I wake up each morning plotting my day around any task that will involve the tractor.
I’m staying for extended periods on my son’s gentleman farm in Pennsylvania, the buildings and 20 acres of what was once a 500-acre dairy farm. All the homes that line Grubbs Mill Road sit on large lots carved out of this farm, which is more than two centuries old.
While staying in a cottage on the property – a cozy, one bedroom stone building converted some time ago from the dairy’s business office – I wake either to the rooster’s crowing, the goats’ mewling in the pasture just on the other side of my west facing patio doors, or workmen’s trucks pulling in to work on renovating the main house, built in 1811.
Each day starts with a plethora of small jobs that challenge my brazen hubris that believes man can prevail against nature.
The property has pastures to mow, fence lines to maintain, yards, flower beds and a garden to tend. House renovations leave rocks, tree limbs and shrubbery around the yard that need to go on the burn pile. Hurricane Ida piled debris along the stream and in the upper pasture; logs lay on the ground to saw and split. There is equipment to maintain and in the midst of it all, four grandkids to ferry to school and various activities.
I love to drive the John Deere 5210 diesel tractor with front end loader. It takes me back to the farms on and around where I grew. The tractor on our 80 acres was a little Ford Ferguson. It must have been 25 years old when we got it. It didn’t have brakes then, and we never did get them fixed.
My Norwegian bachelor uncle Don milked 19 cows on his dairy farm and was always looking for help from his nephews. By age 11 I was driving his John Deere B that started by hand cranking a fly wheel, and his Allis-Chalmers and Farmall H tractors. I cut hay and pulled a baler, behind which Don loaded the bales. For four summers after I turned 16 I drove pea combines and sweet corn pickers for the local canning company.
Tractors rumble with power and when you sit atop one, with enough horses at your fingertips to pull a loaded wagon, or scoop up a load of rock, that power ripples through your nerves to give you the sense that you, too, are powerful.
The Ford Ferguson I grew up with made up with a big heart what it lacked in muscle.
Our fields laid fallow for several years, taking advantage of the government’s soil bank program, through which it “rented” farm land to keep it out of production – to artificially prop up commodity prices. Because our area was at the leading edge of a glacier eons ago, we were the unfortunate beneficiaries when it melted of all the rocks and stones it had scraped off the surface on its way south.
The annual freeze and thaw cycle pushed those stones to the surface and a regular spring job for farm kids in my area was “picking stones.” We had to get them off the fields to keep them from breaking plant and harvest equipment.
Some of those stones were boulders as big as our little tractor. Their backs broke the ground like a blue whale about to surface. I’d dig around the boulder, wrap it with a chain and hook it to the tractor which would grunt and belch, straining to pull it out of the ground where we could pry it onto a “stone boat” – a sled of planks – and carry it off to a big hole in the woods.
Our little tractor pulled so hard its front wheels would rise off the ground. To keep the front end grounded and give us better traction, dad had me sit on the tractor’s hood, holding onto the radiator cap. My puny 130 pounds didn’t do much to keep the front wheels on the ground, but it was a fun ride.
The workhorse John Deere on my son’s farm is a much more substantial tractor. But I had a similar “can’t keep the wheels on the ground” issue with it, this time with the rear wheels. I was using the bucket to try to lift a fence post out of the ground.
When placed years ago, the post was seated in cement. Succeeding years saw tree roots grow around it. When I tied a strap to the post and pulled up on it with the bucket, I was shocked to feel myself sliding left to right in the air, my rear wheels airborne. It was a very insecure feeling, no matter how fleeting. I quickly lowered the bucket and my rear wheels returned to terra firma. From then, until the post finally broke off, my airborne rides were under conscious control.
My son’s family has been on White Horse Farm only a year. Seven-year-old Juliette describes them as the “White Horse Farmily.” Moving there from a big suburban house that bordered their school was intentional to give the kids a broader understanding of the life cycle, to give them meaningful tasks and thus the satisfaction of achievement, and to learn responsibility in a context where neglect may mean death of an animal.
Like John Denver, life on the farm “is kinda laid back” and that could be frustrating if finished product is the goal. The younger children, ages five and seven, come bright eyed, eager to learn and to help. But, their “help” sometimes prolongs the task and I cringe when dueling pitchforks threaten to knock out a tooth while getting new straw for the chickens.
I’ve learned though, that the most important thing is not the finish. As my son reassured me, working with the kids is not about efficiency, it’s about process. And we’re in the process of growing up, growing together, learning and living in an intergenerational context.
And tomorrow I get to hook up the brush hog and cut the pasture. With the tractor.