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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

LittleField Notes Spring 2013

LittleField Notes Spring 2013

by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
photos by Joe D. Finnerty

As I sit here and begin typing on the back patio of the farmhouse it is officially 87 degrees at SeaTac airport on May 6. That is hotter than an average July day and breaks the old record by 8 degrees. The pattern of un-normal weather continues unabated with records broken right and left. Makes one wonder what the next 20, 40, 100 years will bring. Be adaptable, be flexible and start saving your own seed, as locally adapted varieties will become more important than ever.

A note or two about this year’s 34th annual SFJ Auction and Swap Meet which I had the good fortune to be able to attend once again: The weather was mostly fine excepting a bit of wind on Friday afternoon during the equipment auction. Spirits were high as people from far and wide converged on Madras for one of the finest small farm gatherings anywhere.

This year especially, I was struck by the great importance of this event. Not only as a valuable marketplace for hard-to-find horse drawn implements, vehicles, harness and tools, but also as a gathering place for like minded people from across the country who come to buy, sell, swap or simply soak up the atmosphere. Folks are drawn to this event because of the irresistible allure of good farming: human scaled, animal powered, regenerative, biological – a way of life that the Small Farmer’s Journal has come to personify.

I spent most of the auction visiting with many different people, giving the event the feeling of one very long extended conversation. Each was varied in detail, but common in theme – a give and take of ideas from the high-minded philosophical to the grease-stained practical. The value of such conversation cannot be overstated. I remember visiting a neighboring farm in my region when I was a wet-behind-the-ears young farmer with a dream. At one point I was overcome with panic as I realized I might not get to all the torrent of questions I had rattling around in my excited young mind. I’ve never forgotten, nor have I properly repaid this early advice and counsel. Lengthy and timely dialogues with fellow farmers had a profoundly positive impact on my early farming endeavors. It is these small ripples of conversation that spread out over the land to create a wave of change.

In days gone by the process of becoming a farmer was as natural as breathing in and out. Chances are your father and grandfather before you would have farmed. Small diverse farms would have stretched as far as the eye could see. Deep, local generational knowledge would have been no more than a stone’s throw, or at most a buggy ride away. I have no doubt that much of the talk of country people in pre-industrial days would have been of crops, stock, weather and such, with each person adding his observations and experience to that of the whole.

Now we have become a splintered lot, a rag tag collection of romantic, agrarian idealists striving to scratch out a livelihood from a patch of ground in a way that is honest and true. Which brings me back to the grand importance of an event like the SFJ Auction. For three or four days we don’t have to feel at odds with the digital-industrial complex anymore. We bask in the good company of old friends and new. We have those conversations that once took place over fencerows, at crossroads and at grange halls across the land, conversations about the whys and the wherefores of a life worth living.

Over the course of the auction I found myself engaged in conversation about horse and cattle breeds; crop rotations and marketing strategies; making loose hay and plowing with horses; hay loaders and harrows. I spoke with young people not yet out of high school and those just entering retirement; college kids and middle aged folks; those who owned horses and those who dreamed of owning them. There were felt hats, straw hats and baseball caps; suspenders and overalls; tattoos and nose rings; leather boots and sandals; men, women and children: a mixed-up diverse gathering of folk all come together under the common banner of good farming. The SFJ Auction continues to be a place that brings us all together and sends us home with a spring in our step and the singularly reassuring notion that we are not on this journey alone.

LittleField Notes Spring 2013

One conversation in particular that I have often had with beginning teamsters over the years involves the relative merits of walking plows vs. sulky plows. I remember distinctly having this same query myself but never felt that I got a satisfactory answer. Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter.

Let us start by considering the notion of plowing quality. That is, how good of a job is the plow doing? Are we plowing at the proper depth? Are we covering the trash completely or partially? Is the furrow slice vertically or horizontally oriented? There is no right or wrong answer to the above criteria. If I am plowing down a cover crop of rye in the garden I may wish to have the furrow slice more vertically oriented in order to admit more moisture and air and thereby enhance decomposition and avoid pickling the organic matter on the underside of the furrow slice. Conversely, when plowing before oats or wheat I like to get as clean and trash free a surface as possible in order to get a good even stand of weed competitive grain.

