LittleField Notes: Mower Chronicles
from issue: 44-3
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
Recipe for Breakfast
In the half-light of the early morning kitchen, grind a handful of beans for the coffee. Yes, use the hand grinder, nobody wants to hear the roar of the electric one at this hour. Pour the water, just shy of boiling, into the French press, stir and let steep four minutes while watching out the kitchen window as a doe and fawn walk haltingly across the mist shrouded pasture. When the four minutes are passed gently push down the plunger and fill your favorite mug. Grab a sweater, hat, basket and barn boots and slip out the back, being mindful not to let the door slam behind. Steaming cup of coffee in hand, walk down to the barn. A horse, probably Luna, will nicker sweetly when she hears your footsteps crunching on the gravel. Open the gate and let the horses out to graze in the upper field, the one where you just saw the deer. It’s too early to safely let the chickens out, but after checking their water and throwing them a scoop of oats to scratch at, slip into the henhouse and gather two freshly laid eggs. (While doing these simple tasks, be careful not to set your coffee cup on a fence post lest you forget it).
Walk back up the hill and into the garden. Open the greenhouses, trying not to pull every weed you see along the way — they’ll still be there for you later. Pick a nice ripe tomato and set it next to the eggs in the basket. Then grab the digging fork and dig out a few new potatoes. Wipe off the soil and put them too in the basket. With the sun just peeking up over the mountain, head back to the house, (don’t forget the coffee mug you set down under the blueberry bush when you rolled up the ends of the greenhouses).
Back in the kitchen pour a second cup of coffee to sip while you prepare breakfast. Set a burner to medium heat under a well oiled cast iron frying pan. Take one large potato, or two small ones, and grate them with a cheese grater. Put the grated potato in a bowl; rinse with water to remove the starch; transfer to a clean dish towel and ring out over the sink by twisting the towel up around the potato as tightly as possible; transfer to hot skillet, spreading in an even layer over the surface; salt and pepper generously.
Now start a second oiled pan to pre-heat. For this, I use a small one, though any size will work. Cut the tomato into generous slices and place in the pan. Salt and drizzle balsamic vinegar over the slices. Now turn your attention back to the potatoes. They are ready to flip when they are a lovely golden brown. After turning, reduce the heat, and cover with a lid. Flip the tomatoes when they just start to caramelize; they’ll look almost burnt. Continue to periodically work the potatoes in the pan.
Now put a piece of homemade sourdough bread in the toaster and set an oiled cast iron skillet on to medium-high heat. Have a lid and a small glass of water on hand. Crack two eggs into a bowl. By the time the toast has popped up and you’ve buttered it, the pan should be ready for the eggs. For this method of frying eggs the pan needs to be surprisingly hot, the oil will actually move to the center when sufficiently hot. These next movements need to happen fairly quickly: carefully (a broken yolk is a disaster) pour the eggs onto the pan from the bowl, pick up the lid in one hand and the glass of water in the other and pour something like a quarter of a cup of water directly on the pan and immediately put the lid on the skillet; steam should gush out from any fissures between the lid and skillet. Quickly remove the hashbrowns from the pan and put them on a plate. If the temperature is correct, after you’ve transferred the hash browns, the eggs should be cooked to perfection: the white completely done and the yolk still soft; no need to flip them over, the steam has done the work for you. Put the eggs on top of the hash browns, settle the tomatoes and toast along side, put some good homemade blackberry jam on the toast, refresh your coffee mug, and dive in. No matter whether you are digging post holes, fixing fence, following the plow, or manning a busy farmers market stand, this breakfast should keep you going strong until lunch. One final instruction: don’t spoil your fine breakfast by reading the news while you eat.
I was mowing a thistly, gnarly patch of pasture last August on a rubber tired number 9 mower that, despite a new seal was leaking oil like tears from a widow’s eyes. The Waterfall field is irregular in shape with one corner that comes to a point, necessitating at each pass a hard swing gee in order to come around on the other tack. At this juncture, on one particular pass, the cutter bar pinched in a slight depression in the ground. The mower began to fold up at the inner shoe as we came around. The bar was solidly wedged and was not responding to my pressure on the foot lever. Meanwhile the horses were doing exactly what they knew to do — swing gee and go. Everything hung in the balance for a bit less than a nanosecond, but something had to give, and suddenly, give it did — crack! the tongue burst in two. In the following nanosecond the startled horses jumped ahead while I at once sprang from the seat, and with a firm hand on the lines spoke a solid, “Whoa,” and all was still. Swallows sailed overhead, the river murmured, the horses stood stock still, hyper-alert but not panicked, awaiting my further instruction. I quietly told them their work was finished for the day, unhooked the tugs, removed the fore part of the fractured pole from the neck yoke, and we three walked the quarter mile back to the barn.
I bought this particular mower at auction a few years back. It sported a bit of a DuPont restoration, with fancy paint all around and a nifty little custom ‘backrest’ that I never put much stock in. The tongue too was painted, masking a core riddled with dry rot. After this incident I decided it was time to dig into the corner of the boneyard and drag out a spare #9 mower that I had never put into service. It lacked a tongue and needed a tuneup, but was otherwise serviceable. At nearly the same time I decided to do a single-horse mower conversion as well.
