Friday, November 14, 2008

Bush Hogging

There's nothing more satisfying than mowing a pasture with a bush hog. If you haven't, done it then allow me to try and give you a glimpse of farming’s most enjoyable chore.

The road goes straight for about 4 blocks and veers left at a big oak tree, and then heads out of town. The black top winds left, and then right past old houses, broken down barns, and old fences. Then the road plunges into the coolness of the Carolina forest, and just as suddenly rises to the top of a bare treeless hill, the highest spot in Union County.

Over the hill, just a few miles outside of Waxhaw you'll find a large pond, that has been there so long that the road known as State Highway "Ten Oh Eight” makes a wide turn to the right to avoid it and then runs shore line of the pond that sits at the edge of a large terraced field.

I turn left just before the pond onto a gravel drive, stopping just off the road and short of the aluminum gate with four rusty locks that are linked together. I have the key to one of the locks. Mine has a dab of hunting vest orange paint, as it makes it easier to spot at night.

The other locks belong to my dad, and brother and a farm hand named Mr. Robinson.

The unlocked chain drops to the dust and gravel where it will lay until motivation moves me, or the day is over. There's work to be done and I need to conserve my energy. Not to mention it's a little cold this morning.

The long gravel drive washes out from time to time, then heavy rain from the field above fills in the pot holes that developed over the summer, caused by many trucks that roll in and out during the season. It will need a load of gravel before winter rains come.

Until a month ago the field held soybeans, they have since been harvested. They grow by inches in the late summer heat, green one day, browned and dry the next, now all that remains is stubble, dirt and little sprigs of green.

In the Carolina's most fields are on a two crop rotation, ours is soy beans and winter rye. With sorghum molasses planted between a few rows in mid summer to attract doves, quail and from time to time ducks and geese during the fall. In a month or so the field’s red clay will be awash in green rye grass.

The white farm house dates to the late 1920's, leans a little to the right and is in need of paint. The green trim on the windows and the white on the lap boards has cracked and begun to chip away in the long summer’s heat.

The barn was built around 1940. It is strong and proud with elements of both simplicity and majesty. The gates on both sides of the barn are original, made of oak and painted emerald green. The gates have bowed and sagged this way and that over the many years of use, and have noticable signs of frequent repair.

Brigadoon Farms is a collection of property purchased from the late Woodrow Bryum. A dairy farm operated here until 1968. Further down the road is Faint Hope Farm which once belonged to Woodrow's brother. The Plyler's had a place another mile down the road it too is part of the property.

The drive is nearly a 1/4 mile long and makes a sweeping turn past the front of the house and around back past a cinder block dairy barn where they used to milk six cows at a time, a chicken coop with 2 dozen Rhode Island Red chickens, a small garden and a tall metal equipment shed with five bays.

An IH tractor sits covered in dust under this galvanized shelter at the west end of the yard. It's enclosed at the rear western side and is open to the east. There a touch of fall in the air and the morning sun feels good on my face. My coffee has been sitting on the hood of the tractor only five minutes, but it's now for the most part, cold.

I long for the comfort of a pressurized cab and a shiny new John Deer Tractor under me, for today the cold steel seat of the thirty year old tractor makes the coffee seem almost warm.

I check the oil, and the transmission fluids, seeing that all is as it should be, I locate the key from the side mounted tool box and the tractor starts on the first crank, though it runs rough for the first minute or so.

The RPM gage rises and falls as the exhaust stack coughs black and grey soot. Once the red and white tractor settles down, I stomp the clutch hard and push the long shift lever into 1st gear, the tractor lurches forward with a sputter and then crawls at a painfully slow pace.

Out in the yard I swing on to the wide gravel drive, stomp the clutch again and come to an abrupt stop. I put the tractor into 2nd gear, release the clutch and jump to 5 mph, the large tractor tires thumping the ground at a satisfactory pace. I make the loop around the old farm house check both the left and right brakes and head back to the shed.

There is a battered red bush hog that sits at the far end of the shed, next to it an out house and in front of it a white bee hive. I often wonder if the former owners had a sense of humor or it was some kind of theft protection system, because unless you back the tractor just so and then swing left at just the right moment you’ll hit one or the other on your way out. It's better to hit the outhouse; just ask my brother or the folks at the Union County Hospital Emergency Room.

I connect the three point hitch, and then the mower’s drive shaft to the power take off; my hands are already covered with grease and grime.

