Whitman is Hardly an Expert in the Poaceae Family

I know 2020 has been less than stellar, and I hate to be the bearer of more bad news, but for all of you who thought Leaves of Grass would be the perfect gift for the farmer in your life, your gift is going to be a dud. 

I ordered it a few months ago because farmers are always pestering me with questions about pasture grass identification, and I needed a good pocket manual, something that I could whip out of my back pocket and refer to in times of doubt. This manual had nearly a five-star rating on Amazon and was a slim volume, only 145 pages. I thought that’s just what I need.

Yikes! Do not, I repeat, DO NOT open and recite anything from this manual in the presence of a big-time cattle farmer, no matter how stumped you are by a strange grass clump. At best, if you live in an area with rocky topsoil, you’ll be quickly stoned to death. At worst, you’ll be left to wander the pasture alone, while the big-time cattle farmer hurries over the horizon to the nearest gas station grill, Lowry’s Country Corner, to insert into circulation the vicious rumor that the local soil conservationist likes poetry. Afterward, you’ll be forced to live the rest of your days as an agricultural outcast and farmers will point and snicker at you at the sale barn and ask you, derisively, if you’ve read lately at any open mic nights.

So, just FYI, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is not the authoritative source for species identification in the grass family. For a more accurate field guide, I suggest, “Grasses, Sedges, and Rushes: An Identification Guide” by Lauren Brown and Ted Elliman.

Remembering the Prickly Parts

A few years ago, after plowing up an old terrace, I found an arrowhead, a mostly intact quartz tip. I rushed inside to show my wife, but she hardly shared my enthusiasm and seemed more interested in the dirt clods I left on the floor. So, I ended up taking the arrowhead to work to show off, and I just happened to leave it on my desk, where it remains to this day. The arrowhead is a wonderful ice-breaker.  Often farmers will be sitting in my office while I’m scrambling to locate the correct version of the correct form. They’ll scan their surroundings and notice the arrowhead, which will spark much story-telling in arrowhead lore and buy me some time. One farmer said he was digging a hole with post-hole diggers and found a musket ball and an arrowhead in the same hole. This statement was the prelude to an hours-long conjecture session between the two of us on how those two items ended up in close proximity in the ground, which was more than enough time for me to locate form AD7HM-13/42 version 12.3. 

Having had many conversations about arrowheads, I’ve noticed arrowhead storytelling often contains an element of one-upmanship, as each arrowhead is a little larger than the last one mentioned. That said, I once watched a farmer find a truly massive spear tip. To be honest, the farmer needed that pick-me-up. We had already dug several soil test pits along a little branch that runs into Buffalo Creek. The soil, however, was nothing but coarse, no-account sand–not a layer of clay to be found anywhere. The farmer was getting  despondent at the thought of hauling in clay from offsite to build the dam for his irrigation pond. Then the backhoe emptied another bucket  beside a test hole and a five-inch spear tip tumbled down the dirt pile. The find completely changed  the farmer’s glum demeanor. 

 “This probably killed a buffalo,” he said gleefully, as we all stood around and studied the  spear tip. 

  “Could be a thousand years old,” said the backhoe operator, who had disembarked his steed to join in the studying. 

“Maybe ten-thousand,” I said. 

  “Could have killed a saber-toothed tiger,” the farmer said. We all peered down into the hole looking for saber-tooth tiger bones, but, alas, found none. To this day, the farmer still talks about that find and, for what it’s worth, cites me as a witness. He also suspects the spear tip brought him good luck. Despite the sorriest soil I’ve ever seen for a pond site, his pond miraculously held water. 

Likely, that spear tip is of Catawba origin. The North Carolina foothills where I live is mostly old Catawba territory. I won’t pretend  to be an expert on Native Americans, but from what I’ve read, the Catawba were a welcoming and  benevolent tribe, which is no small feat considering the Scotch-Irish settlers tended to be brash and rearing to fight (it was the Scotch-Irish Overmountain Men who whipped the British at Kings Mountain, helping turn the tide of the American Revolution). 

Sadly, the Catawba’s friendliness only hastened their demise. In the late 1600s, the  Catawba here totaled around 4,800 members. A hundred years later, their population had  plummeted to 250. From trading, smallpox spread quickly, ravaging their tribe. In 1775, a trader  named James Adair documented an old Catawba maize field that ran along a river bottom for seven  miles. He marveled that the Catawba must have once been a strong and numerous tribe to clear  and work a field that large. By 1830 when the Indian Removal Act was signed, the Catawba  population had dwindled so low that the government didn’t even bother relocating the few  surviving members through the Trail of Tears.  

