the form of bags to put our milled feed in. These bags originally came from the different supplements that are mixed with your corn as it is being ground. With deliveries of molasses, malt, minerals, and supplements, the Farm Bureau accumulated many burlap bags and as one was emptied their customers were given the bags and before the gift was completed it was filled with about sixty pounds of ground corn to take home. To the best of my knowledge that was where all of our bags came from.
These bags were kept safe as they were a reusable item and since the cost was nothing they had a great value. Sadly though as time passed on the bag would weardown and eventually become victim to mice eating their way through to get a belly full of cow feed.
The thing is that even if they got too riddled to hold feed, burlap bags could still continue to be of use. In tobacco season the old bags were folded double and as we pulled tobacco plants from the seed beds to be set in the field, they were wrapped in burlap bundles. The old bags worked perfectly for this chore. As a matter of fact, when the seed beds were just beginning to sprout tobacco plants, we would have to work our way on to the seed beds without damage, so a burlap bag would be filled with very clean straw and we would lay upon them and they protected the plants. For many years our tractors had metal seats that came with no padding. So a burlap bag and maybe an old cushion or a couple of more older burlap bags would be stuffed in the bag to give the driver some “rear-end” protection as he would spend many long days bouncing over the fields.
I know we raised a lot of potatoes and potatoes came in 100-pound burlap bags. It seems we would buy two bags a year. These bags were as useful as the ones from the mill and probably where the sack race got its name. There were so many things I have seen done with burlap bags or even just parts of them. When the Marshall Brothers and I decided to go into the walnut and hickory nut business, we collated the nuts in the bags. Why even when Herb, Charlie and I decided to make some money picking up refundable bottles, just what do you think we put those bottles in? Why, burlap bags of course!
We raised a lot of cattle and a lot of hogs, along with some chickens. Between 40 head of cattle and 30 head of hogs and between 60 and 100 chickens, we were going to the mill so we called the Farm Bureau as many as three times in a week. For us that was over 7,000 pounds of corn. Add the supplements and you might have almost another thousand pounds. A bag would hold 60 pounds easily. That would figure to over 138 burlap bags put to use, so we always had a generous supply of burlap. If something needed carried, the odds were it was carried in a burlap bag. Think of just about any need and fill in the blank with burlap. Strong and durable and really didn’t come at any cost at that time.
Burlap became a product I don’t think we could have survived without, but it had worked its way so much into our everyday work, that in truth we couldn’t survive without it. It is funny in a way as burlap is made from a plant named Jute that grows only in India and Indonesia. The British saw how useful it was and built the first factory to make it in large production in 1855. From then on it flourished. That is until the mid to late 1970’s. That was when bags began to appear almost looking like burlap but actually made from a petroleum product. This was extremely cheaper and took burlap’s place in the feed mills and areas like that.
I know I hung onto the burlap as long as I could. My Great Uncle Roy stopped by one day and handed me a long sewing needle that was made to mend burlap. He told me to use it as long as I needed it but please return it when I was done. It seemed I was mending endlessly but even after I stopped buying bags at .30 cents each and they wore out, I finally gave in and took up using the plastic bags. I didn’t care for them but they didn’t cost.
These days burlap is still around and can be found in craft stores and garden centers where it is used to ball the roots of trees and shrubs. But even though the major need for burlap left us nearly 40 years ago I will say it is safe that on any farm I can walk around, I will find a burlap bag still being put to some form of use. I once cut holes in a bag and tied it on me as I was going to go trick or treating as a scarecrow but almost itched to death before I was done trying it on. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was wrong.
Rick Houser grew up on a farm near Moscow in Clermont County and loves to share stories about his youth and other topics. If you would care to hear more stories pick up his books “There are Places I Remember” or just out Memories ARE From the Heart”. He may be reached at houser734@yahoo.com.