My proposed mower projects looked something like this: one mower decommissioned, another commissioned; two parts machines taken down and blended up to make one single-horse unit.
“History is nothing if not an epic tale of missed opportunities.” ~ Graydon Carter
A couple of years ago I had a chance to buy a one horse mower from friend Walt Bernard. I passed it up. I decided against the purchase in part because I was afraid I didn’t have a place to keep it sheltered. In this rain soaked climate it is essential that every piece of equipment on the farm be stored under cover. The incessant damp is merciless against exposed iron.
I also chose not to buy it because I was unsure how much I would actually use it. After all, I have a barn full of horses, and wouldn’t I just use a team whenever I need to do some mowing? Plus I only want to store and maintain equipment that I’m actually going to use.
It was only a couple of weeks later however, while lying awake in the middle of the night that I realized that actually yes, a single horse mower would be a mighty handy thing to have around. I thought how nice it would be for mowing cover crops in the tight confines of the garden. Plus it would allow for more opportunities for working our Suffolk stallion, Donald. I can, and have, worked him with other horses, including mares, but unless the work is steady, driving studs with other horses is always a challenge. I have enough well matched teams in my barn that it is not usually necessary to team him up with others. Thus, by default, he has become my go-to single-horse. The work provides some exercise, and reminds him that he is a work horse after all. Yes, I thought, a single horse mower would fit nicely into my program, and with a bit of shuffling and reorganizing, I could certainly find a dry place to store it. I emailed Walt right away, saying that if the mower wasn’t spoken for, I would take it. Naturally, I was too late. The mower had sold. I filed it under “missed opportunities disguised as prudence,” and wished myself better luck next time.
I sort of moped around for a few months thinking of missed opportunities every time I hitched a team to a mower. Then, while doing something completely unrelated, I realized one fall day not too long ago, while standing in the boneyard in the farthest corner of the machine shed, that I could, without too much trouble, take my two John Deere #4 parts mowers and transform them into one single-horse outfit.
Unlike most projects, which seem to increase in complexity and expense once the work is begun, this conversion was actually fairly straightforward, the reality being simpler than the idea. I already possessed in fact, two key elements for a successful conversion in the form of the two parts mowers: a stock John Deere tongue truck on one, and a 4 ft cutter bar on the other, this one having been previously cut down from a five footer for use with fjords. It seemed simple enough: pull the tongue truck from one mower, mount it on the mower with the short cutter bar, build a set of shafts, attach a single tree, and go.
The early commercial offerings of one horse mowers generally did not utilize a tongue-truck. So while a tongue-truck is not necessary, using one did make this conversion simpler. The side draft rod could stay in place and I wouldn’t have to do any tricky bracketing. I debated about what shafts to use and how best to attach them. In the end I decided to bolt an oak evener with single trees removed to the plate on which the tongue would have originally attached. I then built a set of shafts from alder poles, reinforced at the corners with steel plate, and bolted this to the evener. I mounted a steel single-tree in the bracket intended originally for a double tree and this completed the conversion.
I started and finished the project in a single day, and mowed a rye/vetch cover crop in the garden before chore time. It worked so slick that I asked myself why I hadn’t done it years ago.
The shop doors are flung open wide and the low autumn sun plays on the grass, the grazing cows, the turning maple leaves bordering the big waterfall pasture, and on the hills beyond. The air is perfectly still, not too hot, nor yet too cool. On the concrete shop floor four mowers rest in various states of disassembly, with parts and tools strewn all over. Though it looks like an improvised explosive device just ripped through the place, there is a method to my madness, a certain manifestation of agrarian chaos theory; phoenix ex machina: out of the ashes of two deceased mowers will rise two rejuvenated ones. I’m in my element here, sleeves rolled up, working methodically, unhurried. The bulk of the field and garden work is finished for the season, allowing this work to proceed without urgency. The Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony comes on the radio. I walk over and turn up the volume. In a world gone digital, my little antique analog shop radio with dials, antenna and brown faux leather cover doesn’t feel at all incongruous with my shop full of horse-drawn machines.
Beethoven draws me in: a simple melodic line hums and builds over the bedrock of a darkly majestic march, bummmm, bum bum, bummm bum. The stately melody is adorned with a trace of melancholy but soon gives over to the major key, then lilts back to the minor, and finally back again to the major: a perfect soundtrack for autumn. One feels in this season a sense of regret, of work unfinished; a touch of sadness at the passing of the full bounty of summer; a slight foreboding of the dark and cold of the winter ahead. But thankfully, the release of summer is slow, and on an autumn day like today melancholy holds no dominion. Beethoven must have felt this too, and as the music grows and reaches for its climax, I cease my work and just listen, gazing out across the field, crescent wrench in grease stained hand. I am deeply moved by such unbidden moments of grace: by the work, the place, the season, the muse, the music.