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.
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.
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.
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!