By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
The lush forests, rolling pastures, and long vistas of the Ozarks are truly easy on the eyes, but their pastoral appearance also belies how tough these hills can be to survive in. Although farming has been a traditional way of life in the Ozarks3 for generations, producing one’s food on this rocky bit of earth has never been easy. Even with the modern comforts of today’s machinery, farming in the Ozarks can sometimes be best described as “hard-scrabble”. And in the 15 years I’ve been here, I’ve seen more than one eager newcomer throw in the towel after only a few short years of backbreaking work that was resulted in little gain.
One thing the Ozarks has done for me as a gardener is to deepen my appreciation for those hardy souls who tended the land in the early days of settlement. Unless you’re one of a very few lucky people, “dirt” is not a word Ozarkers use very often and when they do, you can almost be sure it is tongue-in-cheek. The running joke goes that if Ozarkers could sell rocks by the pound they’d be rich! It’s that sense of humor that keeps us going.
While the land in the Ozarks does not give itself easily to being cultivated, the growing season is long and ample. With a touch of lime and a generous supply of organic matter the heavy, but fertile, Ozark clay will release its bound-up nutrients and produce excellent crops of many kinds.
But, between easily exhausted soils, unpredictable weather, periodic droughts, late frosts, and a mind-boggling array of crop pests, one must approach the Ozarks with a thoughtful attitude and plenty of good advice. Some folks move here after passing through. They see our spring-lush hay fields and think all they need is to buy the biggest, most expensive tractor John Deer makes. Many quickly find themselves with nothing but a hill full of rocks, brambles along the fence line, and a hillside washing down into a nearby creek.
What they learned – and what many an old farmer already knows – is that the use of big industrial machinery can easily compromise Ozarks soils, which are already prone to compaction and erosion. The only sustainable route to quality crops is via small scale production in which the native soil is built up and tended with small machinery or by hand.
Over the years I’ve watched many a neighbor work their fields – and worked a few of my own in passing – it’s hard not to notice when it’s done wrong and a pleasure to see when done right. Old farmers are the best. They let the trees grow up in the fencerows and skip a field here and there every few years. They don’t overgraze and don’t harvest hay when they shouldn’t. They also don’t use new-fangled machinery, but rely on the old.
(Excerpted in part from A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country)
A few years back, I was standing by the road watching an old neighbor of mine harvesting his third round of hay with his trusty ‘47 Farmall H tractor. That old girl was a little beat up around the edges, but a pretty thing to look at after all the years she’d seen on the farm. As I was admiring man and machine, a neighbor who had recently moved here from a certain big northern city stopped alongside me in his shiny new extended cab pickup truck.
It didn’t take him long to notice our mutual neighbor haying in the adjacent field. He pointed his elbow in the farmer’s direction and remarked to me with a slight, derisive chuckle that he had noticed that the old tractor was always breaking down. He said, “It’s amazing that guy can get anything done with that run down old thing.”
The comment wasn’t meant to be cruel, but it was unmistakably patronizing. I’m sure he thought his brand new oversized John Deer was unmistakably superior – even though all he ever did with it was brush hog his overgrown field. I bristled at his attitude and felt it necessary to defend my low-impact, recycling, refurbishing, and subsistence-farming neighbor and his lovely old tractor.
I wanted to tell him that old tractors like that were icons of the Ozarks. I wanted to say to him that those old tractors are still in use because the land is rough on equipment and why go buys some fancy new tractor when the old one can be fixed – a new one will have to be fixed, too, by the way. But, those old tractors…now, there is the mark of good old-fashioned Ozark ingenuity and practicality at its best!
It’s what I love most about living in Oz.
© 2013 Jill Henderson – please feel free to share with a link back to this site. Thank you.
Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one. Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor. This is one journey you don’t want to miss.
Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.