Knowing One’s Place

From Gene Logsdon (1991)
Garden Farm Skills

Dave Haferd sees his farm with eyes that are 200 years old. He knows every foot of its 180 acres, on top and underneath. Walking across his land, he discourses endlessly and joyfully upon almost any rock, post, tree, clod, weed, or building that his eye falls upon. The gully that cuts deeply into the hill going down to the creek is where the road used to go years and years past, he says. The boulder in the fence corner required two days of hard work to move out of the field, he says, which reminds him that over in another field—he waves his arm in a southerly direction—there is a stone so huge embedded in the soil that he has never been able to move it. He worries, now that he is thinking of retiring, that the next farmer will break his plow on it.

The wild hop vines on the fence are not really wild, he confides, but escaped years ago from the fields, when hops were grown here commercially. He says this casually, not seeming to realize that he may well be the only person, until now, who possesses this potentially useful memory of this northern Ohio county.

Over there, across the boundary of his land, on what is known as the High Bank of the Tymochtee Creek, he says that the Indians burned Colonel William Crawford at the stake in 1782. “Or so the history books say,” he adds. “Actually, I believe Crawford was burnt in the bottomland across the creek from the High Bank. That’s what Black Betty told my grandfather. She was a herbalist who often came to the farm in the late 1800s. She told grandfather that she had talked to Indians who had been there.”

The boulders set at regular intervals in a loose line across the Tymochtee, he points out, were put there for stepping-stones by the Indians and were, he believes, part of the ancient Indian trail known to have traversed this region. And just down from the stepping-stones is the old ford, where, before good bridges, farmers drove their horses and wagons across the creek.

Walking along the edge of one of his fields, he asks me if I can see anything unusual in the wheat growing there. I cannot. “If you look close, you can see a sort of division. On the west side, the wheat is a bit taller and lusher than on the east.” Now that he points it out to me I can see the difference. “On the east side,” he explains, “the land was cleared and farmed eighty years ago, and on the west side, forty years ago. I still call the west side the ‘new ground.'”

In an isolated little cemetery we walk through, he pauses at almost every tombstone to give a brief history of the grave’s occupant. “That fellow was worthless,” he said. “And that one next to him hit Poppa with a hoe handle over a line-fence dispute.”

In another field, he stops suddenly and studies the ground. “Right here someplace there’s an old gas well. Pipe broke off down in the ground but the gas continued to seep up to the surface for years. We would light it when we were hunting and have us a real nice campfire.”

It is not only old bones and gas wells that he knows about. “There’s an eight-inch tile runs through under the fence right there and goes clear across that bottom ground to the hill, with four-inch laterals branching both ways along the foot of the hill,” he says, as if I were the son he never had, the next generation to whom this essential knowledge needs to be passed on. “Well, I’ve got ’em all drawn out on a map,” he says, almost to himself, “but it isn’t the same as coming out here an seeing where they are.” He pauses. “You really can see them some days, you know. Right after a rain, on cultivated soil, the dirt will dry out first right over the tile lines.”

Strolling along the creek that flows through his farm he speculates on whether, as rumor has it, the landfill upstream might be polluting the water. Although the idea troubles him, he is not given to the shrill protest that abstract knowledge brings to environmental debate. “There’s still a lot of fish in the creek, so it can’t be too bad,” he notes hopefully. Then he smiles and the patience of a thousand years of peasantry glints in his eyes. “When I was a boy this creek ran black with oil during the oil boom years. The oil scum got blocked by fallen logs and my brother and I set fire to it. The whole creek was on fire. A sight to behold.” He pauses to enjoy the scene in memory one more time. “But forty years later we drank out of the creek again.”

Today, with our wives, Dave and I are returning from a walk viewing his crops, our Sunday afternoon ritual. As we pause on the road in front of the house, he points with his walking stick at a barely discernable, grassed-over rut that starts at the foot of the hill next to the cornfield below us, and runs parallel to the road out past the grove of pine trees, then along the edge of the garden, and disappears where it meets the lawn at the top of the hill. “That’s the old cowpath,” he says. I nod, although I can scarcely make it out. “That’s where we used to drive the cows up from the creek every evening. Right up the hill across the edge of the garden and lawn to the driveway, then on to the barn. After the cows learned to follow the route, we didn’t even have to worry about them scattering off into the yard.”

We walk on to the driveway then, myself marveling at the detailed knowledge Dave has of the farm he was born on, had farmed all his sixty-four years, and which his father had been born on and had farmed his entire life, learning from his father, who has spent the greater part of his life on the farm, too. “See that bit of depression in the grass right there?” Dave asks. “Used to be a hitching post there. Sunday visitors would tie up there and the horses wore a hole in the ground stomping their feet to chase away flies.”

I stare at him in great wonderment. Although we have been close for many years both by reason of kinship and friendship, or perhaps because of that, I have never been able to convey to him the uniqueness and significance I see in the depth of his knowledge about his farm. It is something he takes for granted, as if everyone knows their places as well as he knows his. I do not know how to tell him that he is a last member of an ancient tribe—the genuine traditional farmers who committed themselves lovingly to a piece of land and husbanded it from generation to generation, carrying in their memories a lifetime of their own experiences and that of their fathers and grandfathers on that land. Dave’s crops are almost always just a little better than the others in the neighborhood, because he knows his place.

Had I spoken all that aloud, Dave would only have been amused at this example of what he takes to be my romantic exaggeration at work. He does not know his own value. He does not know that the disappearance of his kind puts society at terrible risk. A stable food supply depends entirely on the concrete particularity of his kind of knowledge, without which the abstract expertise of science is useless. If one can leap imaginatively over the ruins of several civilizations, there is a direct line between Dave Haferd and the ancient Phoenician settlers who turned the sands of North Africa into a garden of plenty, building precisely on this same intimacy with place. When those farmers disappeared, so did North Africa’s glory days, leaving not only an agriculture in ruins, it needs to be pointed out, but a landscape dotted with empty amphitheaters. (Read: football stadiums.)

