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By Staff | Oct 15, 2010

There once was a time when it was as common as dirt, but the prevailing attitude turned against this activity. You don’t see it much anymore, although it’s made a modest comeback in recent years.

No, I’m not talking about kazoo playing. What I mean is the fine art of plowing.

Some of us can recall when plowing was a mandatory farming practice. The main motivation behind moldboard plowing can be explained by the old adage that the best defense is a strong offense. And as far as weeds are concerned, there’s nothing more offensive than being sheared off and buried.

The reason for plowing losing favor can be found in the phrase “The Dirty Thirties.” It was once theorized that rain followed the plow. Turn the sod, release the moisture trapped beneath and — ta-da! — monsoons! It’s the climate equivalent of finding change under the couch cushions.

This theory held up as settlers pushed steadily westward. But at some point you’ll run into, say, the Mojave Desert. Plow all you want in such an area and you won’t produce a single additional drop of rain. So while plowing may be an effective tool for busting sod, it’s a bust as a climate modification tool.

Plowing was still the standard operating procedure when I was a kid. Conventional wisdom held that your corn crop would fail utterly unless the ground had been plowed. It’s akin to taking a girl out on a couple of dates before even daring to hope for a kiss.

My grandpa Hammer, who lived well into his 90’s, once told me that over his lifetime he’d had a plow in the ground every month of the year. I don’t know if this meant he had actually plowed during each month. Perhaps he, like us, had a junky plow that broke down and was left in the furrow for some time.

Plowing was more than just preparing the ground for the next crop; it was also a venue for showing off your farming skills. It was a point of pride to have laser-straight furrows, even though lasers hadn’t yet been invented.

One supposed test for quality plowing involved firing a rifle down the furrow. If the bullet didn’t touch either side of the furrow, your plowman met the standard of straightness.

I have my doubts about that one. I don’t recall hearing a lot of rifle shots ringing out across the countryside when folks were plowing.

The plow has been largely supplanted by gigantic, Rube Goldberg-like soil finishing tools. This single piece of equipment does everything: it discs, it cultivates, it harrows. I wouldn’t be surprised if it also whipped up a margarita for you at the end of the day.

The field is left as smooth as a garden plot, with bits of crop residue tastefully decorating its surface. The tractor carves a line that’s as straight as a GPS guided missile; the operator has little to do other than to loll in climate-controlled comfort. The tractor driver’s biggest hardship is boredom, which can be staved off by watching a movie on the onboard DVD player.

Compare that to my kidhood situation, namely, an open platform tractor that left me totally exposed to the elements. When it was windy — which was always — I was sandblasted by the dirt carried up by the tractor’s back tire. Worm-hunting gulls hovered mere feet above my head, eliciting no small amount of bird poop anxiety.

In other words, it was wonderful. This plowboy got to experience Nature and the land up close and personal. My furrows may have more closely resembled a corkscrew than a laser, but I figured that next year’s corn crop would neither notice nor care.

One fall, our fall plowing took longer than normal. Even though the weather had turned cold and the soil stiff, I was sent out to the south forty to finish flipping it.

The wind began to thunder down from the northwest and the gunmetal sky lowered to the ground. Snow began to fall; timidly at first, but fat flakes soon filled the air.

I kept on plowing and began to burying snow along with the stubble. It reminded me of how the ancient Romans supposedly plowed salt into the soil of a conquered nation. I wondered how many tons of salt that would take per acre and how many tons of snow I was turning under. These are the sort of things a person ponders when he doesn’t have an onboard DVD player.

The only furrows I have nowadays are those in my brow. And despite the discomfort and depravations, I would give anything to again be that gritty and chilly young plowboy who had carnivorous gulls up the kazoo.

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