Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ev'ry Gal Needs a Sowin' Machine!

Today, we present another low-tech marvel: the sowing machine. Most folks, when they think of farm machinery, tend to think on a grand scale: giant combines and harvesters grinding their way across the acres, mowing down miles and miles of "amber waves of grain." As we've mentioned before, we own no such monsters. Our farm has a different economy of scale.

There are no amber waves here. The rocky, acidic soils of Maine make grain-growing difficult. The rocks can foul up even heavy-duty tines and blades. Our own farmscape offers the additional challenge of steep slopes and ravines. Although an old picture shows this entire parcel cleared and pastured, the second- and third-growth forests have reclaimed our "back thirty". Decades of poor management prior to our arrival resulted in nutrient depletion and serious erosion, a combination that has rendered that acreage suitable only for wildlife habitat.

The only land flat enough for pastures now rests between the woods and the road. For the past three years, we've been working with our local Conservation District to better manage this land. We've done soil tests to determine the soil's acidity level and nutrient needs. We've stabilized fragile hillsides by planting a "conservation mix" of erosion-controlling plants, and we've removed diseased and invasive plants to make way for healthy natives. With help and advice from conservation district technicians, we drafted a rotational grazing plan and set about reclaiming two old, overgrown fields.

There was a bit of a hiccup in the plan last year when a 30-ton load of wood ash (a natural liming agent used to "sweeten" acidic soils) got delivered on the wrong side of the property when we weren't home. Over forty calls to landscape companies and tractor owners were made during Spring/Summer 2008, but no-one seemed willing or able to relocate and spread that mountain of ash. So much for the Usefulness of Big Equipment! This year, though, we happened to share our tale of woe during an Easter breakfast at church. Turns out our breakfast companion just happened to have a small tractor and some extra time on his hands. Providence!

Earlier this week, Mr. Tractor Hero moved the ash into the two new cleared fields and spread it around. What next, we pondered: fence the fields in, or sow them with clover and pasture grass? With the ground freshly worked and rain on the way, we opted to get the seed sown right away. Considering that we've been putting the cows out on our yard to let the permanent pasture recover, it's best to get some new grass growing sooner rather than later!

A few hours later, we were back home. The same wagon that carried eight piglets now cradled a few hundred pounds of seed mix: annual and perennial ryegrasses, Kentucky bluegrass, fescue, timothy, red clover and alsike clover. (Note that orchardgrass and reed canarygrass were our preferred choices for the purposes of rotational grazing, but they were almost twice as expensive as the mix we cobbled together.)

We emptied the bags into the farm cart, then raked and turned the seeds with our fingers: elongated, smooth-husked grass seeds in pale gold and greyish-green, mixed with tiny round black and red seed-beads of clover. We marveled at the gathered mass of tiny pastoral possibilities, but a gust of wind reminded us not to marvel too long. The rain was coming. It was time to bring out...the sowing machine.

Nobody's certain just how we acquired it--probably at some yard sale back in the eighties, when few cared about such stuff. The cloth top has been repaired multiple times with various weights and colours of thread and string. Printed in bold black ink on the stained, weakened canvas is the following inscription:

With the double Irish reference, I imagine the device being made in a factory full of recent immigrants--words of Gaelic mixing with the harsher words of English, scraping and tumbling like so many metal filings onto the dirty shop floor. Did they dream of better fields and healthier crops than the rotten praties of Home, or did they curse the work of farming and embrace the noise and heat of industrial labour?

Whoever made it, they made it to last. The metal backplate is riveted solidly to the hopper. The wooden crank-handle is well-turned and nicely varnished. The seedplate adjusts without fuss for different rates of flow. The gears rotate smoothly with a cheery wee clankety-clackety-hum. The hopper-sack and neckstrap show the most wear, but they still perform in spite of haphazard repairs. All in all, this is a wonderful device, well-crafted and a genuine pleasure to use.

I tuck my head through the neckstrap, and improvise side-straps from some camping gear, as this is the only original part that is missing. I tighten the straps so that the backplate rests comfortably against my middle and my neck doesn't bear all the weight. After making sure that the seedplate is down, I use a grain scoop to pour seed into the hopper-sack until it bulges and the old-fashioned lettering stands out. Ready, set, sow!

With my first step forward, I nudge the seedplate up and begin slowly turning the hand-crank. The gears start clattering and the wheel starts spinning. As the seeds tumble down into the wheel, they are sent spinning and tumbling out, some in the middle and some spraying out to either side. I stride the field and I sow the field, the seed landing in evenly distributed bands, all under my own human power. The whirr of the gears is not so loud that I cannot hear a cricket's chirp or a bird's song.

I could turn the gears even faster. I could get the job done in half the time, but truly the work is so pleasant, and the weather so kind, that I find myself slowing my stride. I move slowly enough to monitor my work, to be sure that the seeds fall thickly and evenly. As I walk, I imagine these fields full of lush green blades, full of clover blossoms, full of bumblebees and earthworms and countless other crucial, delicate living things. I envision the sweet contrast of shaggy red-brown kye ambling through the vibrant green, pulling up tender mouthfuls with slow-motion bovine enthusiasm.

This is what it means to steward the earth, to engage both soul and soil, to walk slowly enough to see. When we work on this blessedly human scale, we rediscover the truth that there is little need, on this small farm, for petrochemical-belching behemoths--and if the wood-ash had been dropped at the field's edge, as we intended, we could have spread even that with a shovel, a rake, and a cart.

To be a Luddite, one need not abandon all industry and innovation. What is required, instead, is a careful reflection on sources and benefits, a thoughtful deliberation on tasks best shared and tasks best managed alone. Walking the new fields with my old-fashioned sowing machine, I stitch myself back into the fabric of creation. I move with a natural rhythm and contribute to an older, deeper song.


1-4 Grace said...

wow. fascinating post with information and education to boot.

Mama Pea said...

We've got a "hand sowing machine", too, and have enjoyed using it.

It really is the simple things in life that reconnect us with what is truly meaningful and important.

Walking your fields with the sowing machine instead of bouncing along on a noisy, polluting tractor is a lot like walking down a road as opposed to driving the same road in a car. You see, hear, and smell so many things you would otherwise be oblivious to. At the same time, you use your body (and mind) in the way it was originally created to function.

What pride you will be able to take in those lush pastures in years to come!

Anonymous said...

We were at a yard sale too this weekend & found the exact same sowing machine. We went on line to check on it & found you. Can you tell us anything about it, are they worth anything, do they belong in a museum. Its in really good original shape. Pete & Pat from Pennsylvania.

MaineCelt said...

Pete & Pat-- congratulations on your find! I don't know what they're worth as an antique at auction, but I DO know what they're worth in the field. Since you're in PA, you may be able to find out more about the device by contacting some Old Order Amish farmers or other folks with a deep respect for good old-fashioned tools. Another option would be to search online for an Old Tool Museum, and contact the proprietor. Best of luck!