organictogo

Did the Amish Get It Right After All?

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

There is an interesting development in mainstream U.S.A that just might have significant relevance for garden farming. Record numbers of people are acquiring pets. The dog and cat business is not at all depressed by the recession. (If you are wondering what all this has to do with the Amish, bear with me.) You see evidence of the trend everywhere, especially in advertisements where dogs are shown licking the cheeks of children— this in a society that has an almost manic dread of germs. Pets are the in-thing. Apparently our society is so enmeshed in its mechanical and electronic gadgetry that the human psyche is seeking solace in real life, as in the ancient loving connection that we have always enjoyed with animals.

The modern pet craze is not limited to cats and dogs but embraces many animals, especially horses. (Now you see how the Amish are going to get into this discussion.) Statistics say there are 6.9 million horses in the U.S. involved in various activities from racing, showing, pleasure riding, polo, police work, farming and ranching. The horse business or hobby adds about $112 billion to the GNP. Horses generate more money than the home furniture and fixtures business, and almost as much as the apparel and textile manufacturing industry. In other words, while we generally think of Old Dobbin as a step backward in time in agriculture, horses are very much a part of our modern economic and social lives today.

Why this is pertinent to garden farming becomes apparent from what happened a few months ago. At the time when the national banking fraternity was on its knees in Washington, begging for money, news all over the media reported that Hometown Heritage bank in Lancaster County, Pa., was having its best year ever. Hometown Heritage may be the only bank in the world, surely one of the few, that has drive-by window service designed to accommodate horses and buggies. Some 95% of the bank’s customers are Amish farmers. The banker, Bill O’Brien, says that he has not lost a penny on them in 20 years. They obviously don’t have auto loans to pay off and do not use credit cards. They might not need bank loans at all except to buy farmland, which especially in Lancaster County, has risen almost insanely in price. O’Brien says he is doing about a hundred million dollars worth of business in farm loans. To further make the point, an obscure law does not allow banks to bundle and sell mortgages on farms and homes that are not serviced by public electric utilities.

There is plenty in this situation for economists to contemplate, but what struck me the most was the fact that these farmers are buying farm land that can cost them ten thousand dollars per acre or sometimes more, and paying for it with horse farming. And because of their religion, the Amish do not accept farm subsidies that keep many “modern” farms “profitable.” Facing these facts, it is very difficult to see how economists or agribusiness experts can claim that farms using horses or mules for motive power are any more backward, or any less profitable, than farms using tractors.

If you study the great debate that raged in farm circles from about 1920 to 1950 over the economics of horses and mules vs. tractors, (a good recent book on the subject is Mule South To Tractor South, by George B. Ellenberg, Univ. of Alabama Press, 2007), you will learn that the experts never agreed. Both sides finally admitted that it didn’t matter anyway. There was a rising kind of younger farmer for whom tractors were just too alluring to resist. These farmers were going to use them, no matter how much more they cost than horses. Farmers who loved farming with horses wept while they watched trucks haul their teams off to the the rendering plant. They did not get rid of their horses because of the supposedly harder work involved but because they were afraid that if they did not switch, the farmers who did switch would eventually take all the land.

I grew up when horses were still the rule in farming. I had a runaway with a team and a wagon when I was 11 years old, so I know the dark side of it too. Because of the strange circumstances of my life, I worked on horse-powered farms again in my early twenties. I assure you: farm work is no harder or easier using horses than tractors. Each has its pluses and minuses physically. Mentally, farming with horses is more relaxed (they always start in the morning no matter how cold) except during a runaway. The horse farmer I worked for during those years, (1950s) was by no means Amish. He did have a big old tractor to plow his hilly acres. He used horses because he made money farming with horses. He was the best economics professor I never had. The way he farmed wasn’t what you’d find in articles in the leading farm magazines; it wasn’t very pretty. But it was a lot prettier than the Americans lined up at the employment offices today because they opted out of hard work in favor of the great American dream of ease and forty-hour weeks.

I do not speak as an uncompromising champion of horses. I actually prefer my 1950 WD Allis Chalmers which has cost me hardly $5000 total during all the years I have owned it. But that is not my point. I just wonder if we are not making a mistake by not taking seriously what the Amish are demonstrating to us. Given the facts of the matter, I don’t think it is naïve to suggest that young garden farmers take a closer look at horses, mules, even oxen for motive power on their little farms. Quite a few already are. Given the demonstrated yearning that humans have always shown for animal companionship, it seems entirely logical to me that young farmers just might lose their acquired attraction for the tractor one of these days to become horsemen and horsewomen again. The dollars and cents, the Amish will tell you, are on your side if you enjoy being at home and would rather work hard physically on occasion rather than pay for exercise at a fitness center.

