Farming from the Heart Livelihoods that Hinge on the Land


by Jigs Gardner of Essex, New York

The word ‘husband’ means master of the house, a married man, tiller of the soil, householder, a steward, and ‘husbandry’ is the management of domestic affairs, domestic economy, frugality, thrift.

From the beginning, when I used a scythe to mow the three tons of hay I needed to feed our one cow through the winter, to the present day, when I mow as much as 30 tons with two horses, I have striven, within the limits of my technology, to make the best hay I can. The grass must be cut when the blossom is still ‘in the boot’, that is in bud, enfolded within a leaf, when the whole plant is tender and sweet, as nutritious as it will ever be. The optimum moment, however, is but a moment, and every day thereafter the grass loses value as the stem lengthens to push the opened flower above the leaves, the flower goes to seed, the leaves wither, the plant becomes dry and stalky, unpalatable roughage. My idea is to mow the grass at its optimum, to dry it quickly, avoiding rain, mold, and bleaching by the sun, and to get it into the haymow without shattering and wasting the leaves.

My own tiny effort mimics a larger one: in the 55 years that I have observed farming, one technique after another has been developed to preserve the mown grass in a condition as close as possible to its freshly-mown state, from barn driers to hay conditioners to grass silage, and the achievements are impressive.

Exactly when this conception of hay quality became conventional wisdom among American farmers I do not know, but certainly by the 1920s because every farmer I worked for, most of whom began their careers in that decade, knew it, and I encountered only a few old-timers in Vermont who held to the view that grass increased in value with age. The practices of individuals will vary, of course, depending on weather, temperament, circumstance, and technology, but it never occurred to me that one day I would be farming in a place where the modern conventional view was regarded with scorn and contempt.

We were objects of much curiosity when we moved to Cape Breton Island in 1971, and people from miles around came to see what we were up to – and to comment thereon. It appeared that everything we were doing was destined to fail: tomatoes would never ripen here, and as for fancy stuff like peppers and celery! They smiled with pity. Jersey cows? Not a chance. Purebred cattle like that were too delicate to stand Cape Breton winters. But the staggerer was their vehement response to our June haying: That stuff is too green! You’ll never dry that! You’ll have to burn it or throw it over the bank!

Secure enough in my knowledge not to be daunted by such opinions, I was nevertheless, astonished and curious. Why did Cape Bretoners think this way? It took me some time, years I suppose, before I thought I had the answers, and I learned them not only by paying close attention to the farming I saw around me, but by my own struggle with the Island’s climate and soil.

Commercial agriculture, farming deliberately and consistently for a market, was never very big on Cape Breton, and it barely exists today. The dominant agricultural regime was to be found on the thousands of subsistence farms which produced enough to provide for the modest needs of the large families that worked them, with some local sales of what could be spared from home consumption – eggs, cream, butter, meat, etc. The major difference between these two forms stems from the fact that the commercial farmer has to meet the demands of the marketplace, while the subsistence farmer needs to satisfy only his family, and a few other people known to him. The buyers in the marketplace, distant and unknown, have no ties to the farmer, they care only about the product, and they can be very finicky. Competing with other farmers, he must meet the market’s demand, and he must do so as efficiently as possible, making a profit but keeping his costs down. Driven simultaneously to improve his product and cheapen his methods, the commercial farmer is forced to be receptive to fresh thinking and new ideas. For him, farming is a developing process. On the other hand, while individual subsistence farmers strive to do better, they have no strong incentive to do so, and their situation in a community of subsistence farmers is very anti-innovation, static, traditional, strongly conformist (How often have I heard Cape Bretoners say, “It was good enough for my father and grandfather, so I guess it’s good enough for me!”). It is all too easy to produce something that’s “good enough,” that “will do,” something that will pass with an undiscriminating, undemanding audience. The farmers on the Island worked hard, and within the limitations of their methods and outlook, ran their farms well. Most places were conscientiously maintained – fields mown to the edges, fences kept up, buildings regularly repaired. The decline of this regime began at the turn of the century, continuing gradually until the 1950s when, with the dying off of the last members of the last generation which had grown up in that regime when it was still self-confident, the decline became precipitate.

