Friday, February 24, 2006

February Farmers Work From the Neck Down

There isn’t such a thing as down time when living on a farm. There is always something to do. Especially as we got older, my father was big into lists, especially the “to do” kind. He would write a list of things to do for the week, maybe even have another one for that particular season, and though the last one was never written down, he also had a mental one for the year. Although I have no conclusive proof, I think he had a twenty-two year list arranged by our age and ability to do tasks.

If I had to pick a slower time of the year, February would be near the top of the list. In the warmer months, there were always projects. In the early winter or early spring, there were always repairs and routine maintenance to do to equipment while the shop with its south face made of greenhouse type panels could still maintain a decent temperature on the colder days. But in February during the heart of the winter where Iowa often suffers from the most snow, lack of sunlight and bone chilling cold, it was a slower time. Not a down time but a slow time.

Although my parents were principally grain farmers, their farm consists of a patchwork of farms bought from other farmers who didn’t survive the great farm crisis of the early 80’s. These original farms were all small diverse affairs and almost everyone had livestock to support the family during lean times and provide the meat of their diets. Livestock requires fences and so there are numerous fences criss-crossing my parent’s land. I would hate to guess how much fence there was but if a gun were put to my head right now, I would say around 100 miles.

Most of the timber in this part of Iowa grows on the bottom grounds near rivers or in ditches that are unfarmable. My parents who were (and still are) ahead of their time for farmers, practiced conservation techniques even in the early part of their farming career in the 70’s. Part of this included planting trees for wildlife and wind control on parcels of land that were as my father would say, “miserable to farm,” or were just better suited to trees than corn or soybeans. But given the opportunity, trees could and would grow just about anywhere, especially in a fencerow where they were protected from tillage and mowing.

Trees that grew in a fencerow never did very well. They didn’t provide much wind control being only one tree deep and being hardwoods, they had lots of gaps in the branches that allowed the wind ample freedom of movement. They competed with crops for moisture and sunlight, which combined with the exposure to the elements, never did to well for them or the crops nearby. Because fencerows contain a buffer of grass on either side before the tillable dirt, trees planted there did little for erosion control. So trees didn’t offer much benefit for the farmer and they did have some defined negatives. Perhaps the worst of these negatives was the winds knocking limbs down into the field causing unplanned equipment failures when the farmer ran over them before seeing them. Even if the farmer saw them in time, they would have to stop and take the time to remove the offending branch and as they say, time is money.

In case you haven’t figured out where this is all going, one of my jobs during the slower month of farming in February was to walk the fence lines cutting down offending trees that were likely to fall into the path of farm equipment. Because it was often below zero, I was allowed to wait until late morning to start so that it wasn't quite as cold. Nevertheless, I could get all bundled up in my warm Carharts, load up the truck with chainsaws, sharpeners, spare parts, etc., and set off for some corner of my father’s farming empire to hunt down rascally junk trees. I would walk along the miles of fence line cutting down any tree that might potentially fall into the path of farming, cutting it up into man sized pieces and stacking them in the fence row to later be used by the wildlife as shelter.

A lot of the trees consisted of Osage Orange also known as Hedge trees or Ironwood. As the latter name suggests, the wood is very dense and hard on a chainsaw requiring frequents stops to sharpen the change. Always a bone-numbing task without gloves. Another common junk tree was the Honey Locust, specifically one sex of the tree. I can never remember which but there are male and female Honey Locust trees and one of them has long spikes covering their branches and trunk. You had to be careful handling these trees because a slip could mean a two-inch long spike buried into your thigh, shoulder or hand... all places where I have been speared. Because the spikes are poisonous, the places would always get infected and take lots of antibiotic cream and time to heal all the while trying to work with sore appendages. Of course, the least favorite of all is a bush named multiflora rose, which is a non-native species that was introduced to America by wealthy gardeners and later to farmers as a cheap alternative to fencing. The problem is that the species is extremely invasive, almost impossible to kill and as promised, trying to walk through a patch of it is like trying to walk through rows of military razor wire. I would rather do the latter if given the chance because it would merely slice you and not entangle you like brer rabbit.

Due to the many miles of fence and the shortness of February, thank god it only has 28 days three out of every four years, I would cut down these trees on an installment plan. I tried to get through all the more troublesome areas once every four or five years. The work was honest work that didn't tax the mind too much and as James McMurtry said in his song "Painting By Numbers," you work from the neck down. This had the benefit of keeping you warm but it also had the drawback of keeping you warm and not giving you an excuse to go in early. If the ground was frozen, the walking was rough going on the unforgiving ground. If it were thawed out and muddy, it was even worse trying to slog through with ten pounds of Edina clay sticking to the soles of your boot. Occasionally if there were several big trees in a spot, we would turn it into a family affair and just pile them up where they fell and light them on fire and later roast hotdogs or simply warm ourselves up.

Over the years, I have cut down several hundred trees and thousands of scrub brush this way but I have always repaid Mother Nature. Every spring my parents and I will plant four or five thousand new trees on their plentiful supply of "miserable farm ground" mostly in native hardwoods that will outlive my children. Unlike the trees in the fencerows, the actually contribute adequate shelter for wildlife, help break the surface winds up and thrive without having to compete with crops. So though some may look at this process as ecologically unfriendly, I think of it as a win/win situation.

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