One unintended drawback to the no-till era of farming is arrowheads remain hidden. Don’t get me wrong, saving soil is important, but finding arrowheads once reminded farmers of their predecessors here. And for people like me with Scotch-Irish ancestors who likely benefited from the downfall of tribes like the Catawba, it’s easy to glaze over the parts of our past that are prickly as a spear tip.

Farmer Strong

I used to have a ball cap from my local farm credit. It simply said “Carolina Farm Credit,” and I wore it so frequently that after a few years my wife retired it in a trash can without my consent. So I asked our local farm credit representative if I could have a new hat, and he obliged–only, the new hat says, “Farmer Strong.” 

Ugh.

Might as well give a squirrel a hat that says “Grizzly Bear Strong.” Then the squirrel could stroll around the forest understory feeling self-conscious and a little ridiculous, all because of his headwear. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m used to feeling like a moron because of my actions, but feeling like an oxymoron because of my wardrobe is a step too far. Sadly, my physique does not exude superior strength, no matter what my hat proclaims. 

Case in point,  I was once blown away by a stiff breeze. Of course, had I known the power of hay tarps, I wouldn’t have tied a tarp corner to a belt loop (to keep my hands free while traversing the haystack) and, in so doing, affixed myself to a sixty-foot by forty-foot sheet of polyethylene. When the wind gusted, the tarp plucked me off the side of the haystack, and I instantly realized why parasailing occurred over water. It’s amazing the epiphanies you have while skittering across the stubble of a freshly-cut hay field. 

Then there was the time I lost a wrestling match with a pig. It was your basic muddy pig-pen match. My wife wanted to perform life-saving healthcare on the pig’s ear, so I jumped on the pig’s back and tried to pin it down. The squealing pig, however, performed a technically-demanding wrestling maneuver, what’s called a  reverse cradle, and quickly pinned me. In so doing, the pig busted my glasses (free farming advice: never wear glasses while wrestling a pig) and then trotted around the fence-line, grunting and gloating. 

And it’s not just me. Have you been to the sale barn lately? You’re not likely to see many strapping specimens of the human species. The sale barn is where farmers go to trade cows and cardiologists go to find new patients. Once upon a time the act of digging post holes, carrying feed sacks, and hefting hay bales caused farmers muscle fibers to expand. Now post-hole augers, front-end-loaders, and hay spears mean farming is less physically demanding than ever; it’s become more or less sitting in a tractor seat and moving a joystick. 

But I’ll tell you who is strong. It’s the unseen men and women in the blackberry rows, the one’s picking tractor-trailer loads of berries, berry by berry, until their fingers are stained with blood or berries or both (those are no thornless canes, I assure you). It’s the five-person Guatemalan “catching crew” whose job is to bend down and pick up every eight-pound chicken, in a poultry house full of twenty thousand chickens, and stuff them in cages for transport so we can later devour those Chick-fil-A sandwiches. It’s the workers in the pumpkin fields who heft every single jack o’ lantern, all so we can carve a silly face in it. 

All kidding aside, a “Farmer Strong” hat would look a lot better on them than me. 

Never Come Between A Momma and Her Offspring

As a soil conservationist, one of my official job responsibilities is to walk farms and give farmers government-sanctioned advice on erosion issues. These days, most farmers have some sort of side by side, like a Gator or Mule, so walking is more just me holding on for dear life. I’m not sure if farmers are trying to impress me with their off-road driving skills or sling me into orbit, but a lot of times I would just rather walk.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like to put one-foot in front of another, repeatedly, in an ambulatory journey. My fondness for walking started in childhood when my parents, apparently unworried that serial killers might snatch me, let me walk home from school. It makes me feel old to think my parents let me walk home. A parent would get thrown in jail for that now. No cell phones and no adult supervision, it was just me and the open road, plus a couple of my friends and fellow walkers, hoping to find something neat on the roadside to examine, like a hubcab or, if we were lucky, roadkill. 

But walking, even in friendly confines, isn’t without danger. Last year, a farmer and I were strolling through a pasture, when some little camouflage birds rocketed up from a clump of grass at our feet. “Well, I’ll be!” said the startled farmer, “I haven’t seen a covey of quail in ages.” We were both suddenly giddy with excitement, and as our heads caught up with and tracked the birds’ flight pattern–they went zooming into the woodline–the farmer noticed another strange sight: in the underbrush, a creature, which resembled a velociraptor, was pounding toward us. 