By the time we appeared, a diminished number of subsistence farms still existed – nearly everyone in the area kept a few cows, a horse, a pig, and some hens – but they were decrepit, ruinous remnants. Nevertheless, the basic pattern of Cape Breton farming could be discerned; what went on might be a sloppy version of past practices, but inadequate performance could not obscure the practice itself. The methods and their underlying principles were the same now as then. What we saw around us was not some alien, degenerate agriculture unrelated to a past Golden Age. It was all of a piece. Even those farms are almost completely gone now, which is why I use the past tense to describe a scene that was common as recently as 20 years ago.

Cape Bretoners hayed late, often beginning just as we were finishing. It is rarely feasible to start here before the middle of June, but it was customary to wait another month, and that was an improvement over the past, when it was common to begin in August. We found haying records of the 1930s and ‘40s penciled on a partition in a nearby derelict barn, and the earliest date was August 7th. Because the hay was mown so late, when it was tall and stalky, there was a lot of it (Cape Bretoners still judge hay by its height) and they fed it out with a free hand. They had to, it was so poor, had such negligible food value – two percent protein would be absolute tops – that cows had to eat a lot of it. The cattle stood knee-deep in hay in the stables, and what they didn’t eat was used as bedding under them.

The cattle that could live on such a diet were unlike any I had ever seen, all sizes and shapes and colors, rawboned, coarse, with thick skins and heavy, rough coats; unapproachable, they seemed hardly domesticated. But they were tough, they could survive on virtually worthless hay that my cows wouldn’t look at, they could stand the long, damp winters in lice-infested dirty stables without windows, they could be turned out to water at a creek a quarter mile from the barn on a January day during a snowstorm. It should not surprise that they gave little milk, and weren’t very good for beef, either.

I once met a drover who had been buying and selling animals all over the Island for nearly 50 years, and we got to talking about the quality of the local cattle. “A barn full o’cows, and not enough milk for the tea!” was his summary comment. But they sure were easy to keep.

And that, I think, explains the agricultural regime. In such a marginal environment it is very hard to farm. Growing nutritious forage is difficult enough; making it into hay, contending with the rain and wind, can be heartbreaking. Whereas if you cut the hay late, there’s plenty of it, and it’s almost dry when you mow it so you can just throw it in the haymow and zut! there’s the major farming job of the year done, thank God. And so on down the line with the other retrograde practices. There’s more to it, of course, ignorance for one thing, and the surly peasant’s resistance to new ideas from outside, stubborn suspicion and mistrust, and I think there was another, subtler factor involved: To take pains with farming, to strive year after year to produce the finest hay possible, to take pride in handsome, well cared for cattle requires a profound love of farming that was common in Vermont but which I have never seen here. Perhaps it has to do with their past: The Highland Scots were not farmers, and that role was thrust upon them, whether they like it or not, when they arrived here. But I think it also derives from the grudging quality of the land. No matter what you do or how much labor you put into it, the results are disappointing, the rewards are thin, the farmer’s spirit is sapped. No wonder, then, if the people grew into a grudging attitude toward farming and its demands.

In Vermont we rented fields or were given standing hay to mow, neglected places that no farmer wanted to bother with, but which grew good hay, clover and timothy, and they responded well to manure and lime. Our farm in the Cape Breton Backlands was another story – how different we were yet to discover. Most of the fields had been regularly mown, but there had been no animals on the place for eight years, and for a considerable time before that the manure had not been spread at all, just dumped outside around the barn where it lay to a depth of two to three feet, covered with weeds. The grass in the fields was very thin and weedy. The remedy, based on our Vermont experience, seemed obvious; dig up all that old manure and spread it on the fields, along with the manure from our livestock, plus tons of lime, and watch the grass grow. We had no idea how poor the soil was. Later, when I began to plow the land, I discovered places where the plow would go no deeper than four inches and the topsoil was only a thin dark smear at the grass roots. Despite our efforts, the fields did not visibly respond, though the food value of the hay certainly increased, because the cows needed far less of it. This was a gain, but the fields were still unproductive.

