The Lost Art of Cultivating: Weeds, Horse Flatulence, and Mick Jagger

Dad started farming before Harry Truman placed that little “the buck stops here” sign on his oval office desk, but he doesn’t let age stop him from helping with the fall harvest ritual. He hauls loaded wagons of corn, and as he says, “Being a tractor jockey is a piece of cake nowadays, with cabs and heaters. We used to wear lined coveralls and woolen underwear when we drove in November winds.”

Farming is still hard work, and Dad’s not the type to whine about how much tougher they had it in the “bad old, good old days.” But he knows his agricultural wikihistory, and according to him, grain farming has changed drastically. “Take the war on weeds, for instance,” he says. “Modern corn producers shoot for season-long weed control. After a post-emergence herbicide application, they want their next trip to the field to be with the combine.”
He’s happy that weed control is largely a no-hands affair now, but he still admires the techniques the old-timers used BC (Before Chemicals). “It’s a lost art, but cultivation was a daily routine. Many farmers made three passes through their cornfields, the first one when the corn was just emerging. If they covered up young shoots with their two-row cultivators, they had a stick so they could reach down from tractor seats to uncover the corn.”
Dad especially admires the farmers who could plant check rows and therefore cultivate “criss-crossed” as well as regular style. “My neighbor Ambrose was an artist. His planting was so geometrically perfect it was difficult to see which way the field was planted. Most farmers took pride in clean fields, and they were particular about the rows closest to the ends, the ones that windshield gawkers could see as they slowly drove the country roads.”

“Cultivating with horses was the biggest challenge,” Dad says. “But it had a special silent quality with the creak of the harness interrupted by songs of meadow larks and blackbirds following to eat insects and worms. Sitting behind a team of Belgians placed the operator in the wake of slobber, horse hair, and flatulence.”

Dad notes that some farmers fell asleep only to be awakened when the horses stopped at the fence. “An old neighbor told me about him and his father cultivating at night so the horses wouldn’t have to work in the heat of the day. However, a few hours of moonlight shining on a sea of rippling corn leaves caused his dad to become seasick, so they headed for the barn.”
My cultivating days were in the ’60s, and although I did my best, nobody would have called me an “artist.” On a few occasions I lost focus and had to spend time on my hands and knees replanting four rows of corn I’d ripped up for several yards. Luckily I never committed the ultimate act of cultivating degradation by ripping out a fence row or driving off into a ditch. I guess I stayed awake by singing along with the AM radio that was bolted to the fender of the tractor. All those hours listening–and I still don’t know why Jumpin’ Jack Flash was a gas, gas, gas.
A final field cultivation image sticks with me. After graduating from high school, I worked through the summer for a nearby farmer, and his fields were losing the war against cockleburs, foxtail, and pigweed.  During one afternoon, the cultivator plugged up constantly, and about the tenth time I jumped off the tractor to clear the shovels, I released frustration by yelling some choice “expletives deleted.” Sure enough, when I looked up from my toil, I saw the farmer’s kindly old mother standing nearby in the end rows. She had brought out a jar of lemonade for me. Even Eddie Haskell couldn’t have charmed his way out of that one.
My cultivation days ended when I drove off to college, but as Dad says, “It remains a viable practice for organic farmers. Some say it speeds corn growth and aerates the soil. Old timers maintain there’s nothing more satisfying than the sight of fresh dirt around rows of green corn turned by the Fourth of July.”
I’ll just have to trust him on that. Cultivation for me was anything but a “gas, gas, gas.”
by dan gogerty (horse photo from; combine photo from ars)

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