Gas Engine Blogs > Field Notes

In Want of a Plow

Nothing quite makes you appreciate the evolution of farming technology like trying to do something by hand. 

I’ve always been interested in history, and agricultural history holds a certain personal connection for me (all my grandparents grew up on farms of one kind or another, and visits to the family farm and ranch were the highlights of my summers, growing up). But it wasn’t until more recently that I really started taking a hard look at the tools and implements that are central to that agricultural history: I joined the Farm Collector staff, and I began planning to move somewhere where I would have some room for experimenting with gardening, preserving, and a scale of DIY projects that can’t fit into a two-bedroom apartment with no balcony.   

A few months ago, my boyfriend and I secured the lease of a small house on five acres. We haven’t (quite!) moved in yet, but we’re excited about the land, the woodstove, the chance to have dogs again and, perhaps most immediately, the garden. 

5acre house1 
The new place. 

Our future landlord was a friend (and our mechanic) before he became our landlord, and he’s open to us doing pretty much whatever we want with the space – gardening, chickens, goats, rain barrels and graywater reclamation, windmills, pretty much anything we want to put the effort into. But he hasn’t really done much with the land other than use it as space to store tools and old trucks, meaning that if we want a garden, we have to start from scratch. 

In many ways, we prefer this approach. It means that we can have a pretty good idea of what’s in the soil (and it’s fantastic soil, wonderfully rich and fluffy), and we can have exactly the garden layout we want, right from the beginning. But at the moment our cultivation tools consist of two shovels, two double-bladed weed cutters, a rake, a borrowed hoe and a machete our landlord lent us when we had trouble digging a tree out from under a rock wall. This is rather significant step into the past, as far as farm technology goes. We don't even have scythes.

weed cutters
The double-bladed weed cutters. One has a straight edge and one is serrated, and they’re both pretty sharp. The handles are about 3-1/2 feet long, so there’s lots of bending over if we want to chop off most of the grass. Perhaps someday we’ll get around replacing the handles with something more suited to our heights. Or we could actually invest in properly sized scythes. 

After a few hours of using the weed cutters to cut down the native grasses growing over our chosen plot and digging up rocks and root systems one spadeful at a time, I was feeling a little conflicted. I was proud of our progress and excited to finally be taking some concrete steps towards growing some of my own food, but I was also thinking that really, this is why plows were invented. And steam engines and tractors, if you get right down to it. 

At one point my boyfriend asked, “Can you imagine how much back-breaking labor was required to clear land by hand?” 

I’m starting to. I’m already looking forward to next year, when we’ll be able to spend some time top-dressing the garden beds and won’t need to do much more than loosen the dirt a bit before planting. This year, in order to plant our seeds on time and not spend money on something like buying soil when we already have plenty of our own (covered in hay grass as it is), we’re digging.  

Cut grass 
The space we “mowed” with the weed cutters, waiting for us to dig beds and set paths. 

hay field 
The rest of the land, all professionally cut by a neighbor who uses the hay to feed his cows. (We chose the un-mowed space for the garden because it gets lots of sun and is inside the space we can afford to fence off. The fence is intended to keep our future dogs from close interaction with the highway at the bottom of the hill.) 

It’s the sort of thing to make me want a Choremaster or a broadfork, or a walking plow and maybe a mule. A sod-cutter could be particularly useful, barring the fact that my boyfriend swears they’re just as miserable to use as the basic shovel method. Unfortunately, a mule and plow, or a garden tractor, or even a manual sod cutter, seems like a rather big investment for about 200 square feet of cultivated land. I’m tempted to ask the neighbors if I can borrow some of the old iron decorating their front lawn (I’ve been able to recognize a plow, a planter and a disc harrow so far, and I’m fairly certain they also have a manure spreader.), but it’s probably not in working condition, even if they would lend it to me.

Digging it is, but in the interest of saving ourselves some headaches, we’re going to try to kill the grass and start the roots decaying by layering newspaper and mulch over the space. Hopefully that’ll keep the frustration to a minimum and allow us to move on to the next projects (building a fence and constructing a chicken tractor) in the next few weeks.  

In the meantime, I’ll wield my shovel and start planning for a little more land, and the proper tools for working it. I’m pretty sure it’s something of a family tradition.