To make up the deficit I decided, very stupidly, to do as we had done in the past – mow neglected fields elsewhere, some as far as 15 miles away. None of these places had been mown in years and they were in dreadful shape, full of goldenrod, wild raspberries, small apple trees, bottles and cans and old boots, parts of cars, cones and tires. The difficulties involved in mowing such places, in tending hay several miles away from our farm, and in getting it home – and all this with horses – as well as the poor quality of the hay, make this an experience I hate to recall; I shake my head at my stupidity that caused so much hardship for all of us. We did it for a few years, and only the unstinting labor of our wonderful children made it possible.

Clearly, we had to grow more and better hay on our farm, and since there was nothing more to be gained by continuing to manure unproductive native grasses, that meant plowing and seeding. The only plowing I had done, using a walking plow, was the several gardens, totaling no more than an acre, but by the time I made up my mind to plow the fields I had acquired an old sulky plow, which I have used ever since. Learning to plow with horses, using a walking plow or sulky, was not easy for me, and it has probably caused me nearly as much frustration and heartache as satisfaction, but it has meant a great deal to me, and I have learned much from the task, as I hope the following pages will show.

Speed the Plow
plow, plough n. 2. figuratively, tillage; culture of the earth; agriculture.
Johnson, cf. Century Cyclopedia
November dusk:
plowman’s call, jingling bells,
plodding hooves
faintly heard in thickening twilight.

Nothing in farming satisfies me so much as good plowing. When all is well – the horses pulling steadily, the plow set right, the furrow slice flowing along the moldboard, turning over to unroll behind me a thick brown ribbon of soil, strip laid against strip precisely, all across the fields – then my content is as profound as anything can be in my farming life.

I know that the furrow banks will lie well – exposed to the winter weather, freezing and thawing, crumbling in spring so that the work of discing, smoothing, and seeding will be made easier; the seed bed will be fine and mellow; the seed will germinate profusely, and there will be a good crop – insofar, of course, as my efforts will affect the result.

Plowing is the primal agricultural act, the decisive disturbance of the land and its natural processes in order to introduce the artificial regime of agriculture. To abstain from plowing is to accept merely what the land will yield of itself, but when I turn the sod, I am committing all my powers to a struggle with the land, to make my human mark on it, to make the land grow something it would never produce otherwise, to recreate the original act of agriculture.

When I hitch to the plow and turn the horses’ heads towards the fields, I feel the apprehensive excitement of facing a hard contest, one which I myself have initiated, knowing that if I would be what I hope I am, I could not do otherwise, could not shirk the contest, could not avoid beginning it.

I plow down native wild grasses – low in protein, productivity, palatability – replacing them with cultivated grasses and legumes, timothy and trefoil, and orchard grass to make the land more productive, to better feed the livestock, ultimately to provide more for myself and my family. With clover and trefoil, in our pastures and hayfields, for instance, our cows give more and richer milk, so more butter and cheese. At a cost, naturally, the cost of creation (plowing, seeding, etc.) and maintenance.

Because, unlike the native wild grasses whose demands upon the environment are small (hence, yield and food value are small), the cultivars need enrichment, in this case lime and manure and fertilizer, if they are to grow successfully in competition with tough native plants. Without care, new fields soon become ‘old fields’ reclaimed by indigenous plants, a few beleaguered cultivars remaining among their better-adapted competition. Agriculture is basically the creation and maintenance of artificial conditions of productivity.

You’ve got to plow a deeper furrow.
– New England exhortation.

If good plowing is such a satisfying act, nothing drives me to despair like bad plowing – and I’ve done plenty of it. There are the consequences: the hours of difficult discing to look forward to next spring, the poor seed bed, the weed-choked, unproductive field. One round lost to nature, and all my own fault.

Worse, however, is my sense of failure at the crucial act of farming, with the accompanying feelings of ignorance, stupidity, and inadequacy. Once, a few years ago, I began so badly that the first field looked as if it had been struck repeatedly by lightning, with sods flung here and there, half-opened furrows, rolled-up furrows, shallow furrows, narrow and wide ones, every form of land wreckage. I tried every adjustment I could find on the sulky plow, pulled every lever, shifted the horses on the pole, all for naught.