With peak oil upon us, think of it this way. You may be able to grow enough extra grain or biomass to make ethanol for a tractor, but it will always be cheaper to grow the extra hay to feed a horse. You don’t have to distill the hay.
~
See also Gene’s An Ode To Horse Manure, And Other By-Products Called Waste
~~
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
Image Credit: © Marianne Venegoni | Dreamstime.com
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts
[Permanent Link] [Top]

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
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts
[Permanent Link] [Top]

The Fire Fiddler

From Gene Logsdon

Now comes the test of one’s homesteading stamina: January.  Might as well throw in February too except that by then the aconites and snowdrops have started to nose up through the ground or may even be blooming in sheltered places. But for now,  hang in there and read garden catalogs.

Another way to ride out the depths of winter is to spend time staring into the burning embers of a fireplace and lose self-awareness to the flames. That’s what I do, but losing self-awareness sounds terribly precious. What I am really doing is looking for more excuses to fiddle with the fire, that is, tweak the burning sticks of wood around so it flames brighter.  Fire fiddling is a more or less safe way to compensate for tendencies toward pyromania.

Something in the human psyche loves to play with fire. It probably is something we inherited, genetically or environmentally, from cave dwellers. They fiddled with fire for survival.

Even today, as the peak oil age arrives, fire fiddling can be once more a practical skill, even an art. Everyone knows that fireplaces are not efficient home heaters— most of the heat goes up the chimney. But a master fire fiddler can get twice as much heat out of a fireplace as a beginner.

The first condition of happy fire fiddling is to burn well-cured wood. If the wood in the fire sizzles on the ends like a frying egg, you may keep the fire going okay by mixing in a good dry stick occasionally, but fire fiddling will not be nearly as gratifying nor will be the amount of heat generated.  And the more uncured wood used, the more chance of little whiffs of smoke puffing out into the room before it gets dry enough to burn well. On the other hand, if the wood is cured through and through, rain water on its surface will dampen a cheery flame only briefly.

The second condition is good fireplace design. The proper ratio of hearth depth to front opening is important. So is the angle for the sides to take (a little inward) from front to back as well as the angle of the rear wall from the floor of the fireplace. It should slant inwards slightly as it goes up to the chimney opening.  The details of design have all been studied and debated for centuries. Needless to say, not everyone agrees  and we don’t have very many fireplace masons around anymore with a couple of centuries of experience under their belts. To be on the safe side, we purchased a steel insert for our fireplace, one whose design was in keeping with the best knowledge available as far as we could ascertain. Then we built the fireplace about twenty inches off the floor so it was easier to lean in and fiddle with the fire without bending over so far (and perhaps falling into the fire if one is also at the time fiddling with a martini).

The steel insert afforded us a handy way to increase the amount of heat going out into the room rather than up the chimney too. The stonemason who laid up the stone around the insert built ducts into the wall to draw in air from below the fireplace hearth and circulate it up and around and over the steel jacket. The heated air then passes back out into the room from ports above the fireplace. You can install circulating fans to move the air faster but they are not necessary at all. The heat pulls the air strongly enough through the system on its own. The fire not only throws out heat from the fireplace directly but indirectly through this circulation system.

To add a little more efficiency, our fireplace is in the finished basement of our home so that heat coming from it out into the basement rises up the nearby steps to the kitchen and dining area above. You can actually feel the warm air ascending the steps.

The art of fire fiddling involves the placement of the pieces of wood, or sticks as we call them, so that they generate as much flame as possible and as close to the front of the fireplace as possible without belching out any smoke. The first rule, if one must get formal about it all, is to keep a big backlog at the rear of the fire to throw the heat forward, and then to arrange the sticks in front of the backlog so that there is a bit of a crack between each of them. Then the flames rise cheerfully up through the cracks rather than sulk underneath because of being blocked by the sticks. Ideally, you keep the logs so placed, and then add new ones as the old ones burn up, so that a wall of flame from four to ten inches or thereabouts is always dancing above or in front of the wood. Some master fire fiddlers lay the sticks on top of each other at a sort of angle from each other so that there is plenty of room between the pieces,  or actually rack them up two one way and then two crisscrossed on top of the first two.

You realize the joy and purpose of fire fiddling when for the first time you pry with a poker two pieces of  wood apart and the sulking fire below them suddenly springs up with a sprightly flame in the crack you made.

Making sure there is space  between the sticks is most important when starting a fire— what was referred to in former times with the art of “laying a fire.”  I “lay my fires” on an iron grate that keeps the wood about three inches off the floor of the fireplace. First I lay in the big backlog behind the grate. Then a handful of twigs goes on the grate and then a small front log piece. Then I put two pieces of wood (split chunks no more than about five inches thick) on top of the twigs about an inch apart and parallel to each other. A third and fourth piece go on top of the first two but at slight angles to each other and to the bottom two so that there are spaces between them. Then I light the twigs from below the grate with a twist of paper. Sometimes two or three twists are necessary before the twigs start.

A banker friend of mine who is an avid fire fiddler, says that if you are short of paper and twigs with which to start fires, good, cheap substitutes right now are bank notes and stock certificates.
~
See also Gene’s Easy Way To Start A Grove Of Trees
~~
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: Fireplace © Luckynick | Dreamstime.com
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts
[Permanent Link] [Top]