If we agree that quality of plowing is subject to different criteria at different times and in different fields, then perhaps the most important thing to consider is control. How effectively can I plow to attain my desired field condition based on my choice of plow? The old time plow manufacturers understood this. At one time there were specific moldboards available for every imaginable soil type and condition. For the most part we don’t have that luxury any more. Most of the plows available today, with the notable exception of the Pioneer Kverneland bottom, have the same, general-purpose moldboard design.

In the most basic analysis plowing control can be divided into three distinct levels. Plowing at its highest, most artful level can only be achieved with the walking plow. The next level of control is to be had with a sulky (riding) plow, and checking in at a rather distant third – tractor plowing. I have not plowed with a horse drawn gangplow so have no experience to relate.

LittleField Notes Spring 2013

Plowing with the walking plow is the most iconic of all horse farming tasks. The silhouette of man and team plowing has graced a thousand posters, books and advertisements. The walking plow is what made the Homestead Act possible. It settled the country. With a good team and decent soil conditions a properly adjusted walking plow is a joy to use. With the walking plow you are personally involved with the soil. You can hear it roll off the moldboard, see the land peel up right in front of you and, if you plow barefooted, as many a lad has done over the centuries, feel its undulations and textures underfoot. With handles in hand you can make the plow and horses respond to the subtlest of changes in soil texture or condition.

I well remember one of the first real successes I had with the walking plow. I plowed up a quarter acre town lot that was essentially six inches of topsoil over an old gravel riverbed. I could feel and hear the gravel layer and so kept the plow skimming neatly over the top of the rocky subsoil, never mixing the two layers. Had I been perched atop the metal frame of a sulky plow I would not have been as aware of the conditions just under the thin layer of topsoil. The result would probably have been an unfortunate and irreversible mixing of the two layers.

In theory a sulky plow is as adjustable as a walking plow. A close inspection reveals that the only difference between the two plows is that the sulky has a frame, seat and wheels affixed to the beam and lacks handles. The beam, clevis, moldboard and landside are all identical. Instead of hands on handles, levers and wheels are provided to adjust the plow to the conditions at hand. It is usually necessary to stop the plow and make an adjustment in reaction to something that just happened, whereas with a walking plow minute adjustments are made constantly as the plow moves through the soil. We will leave the specifics for another time, but suffice it here to say that when perched atop a sulky plow you are removed by one degree of proximity to the soil and so a certain degree of control and finesse will be sacrificed.

LittleField Notes Spring 2013

This is not to say that good plowing cannot be done with a sulky plow. They are generally wonderful tools which, when properly adjusted, do a perfectly satisfactory job of plowing. The biggest advantage of the sulky over the walking plow of course, is that the operator simply rides along rather than walking seven miles to the acre. The walking plow will give you a hearty appetite and sound night’s rest.

Tractor plowing is another matter entirely. I’ve only done it once. I borrowed a huge tractor from a neighboring dairy farm years ago to plow up a few acres of ten-year-old alfalfa with roots as thick as small tree trunks. My Belgian geldings Lester and Earl and I were struggling mightily to bust it up with the old walking plow. So I went big. I’ll never forget the feeling of being up high up in the tractor cab with all the noise and racket and that thing lurching and churning through the soil, pulling four bottoms and just making a mess of the place. If the plow bottoms jerked sideways or otherwise pulled free of their earthly moorings all of a sudden I had four furrows askew rather than one. Needless to say it was not an experience I want to revisit. I’ll stick to the slow and steady, the quiet and true. Step up boys!

Spotlight On: Book Reviews

McCormick-Deering No 7 Mower Manual in English & French

McCormick-Deering No. 7 Mower Manual in English & French

Instructions for Setting Up and Operating the McCORMICK-DEERING No. 7 VERTICAL LIFT TWO-HORSE MOWERS — Instructions pour le Montage et le Fonctionnement des FAUCHEUSES A DEUX CHEVAUX McCORMICK-DEERING No. 7 À RELEVAGE VERTICAL

Work Horse Handbook

The Work Horse Handbook

The decision to depend on horses or mules in harness for farm work, logging, or highway work is an important one and should not be taken lightly. Aside from romantic notions of involvement in a picturesque scene, most of the considerations are serious.