I Leave the tractor running and wash my hands in the cold water that is pumped from the cinder block well house out near the road its roof good for another year. But the old roof will give way if we get a heavy snow.

In the Carolina's we only get snow every other year, but often when we do it's a big one, meaning at least three inches which in these parts a 1/4 an inch will snarl traffic for hours.

Hands clean, and the tractor warmed up, I gently ease out the clutch but the beast still lurches forward lunging toward the bee hive. I raise the mower as high as it will go at the last second, it's just enough to clear the hive except the single rear wheel that wildly pivots left then right then left again. The wheel swings right and I turn the tractor hard to the left and the bees are spared.

Past alarm system, I roll back on to the drive. I stomp the clutch and hit second gear while rolling and head towards the back pasture. My brother and dad have moved the 10 Hereford steers to one pasture and the 30 or so cows to the pasture with the pond along the road the day before.

My job is to mow 30 acres, removing sticker bushes, and broom straw and weeds and to pulverize anything else the gets in the way. Cutting the pasture short does a couple of things, first it distributes cow pies, and second it gives much needed sun light to the grass. One good heavy rain and the grass will explode with new growth and a deep green emerald color in only a few days.

The massive bush hog blades whirl and the tractor shakes as I engage the PTO and the tractor wheels roll at a solid pace, deliberate and powerful. The pasture is terraced and slopes down toward a smaller pond that dates to at least 1910. I start high and make the first cut, a path six feet wide and it takes me about ten minutes to reach the far side of the pasture. The sound is steady and reassuring. I look over my shoulder at the swath cut by the mower, the blades have swept up any trace of dew on the morning grass.

It's not long before the deafening sound of quartz and granite rocks being pulverized wakes me with a jolt, the large chunks ricocheting around the inside of the mower. I hate the sound and lift the mower deck with the three point hitch, the racket eases and I lower the deck again. The sound of rocks being pulverized will repeat a hundred times, and if I'm lucky I'll survive the day unscathed. But a scar on my right leg is a reminder that tractor work can be dangerous as rocks tend bounce off of most everything, except me.

You might be tempted to ask why I'm so lazy and why I don't pick up the rocks before I mow the field? Well, you could pick up all the rocks, and cris-cross the field clearing all the rocks, but nature has a way of putting the rocks back in the field. Actually, in this part of the country they just work up through the soil. I took me about three years to figure this out.

There are so many rocks that if they each had even a slight trace of gold we'd be millionaires, and that is not that far fetched as the Howey Gold Mine is just a mile or so down the road.

Before long, I get into a steady rhythm of mowing, and I find myself humming along with the mower and tractor just to keep myself in sync. It's sort of a hummm rummm rummm that goes on hour after hour.

By noon I need fuel and some lunch, so I elect to make the run for fuel with the tractor and not the pickup with the fuel tank. Ever the risk taker, being as the fuel gauge is not accurate, I head out on to the state road. The traffic is polite and I suspect that farmers enjoy holding up the traffic, as I bounce happily along down the road letting the thick rubber tractor treads slap my hand.

In town I'm somewhat of a novelty act, not farmer or city folk just somewhere in between, something I guess the folks on Green Acres knew well, or Jed Clampert of the Beverly Hillbillies might have suspected. I never could figure out why a man who had made his money in oil would move to the city or California for that matter.

In short order I'm back, making tracks in the pasture and doing my hummm rummm rummm thing again. By four in the afternoon the sun is beginning to close in on the horizon, fall colors of burnt orange and rusty brown are abundant and I'm covered in sticker burs and grass. It's a good thing I'm not allergy prone or I'd be a mess by now. The dust and grass is everywhere; it's in my nose, my hair, and even in my pockets.

But as I make the final sweep across the pasture, and hit the few missed spots, there is instant gratification when I look across the freshly mowed field. The mower has trimmed the grass and the pasture to a uniform shape, gone are the weeds and brown sticks and brush, replaced by velvet green that will only intensify over the coming weeks.

My back aches, my face is wind burned and my butt is numb. Tomorrow I'll return to my office job, wearing a suit and tie.

As I watch the sunset, and the leaves depart from the trees I can't help but think about what this land has given to us over the many years. Perhaps today I've given something back, knowing that the work on a farm is never ending. The pasture looks good today but it will not last, for with the sun comes a new day and with the new day there will be more work to do, because a farmer’s work is never done.

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