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Thorough Tillage








My little, hilly, rocky farm teaches lessons of thoroughness which I
would gladly impart to the boys of to-day who are destined to be the
farmers of the last quarter of this century. I am sure they will find
profit in farming better than their grandfathers did, and especially in
putting their land into the best possible condition for effective
tillage. There were stones in my fields varying in size from that of a
brass kettle up to that of a hay-cock--some of them raising their heads
above the surface, others burrowing just below it--which had been plowed
around and over perhaps a hundred times, till I went at them with team
and bar, or (where necessary) with drill and blast, turned or blew them
out, and hauled them away, so that they will interfere with cultivation
nevermore. I insist that this is a profitable operation--that a field
which will not pay for such clearing should be planted with trees and
thrown out of cultivation conclusively. Dodging and skulking from rock
to rock is hard upon team, plow, and plowman; and it can rarely pay.
Land ribbed and spotted with fast rocks will pay if judiciously planted
with Timber--possibly if well set in Fruit--but tilling it from year to
year is a thankless task; and its owner may better work by the day for
his neighbors than try to make his bread by such tillage.

So with fields soaked by springs or sodden with stagnant water. If you
say you cannot afford to drain your wet land, I respond that you can
still less afford to till it without draining. If you really cannot
afford to fit it for cultivation, your next best course is to let it
severely alone.

A poor man who has a rough, rugged, sterile farm, which he is unable to
bring to its best possible condition at once, yet which he clings to and
must live from, should resolve that, if life and health be spared him,
he will reclaim one field each year until all that is not devoted to
timber shall have been brought into high condition. When his Summer
harvest is over, and his Fall crops have received their last
cultivation, there will generally be from one to two Autumn months which
he can devote mainly to this work. Let him take hold of it with resolute
purpose to improve every available hour, not by running over the largest
possible area, but by dealing with one field so thoroughly that it will
need no more during a long life-time. If it has stone that the plow will
reach, dig them out; if it needs draining, drain it so thoroughly that
it may hereafter be plowed in Spring so soon as the frost leaves it; and
now let soil and subsoil be so loosened and pulverized that roots may
freely penetrate them to a depth of fifteen to twenty inches, finding
nourishment all the way, with incitement to go further if ever failing
moisture shall render this necessary. Drouth habitually shortens our
Fall crops from ten to fifty per cent.; it is sure to injure us more
gravely as our forests are swept away by ax and fire; and, while much
may be done to mitigate its ravages by enriching the soil so as to give
your crops an early start, and a rank, luxuriant growth, the farmer's
chief reliance must still be a depth of soil adequate to withstand weeks
of the fiercest sunshine.

I have considered what is urged as to the choice of roots to run just
beneath the surface, and it does not signify. Roots seek at once heat
and moisture; if the moisture awaits them close to the surface, of
course they mainly run there, because the heat is there greatest. If
moisture fails there, they must descend to seek it, even at the cost of
finding the heat inadequate--though heat increases and descends under
the fervid suns which rob the surface of moisture. Make the soil rich
and mellow ever so far down, and you need not fear that the roots will
descend an inch lower than they should. They understand their
business; it is your sagacity that may possibly prove deficient.

I suspect that the average farmer does far too little plowing--by which
I mean, not that he plows too few acres, for he often plows too many,
but that he should plow oftener as well as deeper and more thoroughly.
I spent three or four of my boyish Summers planting and tilling Corn and
Potatoes on fields broken up just before they were planted, never
cross-plowed, and of course tough and intractable throughout the season.
The yield of Corn was middling, considering the season; that of Potatoes
more than middling; yet, if those fields had been well plowed in the
previous Autumn, cross-plowed early in the Spring; and thoroughly
harrowed just before planting-time, I am confident that the yield would
have been far greater, and the labor (save in harvesting) rather
less--the cost of the Fall plowing being over-balanced by the saving of
half the time necessarily given to the planting and hoeing.

Fall Plowing has this recommendation--it lightens labor at the busier
season, by transferring it to one of comparative dullness. I may have
said that I consider him a good farmer who knows how to make a rainy day
equally effective with one that is dry and fair; and, in the same
spirit, I count him my master in this art who can make a day's work in
Autumn or Winter save a day's work in Spring or Summer. Show me a farmer
who has no land plowed when May opens, and is just waking up to a
consciousness that his fences need mending and his trees want trimming,
and I will guess that the sheriff will be after him before May comes
round again.

* * * * *

There is no superstition in the belief that land is (or may be) enriched
by Fall Plowing. The Autumn gales are freighted with the more volatile
elements of decaying vegetation. These, taken up wherever they are given
of in excess, are wafted to and deposited in the soils best fitted for
their reception. Regarded simply as a method of fertilizing, I do not
say that Fall Plowing is the cheapest; I do say that any poor field,
if well plowed in the Fall, will be in better heart the next Spring, for
what wind and rain will meantime have deposited thereon. Frost, too, in
any region where the ground freezes, and especially where it freezes and
thaws repeatedly, plays an important and beneficial part in aerating and
pulverizing a freshly plowed soil, especially one thrown up into ridges,
so as to be most thoroughly exposed to the action of the more volatile
elements. The farmer who has a good team may profitably keep the plow
running in Autumn until every rood that he means to till next season has
been thoroughly pulverized.

In this section, our minute chequer-work of fences operates to obstruct
and impede Plowing. Our predecessors wished to clear their fields, at
least superficially, of the loose, troublesome bowlders of granite
wherewith they were so thickly sown; they mistakenly fancied that they
could lighten their own toil by sending their cattle to graze, browse,
and gnaw, wherever a crop was not actually on the ground; so they fenced
their farms into patches of two or ten acres, and thought they had
thereby increased their value! That was a sad miscalculation. Weeds,
briars and bushes were sheltered, and nourished by these walls;
weasels, rats and other destructive animals, found protection and
impunity therein; a wide belt on either side was made useless or worse;
while Plowing was rendered laborious, difficult, and inefficient, by the
necessity of turning after every few hundred steps. We are growing
slowly wiser, and burying a part of these walls, or building them into
concrete barns or other useful structures; but they are still far too
plentiful, and need to be dealt with more sternly. O squatter on a wide
prairie, on the bleak Plains, or in a broad Pacific valley, where wood
must be hauled for miles and loose stone are rarely visible, thank God
for the benignant dispensation which has precluded you from half
spoiling your farm by a multiplicity of obstructing, deforming, fences,
and so left its soil free and open to be everywhere pervaded, loosened,
permeated, by the renovating Plow!





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