Breathless on the Farm

Spring means plowing on our New Hampshire vegetable farm, and plowing means a marked feeling of breathlessness for all of us here. First, there is the breathlessness that comes from the sheer hard work of plowing, since plowing is the beginning of the heavy horse-work of the season.

The horses are puffing, and they like a nice rest at the end of the field, or at both ends of the field, preferably. The teamster is puffing too, as he drives the horses, adjusts the plow, tries to follow a relatively straight line, and also tries to stay in his seat, as the plow lurches and bounces.

The plow doesn't always lurch and bounce, but on more than one occasion, my fellow farmer has been tossed entirely off. This has made me, the non-plowing farmer, more than a little breathless too.

I do not like to see my fellow tossed off anything. So far he has always scrambled back to his feet, kept hold of the horses, and climbed back on. I would be even more breathless if he wasn't scrambling, since scrambling means a farmer still has the energy and the sound limbs to keep on plowing.

One especially worrisome day, several years ago, while I was attending to another farm chore, my fellow came back from the field, gimping a little, and announced, “I have to get a new plow, or I'm going to break my neck!”

Even the very conservative member of the budget committee, me that is, who had been fending off new plow suggestions for years, was impressed by this report. Well, gee, if those are my choices . . . maybe we really had better get a new plow.

Happily, things have improved since we sold the old plow, and bought one that is both more balanced and more suitable for our soils and the slope of our gardens. Plus, after eighteen years of plowing, my fellow has learned quite a bit about the work, including how to soothe his breathless fellow farmer by waving cheerfully and non-brokenly as he scrambles back on the plow.

And too, the non-plowing farmer can encourage herself by remembering how very much better this plowing is than either the plowing with the old plow, or the plowing with the old old plow, which happened in our very first year of farming on our own.

That year, my fellow farmer, eager as always, harnessed the horses for their first big job. The horses started right in. But they didn’t get far. My fellow adjusted the plow. The horses heaved. They went a few more yards. My fellow stopped again, readjusted the plow. The horses, already puffing and sweating, struggled ahead again. A few more yards.

My fellow stopped, readjusted. Plow a little, readjust, plow a little, bang on another likely looking piece of plow. Still it did not go well. Was it the soil, in sod for thirty years? Was it the plow? Was it the horses? Was it the farmer?

My fellow took a look around: were there any old-time teamsters strolling by? Taking a walk in the spring air perhaps? Looking for a young farmer to help out? But the road was empty. The farmer was all alone, in a huge field of sod, with a plow, two unhappy horses, and a big headache.

By the end of the morning my fellow's voice was nearly gone from urging the horses on. They were plowing only a few inches deep, but the horses were jumping in their collars. Their muscles quivered. It was more difficult than any of us thought. In fact, it seemed rather awful. We despaired for our horses, our garden, ourselves. We felt like giving up farming.

Finally, in the afternoon, there was barely a quarter acre plowed, not even half of what we hoped to have ready. It would have to be enough. It was not until the second plowing, two months later, for the fall crops, that we found out that the plow was set up for a team of three horses, with a sixteen inch instead of twelve inch plow bottom. Four inches didn’t seem like much. Four inches nearly did us all in.

We lavished praise on our good-hearted, hard-working team, apologized, promised this would never happen again. We replaced the plow bottom so that the plow was ready for a team of two. “Wish me luck!” my fellow farmer said, as he went out to the field for another try.

I wished my fellow luck, fervently, and I am still wishing him luck today, as once again he eagerly harnesses the horses for spring plowing. I am grateful, for the horses, for the new plow, for the field, for all we've learned over the years, and most especially, that my fellow farmer and the horses are still eager . . . and not just eager, you might say, but breathless.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, April 10-16, 2019