One furrow at a time

By David Turner in Places, Events, & History

One day last fall I pulled off the highway to watch a farmer plowing a field of cornstalks. It was a seven furrow “reversible” plow. Unlike a conventional plow that moves the earth in one direction, the driver of this machine simply made a circle at the end of the field, hit the switch to activate the reversing mechanism and headed back the way he or she came. Despite being snug inside an environmentally controlled work station, I couldn’t help but feel the operator was missing something…that “feel of the earth” ability experienced by earlier generations.

There was a wide gulf between this twenty-first century tillage system and the two-furrow Allis-Chalmers plow I remember as a child. In the mid 1950’s as it had been for generations, plowing was considered a combination of science and art. Depending upon the geographical structure of the field, an hour, more or less was needed to simply strike out “lands”.

Lands were pre-measured sections of a field calculated prior to beginning the actual plowing process. After each segment was marked by a single pass of the tractor and plow; it was simply a matter of driving up one side and down the other until the two parcels of tilled earth joined.

If the acreage in question was reasonably level, a series of steel posts on opposing sides of the field, discernible with a red handkerchief or similar signal was sufficient. With the rolling hills and valleys that dominated our Perth County farm, extra “in between” posts were essential.

As an alternative to hammering in a succession of marker posts across this varied topography, often my brothers and I were recruited as guiding beacons. “Now don’t move!” Dad would instruct as he set off to the next marking station. Whether steel post, small boy or a combination thereof, this practice was time consuming, manually stepping out the distance between the various markers; but according to our father, essential…especially if the field in question was situated at the front of the farm. Where minor deformities might be acceptable in the “back forty”, nothing but a straight, perfectly executed furrows were appropriate next to the road where neighbours and other passers-by would no doubt pass judgment.

After each land was marked out in satisfactory faction, it was time to “set the plow”…another time-consumer. A proper front to back plane was crucial as was the adjustment keeping the plow horizontal, compensating of course for the one tractor wheel riding in the furrow. The coulters also demanded critical attention; the depth they travelled through the soil, as their position, both horizontally and vertically in relation to the moldboard.

By the time I evolved to plowman, our Allis-Chalmers tractor had been upgraded to a Massey-Ferguson sporting a triple-bottom unit. Although I lacked Dad’s patience for “fine-tuning (if it was fine last year…its fine now) plowing soon became my favourite farming activity.

Perhaps it was the fact there wasn’t the same rush that seemed to accompany other conducts of agriculture, such as seeding, haying and harvest. There was something almost intoxicating about plowing on an open tractor on a sunny autumn day; daydreaming to the drone of the Perkins diesel while the field turn to black behind you, all the while relishing that unmistakable scent of newly-turned soil flooding over a steel moldboard.

Dad who grew up in the era of horses would occasionally comment on the satisfying experience of walking behind a well-matched team and single-furrow plow on a crisp autumn afternoon. With just one nine inch bottom, every acre covered, constituted a walk of ten miles. In this pre-tractor era, one could appreciate the harmony of dying leaves rattling in the soft breeze, backgrounded by the steady breathing of the horses and scream of seagulls.

This tranquil scene was frequently interrupted when the plow struck one of the numerous stones hidden beneath the surface. After all, this was Grey County…Artemesia Township in particular…notorious for population of stones per square inch. At the turn of the twentieth century when my great-grandfather chose this particular patch of ground for settlement, he was aware of the proliferation of stones but reasoned it would be a “one time” engagement to remove them. Ha!

Dad claimed an assured measure of strength and agility was needed at the best of times to keep the plow on an even keel. Coming in contact with a submerged rock, would send the plow handles bolting skyward, nearly removing your arms from their sockets…or the alternative when the maple handles slammed into your chest or smacked you in the jaw.

In time, Dad’s father purchased a “ride on” unit. This certainly beat walking but did nothing to curb the seemingly insurmountable issue of stones. In actuality it amplified the problem as unsuspecting riders were often pitched headfirst onto the ground when the plow came to an abrupt stop. That’s not the sensation I had in mind when referring to “feel of the earth.”

Over the years, there was one particular stone on my grandfather’s farm that except in polite company came to be known simply as the “bastard” stone. For a generation it had caused misery for both man and machine. Initially it was deep enough that tillage equipment skimmed or bounced over it with little repercussion; but over the seasons, this rock, methodically and systematically, laboured its way toward the surface, in the process seemingly developing an intellect of its own; not unlike an iceberg waiting to ambush an unsuspecting ship.

This dreaded rock had many a broken plow shear, chipped coulter, broken cultivator tooth, bent harrow prong, busted guard and mutilated knife section to its credit; anything invading its territory was fair game and nothing appeared immune. It was my grandfather’s belief this wretched rock had been placed by the devil himself.

A logical conclusion seemingly, was simple removal of the obstruction wreaking such havoc. Well it wasn’t that easy and it surely wasn’t for lack of trying! Every year or so a concentrated effort was undertaken; Armed with shovels, picks, pry bars, various lengths of heavy steel chain and other implements of destruction, plus a team of strong patient horses, the ordeal would begin. But this rock was like nothing ever encountered and invariably the exercise would conclude in a fit of frustration, with only broken or bent tools, frayed nerves, busted chain links and a string of obscenities, the result.

My father’s solution seemed elementary…mark the spot where the bastard rock lay and simply manoeuvre around it. However for reasons that defy logic, the markers had a habit of simply disappearing. A marker placed with care in the fall was gone come spring. Similarly an indicator placed in the spring vanished by autumn. Sometimes it seemed the rock itself relocated a measurable distance each year of its own volition, adding credence to the “devil” theory.

Finally in 1946, the year the plow hit the rock in question with such force that it not only propelled the operator into a mid-air somersault, but bent the frame, rendering the implement useless. Not until a neighbour with a newly acquired bulldozer wrenched the despicable encumbrance…measuring more than four feet in diameter…from the earths grip and dragged it unceremoniously to the nearest fence side, did this particular trial reach its conclusion.

Plow manufacturers grappled with the issue of stones for decades. Early attempts involved shear pins, but in a setting such as Artemesia, a farmer would spend more time replacing pins than plowing. Another practice witnessed the entire moldboard swinging rearward on a hinge, the operator than reversing to allow re-engagement. This practice as well became frustrating, as well as time-consuming.

International-Harvester developed a unit operating on the same principle, but using hydraulic pressure to automatically release the moldboard. “Non-stop” plowing had arrived; a disadvantage was the several feet of ground left unplowed waiting for the moldboard to complete its cycle, and although functioning adequately when new, over time, leaking and ruptured hydraulic hoses became the rule rather than exception.

Scandinavian machinery companies assailed the shortcomings of hydraulic failure with the simplicity of coil springs, leaf springs or torsion bars. Computer science has apparently reached the point today where plows actually “sense” a stone before it is reached and react accordingly.


…Sitting in my van on the shoulder of the road, I continued to watch this state-of-the-art tillage system easily accomplishing in an hour what once took me a day. And I have to admit when today’s machines encounter an obstruction, the chances of the operator hurtling through the cab’s windshield en route to a face plant in the plowed ground is extremely unlikely. So…on reflection…maybe that, “feel of the earth” syndrome to which I referred was not all it was cracked up to be!