The first time my dad drove me to a quarter-section of pasture land a couple of miles east of our home place and told me I’d be turning the sod with a plow, I had mixed feelings.
It had nothing to do with whether we should have been breaking the sod at all. That might have been a good environmental issue to have debated, but it didn’t happen that day. I was a kid who did what he was told and my dad was a farmer trying to put a little more land into crops.
No, my mixed feelings were simple and had nothing to do with conservation or the environment or good stewardship. They probably should have, but they didn’t.
On the one hand, I felt a surge of excitement, because the tractor I’d be using was the John Deere 720 diesel, the biggest machine on the farm at the time and the one my dad, uncle, brother and cousin had driven but I hadn’t. It had a rugged, popping engine, a whiny little gasoline starter motor, rear tires the size of the Reliance Dam and a broad, square seat floating on shock absorbers and covered with a soft, yellow cushion of some kind of rubber or plastic. It was almost a rite of passage to climb into the seat of that Deere and crank up the starter motor. Tell me what farm kid wouldn’t get fired up at that.
On the other hand, I felt my stomach churn with dismay at the size of the plow I’d be using to cut and turn the grassland. Hooked to that magnificent tractor was a battered and rusty three-bottom plow that looked as if it might have been rescued from the junk pile between the garage and the machine shed. Three bottoms. Was he serious?
That three-bottom plow cut and turned a strip of soil about three feet wide. It took a whale of a lot of passes around a quarter-section of land at that rate to arrive at the center with all of the sod broken. And I can’t recall today if I was instructed to travel in third gear or maybe second. But either way, that’s a slow enough pace to give a young guy a pretty good idea of the meaning of eternity.
I might have appreciated the task more had I had internet access. On a site called “How Stuff Works,’’ I recently discovered an article headlined “Five Farming Technologies that Changed the World.’’ The plow was one.
The article said that by 3,500 B.C., Egyptians were turning the soil with an iron-tipped, wooden wedge-shaped tool pulled by oxen. I saw a picture that seemed to show a single plow share. It looked to me like it would take forever to break any appreciable amount of sod, but the article said “it was such an efficient tool that there wasn’t much difference between the first plows that turned the sandy Mesopotamian soil and those used in medieval Europe thousands of years later, (except for) the addition of a moldboard behind the blade to turn the soil once it was broken.’’
In the 1800s, the piece continued, pioneers in the American West used roughly the same sort of plow “to furrow tough-as-nails prairie soil.’’ One of the issues, it said, was that the western sod stuck to the plow blades. Farmers had to remove the sticky soil every few steps. Well, enter a hero of farming, John Deere. He was an Illinois blacksmith who made a plow blade from steel. The soil slipped from the steel blade easily, apparently.
For some reason, John Deere didn’t think to invent a 10- or 12-bottom plow. I was stuck out there with the three-bottom model. Dad, all eaten up with sympathy, said I was lucky it wasn’t the two-bottom model he’d used for years.
Some years later, we bought a disc plow. Instead of traditional plow blades, it had huge metal discs that cut the earth. It cut five feet with every pass. I could have turned all of Mesopotamia with that baby and the John Deere.