Before we get to Part II of Unsustainability, I suggest that you to this blog’s home page and check out Part I of this series. I promise its worth your time.
Here’s a quick recap: We all know the healing powers of nutrition, fresh air, sunlight. Despite this knowledge, treatment centers continue to serve highly processed foods with high fat content.
A model for the healing power of nutrition and farming, the former Fergus Falls State Hospital (FFSH/ MN Asylum) operated a self-sustaining farm from 1891 to 1969. But in the 1950s, the treatment philosophy began to shift from moral treatment’s focus on rehabilitation to medication.
Despite the many benefits of the farm, it closed in 1969. According to the Otter Tail Record, closing the farm “evoked only gloomy nostalgia and little opposition from the community,” because of cataclysmic shifts in both treatment philosophy and economic trends in the 1960s. Fewer patients were staying at the hospital full time, in part due to the increasing use of shock therapy and tranquilizer medications.
This ad for a tranquilizer captures the power of tranquilizers: “Patients hospitalized for many years…are now at home.” They made successful recovery and treatment a reality for people who may have otherwise been lifelong patients. People with mental illnesses could lead could live fuller, more independent lives in the community than in the hospital (although this is a post for another day).
The hospital had around 2000 patients in the 1930s, then dipped down to less than 1000 patients in the 1960s. This was the first time that the hospital had seen a decline in its entire history. Existing patients were strained with a higher work load so the hospital had to hire people just to help keep up with the farm.
Another reason the farm closed was because of urbanization, the communal, aggregate lifestyle was becoming a whimsical relic of the past. Farms were no longer a way of life for families, they were now growing to competitive factory operations.
Gone was the “off the vine” mentality. Instead of plucking vegetables from the family’s sunny garden, people picked packaged foods off grocery store shelves under the blinding of fluorescent lights.
People were seeking more than just food and shelter; they wanted opportunities, education, and leisure. Many saw felt that farm work was drudgery and hospital staff agreed farm work no longer therapy.
But the shift towards urbanization and preference for packaged foods, for convenience and ease also parallels people’s desire for a quick fix for mental health, for taking shortcuts and losing some humanity in the process.
A few years after I graduated from my residential treatment program, I ran into the cook Jamie at a gas station at 4 am. As I looked at the glossy hot dogs spinning in the glass case and the basket of rubbery apples, Jamie joked, “The food we serve here is more real than at that hospital.”
I didn’t remember the counselor’s names, group member’s names, other worker’s names. I remembered Jamie’s name. With a short bleach-blond hair, Jamie barely saw over the counter. She bought all of her clothes in the little boy’s section and dressed her three Chihuahuas in doll clothes and changed their diapers and cooked them gourmet dog food. I had been warned to get on her good side.
Before I left, I went to go say goodbye to Jamie. She was perched atop a tower of frozen foods, using them like a barstool, eating a salad over the counter. “Minnie, you scared the shit out of me,” she said.”I’m not supposed to bring my own lunch but I sure as hell won’t eat their food. I have to eat real food.”
All of us searching and clinging to what’s real, doing the best we can.
Fires also led to the demise of the FFSH farms, another suiting metaphors woven right into history. The horse barn was totally burned to the ground in 1915. Two patients committed arson in 1968. But the most striking fire to me was in 1936, when Faulty wiring destroyed a large cow barn. The barn was “so badly gutted it is worthless and will have to be torn down.”
Our current food system in mental health facilities and rehabs are faulty and flawed. We need nutrition groups and registered dieticians to educate patients about eating in recovery. We need to synchronize the food that we serve at these facilities with these recommendations rather than perpetuating toxic food environments. The current farm-to-table movement and increasing accessibility of organic foods gives me hope, that perhaps somewhere a state-run facility is harvesting their own food.
Up next: A special Halloween edition of Off-Her-Rocker about asylums as haunted houses.
Some folks requested that I post my resources, so here we go! I obtained many of these resources from Ottertail County Historical Society archives and sincerely thank the wonderful archivests who helped me begin this process. I arranged the resources here from the ones that I used the most to the least and it’s probably not proper APA but oh well, I will delve into this further as I do my thesis and meh, it’s a blog eh?
Leonard, Benjamin A. “The State Hospital Farm: A Model for the Future, Discontinued in the Past,” Otter Tail Record. 1998.
Borgen, Alvi. “Farm Tasks Provide Patient Therapy,” from The Fergus Falls Daily Journal, 1966.
Borgin, Alvi. “Institutional Farm Taking on New Role,” Fergus Falls Daily Journal, 1966.
Editorial. “Fire Distroys Large Cow Barn on State Hospital Farm.” Fergus Falls Daily Journal, 1940.
Photo credits: Top 3- MN Historical Society
Pill photo- Artist Unknown, Tumblr.
Last photo of area near former farm at FFSH: By me.