Oh, to have been a cow grazing in that pasture, watching two full grown men flee for their lives. Weighed down by boots and a thick fescue sod, we were each trying to high-step and outrun the other and in so doing place the other closest to the enraged momma turkey. Had we had a moment to think, we would have known no self-respecting quail would be caught dead in a fescue pasture (which has about as much habitat for quail as a parking lot) and realized those little camouflage birds that streaked through the air into the woods were not quail, but baby turkeys. But, as it was, we were blind-sided by the momma turkey who, wings-flapping and cackling, pursued us halfway into the horizon.

If there is one thing I’m certain of, it’s charging mommas are to be feared and avoided. Not only have I been charged by a momma turkey, but I’ve been charged by momma cows twice. All three of those charging incidents were frightening. But the scariest charging I’ve ever witnessed was my own mom charging on my behalf. I cringe still thinking about it, as it pertains to my baseball career.

Basically, the highlight reel of my illustrious baseball career includes the line drive I caught by closing my eyes and sticking my glove straight up, my strikeout of the most far-sighted slugger in little league, and the pitch that plunked my knee. Strangely, the home-plate umpire thought my spin to try to avoid the pitch constituted a swing. He wouldn’t let me go to first base–not that I wanted to go to first base because my knee hurt. Mostly, I just wanted to flee the field because everybody was staring at me, and I may have been shedding a few tears while the third-base coach examined the stitch marks in my kneecap (that part of my memory is blurry, likely due to watery eyes).

As much as I’d like to forget the memory, what isn’t blurry is the sight of my mom (who is normally of a quiet and peaceful demeanor) charging through the dugout and onto the field to argue with the umpire. The crazy thing is my mom barely checked on my welfare; she just left me laying there with the third-base coach attending to my kneecap while she handled the threat. As she did her best Bobby Cox impersonation, I shed a few tears for the umpire.

Bobby Cox at his best.

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How To Be A Virtuous Farmer

Nobody ever said an ill word against Hal Stone, at least initially. Hal was just a meager produce farmer trying to survive. Of course, the whole community knew he was slinging pea stone with his fertilizer spreader to mimic the damage of a hail storm. What really led to the downfall of Hal’s reputation in the farming community was his honesty. Once caught by the insurance adjuster, Hal spilled the beans on all the other farmers doing the same, at which point everybody realized Hal was the worst kind of farmer, an honest one. 

Though still considered a virtue in some professions, honesty was long ago abandoned by farmers as a vestige from nomadic days. Today being an honest farmer is about as useless as being an honest fisherman. Farming and fishing stories inherently need some stretching of the truth, or else they would just be factual reports about crops growing slowly and fish not biting (for some funny fishing stories and just plain funny stories, check out Earl the Miscreant’s blog. He writes some of the funniest around). 

Certainly, honesty isn’t conducive to proper agricultural exaggeration, which was once taught through rote memorization of tables. Take, for instance, a farmer who grew 120 bushels of corn per acre. He could simply remember his corn exaggeration table and safely inflate the number to 140 bushels per acre in casual conversation, with no worry of a double-take. The other participants in the conversation were likely also educated in exaggeration and knew to mentally deflate the number back to 120 bushels, with no need to openly acknowledge the embellishment. Indeed, everybody understood the etiquette of conservational exaggeration. 

Of course, farmers had to memorize many exaggeration tables–for farm size, head of cattle, rain gauge readings, tractor horsepower, truck towing capacity, hay bales put up, just to name a few. Occasionally careless errors occurred when a farmer mixed up tables and uttered something slightly embarrassing like, “I got a full inch of rain under the hood.”

Though honesty is no longer needed, other virtues are still required to farm, including patience, perseverance, resourcefulness, and a good work ethic. Though merely lacking in most of these, I’m completely deficient in the most important virtue, a big bank account, which means I’m a wretched farmer at best. Wendell Berry sums it up  nicely, “You have to be too rich to farm before you can afford to farm in my county.”

Don’t get wrong, I have tried to increase my moral capacity to farm by thoughtfully bribing the loan agent (I wanted a cab tractor). Unfortunately, when I saw the pile of watermelons and cantaloupes on the floor behind the loan agent’s desk, I knew immediately I miscalculated by relying on old agricultural bribe tables. Apparently, the going bribe rate has increased with inflation and is now substantially more than a brown bag of homegrown tomatoes. Needless to say, I’m still riding around morally depraved in ambient atmospheric conditions–no cab, no air condition, no canopy, not a single luxury.