« The Very Same Problems | Main | Amazing I Say »

Friday, 03 January 2014

Weed Wars: The Lost Art of Cultivating

By Dan Gogerty who blogs at Cast

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.”

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Please read instructions for submitting.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


This is the kind of farming I grew up with as well, "museum farming" as my brother calls it. We now live in the Platte River Valley with nothing but irrigated corn as far as the eye can see - non of which is edible, dangerous drinking water, no wildlife to found, and soil that is a virtually a dead growing medium, sustained by the heavy application of chemicals and pivot irrigation pumps going 24 hours a day. Yes, the farmers in business are gazillionaires now, except for the occasional organic or sustainable ag guy, but I believe we lost much more than most realize.

Although there was, and still is, a lot of vegetable farming in the part of Georgia where I grew up, I remember the cotton fields most of all. There is no more hand-picking and when the machines finish their job they leave bits of cotton on the stalks all over the fields. I love to drive through southern Georgia when the cotton is in bloom and the fields look like fields of snow.

Thank you, Dan, for artfully bringing me to the 1930's when Pa gave into his pesky 11-year old daughter by putting the reins of the dapple grays, Twinkle and Tuff, into my hands to drive the corn cultivator. This was one of the softer horse jobs, even though seated on that hard iron cultivator seat. I thrilled at all that horse power coming back to me through the reins. With my eyes glued far ahead along the rows of corn between the horses, I'd sneak glimpses between my feet, fascinated by the earth curling away from the plowshares. Years later when learning to drive a car, it struck me that my corn cultivating instincts kicked in; outfitting me with space and movement sense from having eyeballed those precise 90-degree turns from the headlands to avoid pulling up tender stalks of corn.

I remember picking cotton at my cousin's farm. I'm not sure how much help I was - I was only five years old and on crutches and braces, but I wanted to be with the other kids, who were all picking cotton. That's a tough job, and ultimately a painful one. But old-style farming was wonderful. They still worked with horses too, I love the smell and solid bulk of a horse and would love to have one, though I cannot ride.

I often say I was born in the wrong century because my idea of heaven would be to be a farmer, but of course I'd never have grown up if I'd have been born in the 19th century. Still I experienced bit of old-style farming and I treasure those memories.

The comments to this entry are closed.