But after walking with Dave Haferd on his land, there is comfort even in that. If errors are repeated over and over again, rightness returns again and again also.

We wade into Dave’s clover field west of the barn. It stands almost to my thighs, hardly a weed in it, our noses full of the sweet smell of its blossoms, the air over it full of dancing butterflies and bees. Redwings and meadowlarks rise from it and settle back into it.

Red clover is always in the rotation on this farm, whether Dave makes hay from it or not, and in these latter years more often he just plows it under. “Oh yes, it still pays if you only plow it under,” he says. “This ground would not last without a regular plowdown of clover. And it’s the greatest help in weed control. We learned that long ago.”

The clover reminds him of something that makes him smile. “We always sowed clover seed by hand, walking. I still do, in fact, most of the time. Poppa was not one to buy new machinery if he could avoid it. We had one of those little hand-cranked seeders that hangs on your shoulder, and a fiddle seeder, and one of those horn-type broadcasters, which I guess was the oldest of all. He’d assign the crank model to me, the horn seeder to my brother, and he’d manage the fiddle seeder. Side by side we’d walk back and forth across the field, sowing seed, cranking and fiddling and sawing the air. From the road it must surely have looked like a three-piece band marching along.”
See also Gene’s Pasture: The Foundation of Garden Farm Success
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream 1994
Image Credit: Barbara Field |
Gene’s Posts
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Dave Haferd, my uncle, died today. He was 91 years old, still living on his farm. I remembered this essay that I first read in Gene’s book The Contrary Farmer, so I am telling you folks who still follow Gene’s work. I imagine Dave and cousin Gene might share a glass or two of the good stuff when they meet up there on God’s golden shore. Hi, Carol. — Laura Montgomery, February 18, 2019.

Paul, forgot to answer your last question. What I would change in hindsight in Contrary Farmer. I would be more critical of agribusiness and consumerism than I was. Gene

Paul: Legitimate question. Relatives don’t believe me either. I wrote that in 1996-98, over ten years ago. There’s been significant inflation since then whether the government will admit it or not, especially in housing, cars and appliances. 25K would go farther then. We paid off our mortgage before that and did not have any outstanding debts. We did not have auto loans to pay off. After our first new car in 1963, I always bought from savings. We did not get a color TV until about 1995 and it was used — young people visiting us before that would searched through our house looking for one, unable to beleive we still had only a mousy little black and white. Our present TV was given to us when my son in law bought a new one. Our radio and music player we bought about 40 years ago. Fortunately, we have had no health problems that insurance didn’t cover. You mention farming stuff. Almost all of mine was used stuff, some of it free. Much of my fencing was used, some of it free. My tractor was built in 1950. I paid $400 for it in 1975 if I remember correctly. It still runs quite well with maybe a couple thousand dollars of repairs over the years. All my equipment was, is, old, some of it given to me. The only thing new I ever bought was lawn mowers and tillers and chain saws and they last me about ten years. I did not count expenses for sending a daughter to college, although she paid much of that herself. I didn’t consider that a regular expense though maybe I should have. I bought three sheep and they increased naturally. I bought two calves and bred them artificially and increased naturally. We built our own barn buildings. We used as much old lumber from other buildings as we could find. Obviously we raise most of our food, but we used to go out to eat at nice restaurants about twice a month and regularly enjoy an evening sip of bourbon, although the latter only after we got out of debt. My pair of good shoes is 20 years old. My only dress up suit nearly that old. Right now I am wearing two boots both of them for the right foot. The left foot ones wore out quicker on the last two pair. We travel to Kentucky about three times a year to visit relatives. What little other travel we do I usually combine with business and get paid expenses. My biggest luxury expense ten years ago was sponsoring a softball team and for awhile that was tax deductible. I have a hunch I did not figure in that expense which was some years around $1500. So that 25K could have been a little off, but about right. Today, my wife and I (no children at home) live on right at $22,000 a year. Other members of our family constantly challenge us on that but my wife used to work in accounting and I think she can add and subtract quite well. We dare not spend much more than that without eating into our savings since our great government lowered interest rates to almost nothing and older people who saved like we did so as to have income from savings in our old age, don’t get enough interest to light a fire with. I have to keep on working but that’s okay with me. I like my work. Our life saver is Medicare now that we are both on social security. But they keep raising the premium on supplemental. Hope that helps you. Gene Logsdon

Sorry, I meant 2K+ per month.

I recently read “You can go home again” and in it you wrote that for most years your family lived on about 25K a year. Really?? We try to be as independent as possible and we are working to become more so each year. I use you book “The Contrary Farmer” as a manual and learning tool and I still refer to it often. However, it seems that the more we do to become more independent the more cost it takes to get there, ie. the cost of fencing, livestock, maintenance of livestock, seed, equipment etc. We live on more than 25Z and still struggle to make ends meet and even more so now days. So, I really am not just being nosey but I am honestly curious on how one can live on about 1K per month and still have a good quality of life. On a more pleasant note, if you had to rewrite “The Contrary Farmer” today, what would you change significantly with the benefit of hindsite. Thanks so much.
At the risk of being too nosey

I enjoyed reading that. I hope I can know a place in a similar way someday. It reminds me of passing off a project to someone else. “Yup, yup, yup”, but you know they are just going to do their own thing and make their own mistakes. The smartest thing I ever did was realize I’m not that smart and start listening to people older than me.

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