Art of Working Horses Hunter Review

Art of Working Horses – A Review

by:
from issue:

Over 40 years Lynn Miller has written a whole library of valuable and indispensable books about the craft of working horses. He has helped beginners acquire the basics of harnessing and working around horses, and has led those further along to focus on the specific demands of plowing, mowing, haying and related subjects. But, in a fitting culmination, his latest book, The Art of Working Horses, raises its sights and openly ponders secrets at the heart of the work that may over time elevate it to an art.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 5

You might think that your new farm is fenced all wrong, or that a certain tree is in the wrong place, or that a wet area would be better drained, or that this gully would make a good pond site, or that a depression in the road should be filled, or that the old sheds should all come down right away. Well maybe you’re right on all counts. But maybe, you’re wrong.

Honoring Our Teachers

Honoring Our Teachers

by:
from issue:

I believe that there exist many great practicing teachers, some of who deliberately set out to become one and others who may have never graduated from college but are none-the-less excellent and capable teachers. I would hazard a guess that many readers of Small Farmer’s Journal know more than one teacher who falls within this latter category. My grandfather, and artist and author Eric Sloane, were two such teachers.

Making Buttermilk

The Small-Scale Dairy

What kind of milk animal would best suit your needs? For barnyard matchmaking to be a success, you need to address several concerns.

Old Man Farming

Spinning Ladders

You die off by passing away. You live on by passing on. I want to pass the culture of my life on slowly, over the ripening time of my best years.

Old Man Farming

Old Man Farming

Long after his physical capacities have dwindled to pain and stiffening, what drives the solitary old man to continue bringing in the handful of Guernsey cows to milk?

Farmer Pirates & Dancing Cows

Farmer Pirates & Dancing Cows

From humor-filled stories of a life of farming to incisive examinations of food safety, from magical moments of the re-enchantment of agriculture to the benches we would use for the sharpening of our tools, Farmer Pirates & Dancing Cows offers a full meal of thought and reflection.

Posts

Driving Fence Posts By Hand

Where the soil is soft, loose, and free from stone, posts may be driven more easily and firmly than if set in holes dug for the purpose.

Why Farm

Farming For Art’s Sake: Farming As An Artform

Farming as a vocation is more of a way of living than of making a living. Farming at its best is an Art, at its worst it is an industry. Farming can be an Art because it allows at every juncture for the farmer to create form from his or her vision.

Woodstove Cookery at Home on the Range

An Illustrated Guide To The Wood Fired Cookstove

Illustrated guide to the wood stove and it’s accoutrements.

Basic Blacksmithing Techniques

Illustrated guide to basic blacksmithing techniques, an excerpt from Blacksmithing: Basics For The Homestead.

How To Dry Up A Doe Goat

How To Dry Up A Doe Goat

You are probably thinking why would I want to dry up a doe? If the plan is to rebreed the doe, then she will need time to rebuild her stamina. Milk production takes energy. Kid production takes energy, too. If the plan is to have a fresh goat in March, then toward the end of October start to dry her up. The first thing to do is cut back on her grain. Grain fuels milk production.

Wheel Hoe

The Wheel Hoe: A Tool For Shallow Tillage

When we bought this little farm I soon realized I needed a wheel hoe. The size of the horse and tractor dictated space wasting wide rows in crop production and, to some degree, so does my two wheeled tractor.

Art of Working Horses Another Review

Art of Working Horses – Another Review

by:
from issue:

One could loosely say this is a “how-to” book but it is more of an “existential” how-to: how to get yourself into a way of thinking about the world of working horses. Maybe we need to explain what a working horse is. A working horse is one, in harness, given to a specific task. So, in that context, the book illustrates the many ways Miller has worked with his equine partners over the years – helping them understand what he wants them to do, as both work together to create relationships that help achieve desired goals.

Timing the Bounce

Timing the Bounce: Resilient Agriculture Meets Climate Change

by:
from issue:

In her new book, Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, Laura Lengnick assumes a dispassionate, businesslike tone and sets about exploring the farming strategies of twenty-seven award-winning farmers in six regions of the continental United States. Her approach gets well past denial and business-as-usual, to see what can be done, which strategies are being tried, and how well they are working.

Chicken Guano: Top-Notch Fertilizer

Whoever thought I’d be singing the praises of chicken poop? I am, and I’m not the only one. Chickens are walking nitrogen-rich manure bins.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT