“Along the fence, bordering the driveway, is the ideal strip in which to grow turnips. It is forty feet wide and about one hundred feet long. Were I to plant the small red and white turnips in that spot, I’d be able to move electric net fencing for forty days, one strip of one-foot by one-hundred-feet each day, to feed my sheep. Strip grazing. In the process they would fertilize the ground and pound their manure into the earth with their little sharp feet. It was the realization that root crops could be winter fodder for livestock that revolutionized farming in the Middle Ages.”
— Sylvia Jorrin, “Sylvia’s Farm: the journal of an improbable shepherd
Not long ago, I had a chat with a wise old fellow, who said he watched so many wide, open farms disappear in to buildings and driveways and parking lots over his lifetime. Lovely strips of woods became farm ground, and what was once a lovely setting of countryside became someone’s new home.
“I could sit here and cry in my soup, but it’s the way it has always been, from the early days of civilization. Change comes over time, and a fellow has to see the good in it.” Adapting. Farmers have had to learn to roll with it, to buy additional land when it became available, even when it wasn’t in the long-range plan. Dairy farmers have learned to farm smart and make the most of each cow in the herd. Beef farmers have watched cycles build and then drop, over and over again throughout a lifetime.
Crop rotation often comes at a cost, but those who survive learn on the fly and do what they can to maximize each tillable acre.
Our grandfathers could tell us a thing or two about the challenges of hay harvest, cut and stored in stacks, worry of spoilage out-gunned only by their ever-present fear of fire. My great-grandfather often told the story of helping neighbors with not only wheat threshing but the hard work of putting up hay, both labor-intensive and necessary.
At a time when neighbors were like family, there was one subject that did not allow for genteel manners: pipe and cigar smokers were very soundly not welcome in those old barns, for one errant spark could cost a family everything in the blink of an eye.
“If you need to smoke that thing, you walk out to the road,” one fellow told his new son-in-law. “Anything with a flame is not welcome anywhere on this farm,” my grandfather said his neighbor was known to have said. “Those were stern words, but there was no beating around the bush on such an important matter,” he said.
In a lean year, some livestock had to be slaughtered by late November even if initially earmarked to be fed out til Spring. Better to use the meat to feed a family than to watch cattle go hungry and suffer over a harsh winter.
Root crops helped to change a lot of those lean year losses. Both cows and sheep could eat the tender tops, and pigs and fowl could be fattened up by what was left on the ground.
Some families yearned to put farming in their past, the steady pay of city jobs calling, filled with promise. This, too, stands the cycle of time, as we now seem to be seeing more and more city dwellers longing for a small patch of ground to grow their food and family on.
Life is a cycle, no matter when or where we are dropped in to it.
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