I asked one of my neighbors, noted as a plowman, for his advice, and he came and looked at the plow and watched me try to work with it, but he couldn’t help me. Having used only walking plows or tractors, he was unable to apply his knowledge to a sulky plow, even though the dynamics are essentially the same, whether the plowman walks behind the plow, rides over it, or sits on a tractor in front of it. Undoubtedly, he could feel the dynamics as he plowed, but he had no conscious knowledge of them, at least none that he could articulate and communicate to me. He did his best, but in the end he shook his head and went away.

So I struggled on, going out to the field every morning with desperation in my heart. Eventually, after a week of tinkering, trying this and that with no real idea of what I was doing, I improved the plowing to a barely acceptable level, but the whole experience was unsatisfying. I did not know what I had done to make the plowing so bad, and I understood very little of what I had done to improve it. I was in the dark, ignorant of something that meant a great deal to me.

‘Sir, (said he) a desire of knowledge is the natural
feeling of mankind; and every human being whose
mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all
that he has to get knowledge.’

– Boswell’s Johnson

Originally, there must’ve been a manual that went with the plow, I thought, so when snow had covered my mistakes, I took a chance and wrote to International Harvester in Chicago about it, and that led to a lengthy correspondence with the Corporate Archivist. The biggest problem was identifying the plow model, but finally I picked it out of a 1935 sales catalog: the McCormick- Deering Number 9 Sulky Plow, and the long-awaited manual soon followed. Excitedly, I sat at the kitchen table and pored over its few pages; I went out to the machinery shed, manual in hand, and stared at the plow – but I could see it would not be enough. Oh, it would be a help, but the manual presupposed a certain amount of plowing knowledge, as well as mechanical knowledge, most of which was beyond me. Well, I thought, I’ll do my best with it, I’ll wrestle with both the manual and plow when the time comes, and I put the problem in the back of my mind for fall retrieval.

Before then, however, in August, there appeared a new neighbor from Ontario who owned a book with a whole chapter on sulky plowing, and not only that, he himself knew something about it. When plowing time came in November, he generously helped me set up and adjust the plow.

Next morning, when I pulled the lever that lowered the plowshare to the ground, I knew the decisive moment had come. Would the manual, the book, and the friend prove equal to the task of making me a plowman again? I called to the horses, and at once the coulter cut into the sod, the plow point slipped beneath the ground, the furrow slice rose firmly on the moldboard and turned over smoothly, rolling out behind me in a continuous strip of brown earth. Keeping the horses straight, glancing anxiously behind me at the furrow bank, I drove on steadily to the end of the field. And there I sat, breathing deeply, looking back at the long, straight, unbroken furrow. I wanted to kiss the horses, the plow, the earth, anything in sight. I was plowing again, plowing as a man should plow. I was restored to a less ignominious role in my struggle with nature, and I knew what I was doing.

Our eldest son, Seth, came home for a visit the night before I was about to begin the ridge and flat in the Pond Pasture across from the house, and he came with me when I went out to plow next morning. A loamy, deep soil, it was much easier to plow than the heavy clay hayfield, and we — the horses and I — were enjoying it, moving right along. Seth walking behind to straighten kinks in the furrow banks, when I began to feel guilty, thinking I wasn’t being fair to Seth, especially since he showed such interest in the work. I asked him if he’d like to try it for awhile. Well, maybe. So we changed places—and that was the last plowing I did until Seth left. He loved it, and within an hour he had mastered all the adjustments and quirks of the machine; in three days he learned as much about plowing as I had learned in years.

The facility of technique, the practical ability of our children amazes me, perhaps because I am such a duffer myself. But by any standard, not just my low one, they are all tremendously skilled workers. They have a quickness of intelligence in regard to the things of this visible world that astonishes and delights me. Whereas the simplest technical explanation baffles me, my children follow such matters eagerly, bright-eyed and confident. Of course, they were born to it, having had to work hard in the fields and woods from their earliest years, while I did not begin until I was 29, and maybe that has made all the difference.

