Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Saturday, June 25, 2011

On the Farm ~ Plowing the Land for Planting

On June 4, 2011 the 8th annual meeting of the Byron Herbert Reece Society met at the Reece Farm and Heritage Center. I wrote about that in my column for June 9. While we met there, many memories of growing up on a nearby farm to the Reece family flooded my memory. I decided to pursue a series of columns with the designation “On the Farm.” These will explore the almost-lost techniques my father and farmers before him in Choestoe Valley, and yes, on mountain farms in general, used in the last century and earlier to cultivate the land and produce crops for family consumption and for market.

Although June is late to write about “turning”—or plowing the land and preparing it for planting—for by this date crops should be up and growing and in the cultivation stage prior to being “laid by.” Nevertheless I will begin this series with a backward look at that very necessary step to successful farming. Why was plowing (turning) the land necessary and how was it done before the days of mechanization of farms?

Until after the end of World War II, most farmers in the Choestoe Valley still followed the practices of their forebears, using beasts of burdens and not tractors as the chief means of powering the farm implements used.

Turning, a term we used for the initial plowing of the land to prepare for planting crops, began as soon as any hard freezes of the land had passed and the land had dried out enough not to cause excessive clodding when the plow went its rounds to break up the ground. If the acres had lain fallow, or if residue, like rows of corn stalks or debris from previous crops were on the land, these were “cut up” by running a drag over the land to lower them. This was a heavy homemade implement to which the mules or work horses could be hitched. This dragging helped to crush the debris of previous crops and at the same time the crushed foliage would itself become a fertilizer enriching the land. Then the work mules or horses were harnessed and hitched up to the “double-tree” two-horse turning plow. This plow was a heavy instrument, and required the plowman to learn just how to maneuver it into the ground to turn a furrow. If the farmer chose to plow in straight rows, turning the loam, he would always begin so that the turned furrow would fall to the right. Then, if he were doing straight plowing, he would angle and turn at the end of the field and return close to the first furrow, thus turning the broken dirt into what was called a “double furrow.” The one handling a plow would proceed in like manner, back and forth, until the whole field was turned (plowed).

Some farmers began to break up the soil by starting to plow in the middle of a field, breaking a short row there, then proceeding outward from this beginning, circling and plowing close to each previous cut through the soil. This “strip plowing” method required the farmer to turn his team by tipping the plow onto its right side on the strip ends and turning his plow and team around, working outward in this way from the center of the field until all the area was plowed. These furrows had to be close together so that the land would be sufficiently broken.

Another important pre-plowing task was to spread manure from the barns or compost pile as a supplement to the soil. This process of scattering the fertilizer preceded the plowing of the land. Farmers interested in conservation of the land and good yields from their crops did not neglect this step in soil preparation.

Plowing turns the soil over, loosens and aerates it, and helps to kill the weeds that would rob the planted crop of soil nutrients. Plowing also makes the soil more pliable and easier to work in as the planting and cultivating processes are done later in the seasonal procedures.

Turning is hard work, both for the farmer and his animals. Rest stops and time-outs are required so as not to exert cruelty on work animals and overdue exertion on the person behind the plow. Two acres was a good accomplishment for a day’s work in turning the land in preparation for planting.

Following turning, the next step in land preparation is harrowing the plowed field to break up clods and smooth the land. A “wire harrow,” or one made with prongs that extended down to break and smooth out the plowed land would be dragged over the land for several times, again using horse power. Then came the invention of disk harrows, implements that cut down more into the plowed ground and assisted greatly in smoothing out the soil.

Much has been written about the invention of the first plow. In ancient times, sticks and stones were used for turning the land. Then some inventive farmer got the idea of hitching a work animal to a stick plow and thus lessening the human exertion the process required. In 1833 in Joliet, Illinois, a farmer named John Lane was credited with making the first steel plow, an instrument more durable as the prairie sod was turned. Four years later, also in Illinois (Grand Detour), John Deere, a blacksmith, made further improvements on John Lane’s moldboard plow. He began to make the instruments in his blacksmith shop. That was the beginning of the famous John Deere Farming Implements and Tractor Company that became such a boon to agriculture throughout America and abroad.

When the tractor became available and farmers could get enough money together to afford one, or purchase it “on time” with future crops in guaranty against the loan, a new day for agriculture came to mountain farms. It was still hard to drive a tractor and maneuver the plows and harrows correctly and required learning and practice. But the hard work and time of preparing the fields for planting were cut immeasurably by this innovation to the old methods of farming.

Farming has changed probably as much as any occupation and has evolved through the decades with new inventions and changes in farming practices. I recently read that many are advocating now that the turning, or initial plowing, depletes the land, causes erosion, and should not be done. But my mind still goes back to the days when my father took great pride in his plowed field, with soil prepared to receive the seeds. As he looked on the acres spread out awaiting their crop seeds, he knew he had done a good job in the spring process of preparing the land for planting.

The poet Raymond E. Weece expressed this pride and joy in his poem, “Walking the Plow”:

“I loved to walk in the furrow
Behind a walking plow,
Watching the fresh earth roll
From a moldboard’s prow.”
c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published June 23, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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