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By Staff | Oct 30, 2015

Dear Paul and Chris, I know you are both incredibly busy with your careers in the city so I thought I would dash off a quick note regarding life back here on the farm.

We had our first hard frost last week – nature’s annual mass murder of annuals.

It was clear that the growing season had ended, so I gave the garden a good plowing. One might think that I would tire of going over the same ground our family has farmed since your great-great-grandfather homesteaded here, but that hasn’t been the case.

Plowing is an ancient and fundamental part of farming. A moldboard plow slices out a strip of soil and flips it upside down.

This buries the plant residue and speeds its decomposition, but also leaves the topsoil vulnerable to wind and water erosion.

The moldboard plow is largely responsible for the Biblical dust storms that boiled across the continent during the Dirty Thirties.

But on a small scale, such as a garden, moldboard plowing will have a negligible environmental impact.

Plowing our garden wipes the slate clean and leaves it ready to be rewritten next spring. Plus, it’s a way to relive my childhood.

The plow that I own is very similar to one that my father had when I was a kid and is old enough to have been manufactured before the advent of pneumatic rubber tires.

Steel wheels are fine for my purposes, but are a pain in the patoot if you have to take the plow any distance on a road.

The clatter of unforgiving metal upon a hard surface is enough to invoke insanity.

I fired up our venerable 1949 John Deere “A” and pulled the plow out of its resting place in the shade of the trees near the chicken coop.

The plow’s lays (its cutting edges, also known as plowshares) and moldboards had become somewhat rusted despite my application of a generous coat of axle grease last fall.

A rusty plow won’t scour. Soil slides easily across the surface of a properly scouring plow, turning the earth with great efficiency, creating glossy chunks of dirt that glint in the sun like shards of bottle glass.

This phenomenon lasts until the soil dries, perhaps just a few minutes. I installed an abrasive wheel on my angle grinder and buzzed off the rust at 10,000 rpm. The results were satisfactory although not perfect.

The moldboards were rust-free, yet weren’t nearly as shiny as they should be. Only plowing can give a plow its soil polish, a slippery, silvery finish that throws your face back at you like a funhouse mirror.

I pointed the “A” down the centerline of the garden and pulled the trip rope (my plow predates hydraulics and is dropped into and pulled out of the dirt via a ground-driven lift system).

I engaged the “A’s” clutch and the tractor leaned into the clevis like an old workhorse eager to feel the familiar tug of the harness. The plow bit into the earth, turning over twin 14-inch-wide slabs of ebony loam.

The plow didn’t scour perfectly, but it worked well enough to accomplish the task. I knew that if I could only plow for half a day more the moldboards would achieve that desired soil polish.

But, alas. Our garden was completely black in 10 minutes.

The job wouldn’t be finished until I had properly stored the plow for next fall. As I cleaned the sticky dirt from the moldboards, I inhaled the rich tones of fresh, damp topsoil.

I thought about the trillions of bacteria that inhabit each cubic centimeter of soil, along with the iron and the calcium and the other nutrients that will feed the plants that will feed us.

Or that will feed the animals that would become our dinner guests.

I smeared a new coat of axle grease onto the moldboards. This is a slimy task, although not a disagreeable one for me. It brought back memories of the autumn afternoon when your grandpa first showed me how to spread the grease evenly across the moldboards, not leaving any bare spots that might allow the loathsome corrosion to gain a toehold.

As I slathered the grease, I considered the plow’s various parts: its chisel-like lays, its sensuously curving moldboards, its triangular frogs.

How many people could identify a plow’s frog? How many would know that a horse has a similarly named structure beneath its hooves? Autumn fills my brain with useless trivia.

The garden is as clean as a brand-new blackboard and we – the garden, the plow, Mom and I – are ready for another winter. And so the cycle continues.

Your mom and I send our love,


Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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