What I know of practical matters I have had to learn, often with great difficulty, by myself, painfully trying this and that, picking up clues, as with the plowing, wherever I can. I remember, shortly after buying our first horse, looking through an old geography book with Jesse, our second son, when we came across a picture of a mule in harness. We both saw at once that we’d been putting our horse collar on upside down!

Consequently, I have no prejudices about knowledge – I’ll take it wherever I can find it. Once, a neighbor’s son paid us a visit one winter afternoon, and at one point he asked me sneeringly if I were a “book farmer or a real farmer.” As I tried to explain to the lout the value of knowledge in itself, irrespective of its source, I recalled his father’s farm, a real farm by local standards: no manure or lime is spread on the fields, which are, however, tastefully edged with junk cars; haying begins in August; he cuts one less swathe each year, so the woods encroach on the fields; the woods are a cutover waste. It is only those whose ignorance is bottomless who know so much that they can afford to be choosy about their sources of knowledge.

Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an
engineer, but he is all… In the right state
[the scholar] is Man Thinking.

– Emerson

Too often, country people are prejudiced against book learning out of envy and dislike: because the educated are often arrogant, snobbish, and absurdly impractical; because book learning seems to be the province of rich and powerful; because the educated often seem so glibly superior. Then it is difficult to accept it for what it is, another form of knowledge which expands the horizons of our practical learning.

Just as often, of course, and with far less excuse, the educated are prejudiced against practical knowledge. I have known this question from both sides, having modest claims on learning in both spheres, but my amphibious position has its disadvantages because each side seems to regard me as a member of the opposite camp. So my neighbors, like the sneering young man, regard me, when they’re feeling extra charitable, as an impractical eccentric, while educated visitors look down upon me as a benighted peasant. Because I have some book learning, I cannot possibly know how to farm; because I shovel manure and milk cows, obviously I have no culture and probably no intellect at all. On the whole, however, I count myself lucky, for I have been able, in ways not easily available to most men, to combine the so-called intellectual life with the so-called practical life, thus greatly enriching my entire outlook, fulfilling Emerson’s idea of the scholar.

All systems in the world, if unattended, tend
steadily towards a state of disorder and

– Life, Simpson, Pettendrigh, & Tiffany

As I get older and stiffer and perhaps subtler and surely more wrinkled and scarred, I begin to see my struggle with nature in a new light, although there is a certain absurdity in thinking of a contest with the entity of which we are merely a small part. The stream of life bears us onwards, willy nilly. Nevertheless, if we have any self-respect, we do struggle. Just as I had to master my plowing problems, so we would keep the fields clear of brush, repair the disused barns, fix fences that no longer enclose anything, and we do it, must do it, for the sake of ourselves, of our past, and of our future. Today, too much of the countryside shows, in its unkempt fields and sagging buildings, a sense of slackness, a lack of self-respect.

You needn’t tell me that the struggle naught availeth, that we age and die, and that change is the only universal truth — I know all that. But what of the world of our children and of their children? We pass on the task, whatever it might be. When I see an alder-choked field, I know someone has not kept faith with his forbears, and I fear his descendants will not keep faith with him.

Yes, and our children die, and their children, even unto the last generation, all the fields grow up to trees again, and all the barns collapse — I know that, too. But while we are here and can imagine a future, we gather knowledge, wherever and however we can find it, to make the struggle less one-sided. We learn to wage the contest more cleverly, ever more subtly, until we seem almost to be working with nature, creating the illusion, in rare examples, that we have even become potent forces of nature ourselves, like those old farmers, husbandmen who, with a touch or a word or a shrewd thought, calm the frightened horse, rejuvenate the dying tree, restore the barren ground.

Winter is upon us. The ground is iron-hard, but the first snow has not yet fallen. I look out the kitchen windows, across to the Pond Pasture ridge.

Dark furrows
etch the land
under a dark sky.

But enough hifalutin talk; what was the practical result?

In 1977, a sample of our hay was tested at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College. It was the most nutritious (18 percent protein) hay tested in the Province that year.

The deed bears out the words.