~ Riceland Meadows ~

Rite of Passage
by Ralph Rice

"Plowman" is a title that must be earned. You earn it by practice and experience. You don't call yourself a plowman. You wait for the day when a revered farmer gives you the title. Then you scoff and modestly accept it. When you get home, and no one is around, you jump up and cheer. You might even roll around on the ground, trying to pat your own back.

At the age of 29 I suddenly realized I had never plowed with horses. I am thankful for having been in and around farming all my life. I have had the pleasure of working ponies and horses since I was a boy. I used them in a variety of farm jobs, and logged many miles following a team, but my job had always involved other parts of the tillage operation.

As I pondered the fact that I was missing the basic agrarian skill of plowing, I came to the realization that where I lived in northeast Ohio a farmer was measured by his ability to plow. The headlands should be even. The ditches must be straight and clean, the furrows evenly spaced, and all the green covered. A man plowed his fields near the road after all the other fields were done. No self-respecting farmer would set a kid to work plowing, making crooked furrows that anyone might see. The man I worked for had a farm that bordered on two sides by a road. Any plowed field could be seen by anyone passing by, so those fields were plowed by him.

The idea of the right of passage to plowman may have been created in my own mind, but nonetheless it generated intense pressure for me. I owned a pair of black Percherons. They had plowed acres and acres. They knew exactly what to do. I, on the other hand, didn't have a clue. I enlisted the help of a plowman. We agreed to meet at my house. I had a small field out back, pretty much hidden from view.

I remember when he pulled up in his truck and trailer. He unloaded his horses and hooked them to his plow. We walked to the field together, both of us driving our teams, dragging plows behind them. The butterflies in my stomach almost made it hard to breathe. I listened intently as he gave me instructions. I tied the lines together, slipped them over one shoulder and around my neck. I gripped the plow handles and spoke to the horses. To say we were off really doesn't describe what happened next

We took off at an incredibly fast pace. I was two steps behind the plow, yet stretched up over the handles being dragged by the neck. "Don't push down on the handles," he yelled as we headed for the end of the field. {Push down?} Heck, I was hanging on just trying to walk. It was hard to walk in that 12" furrow one foot in front of the other, especially when my feet were only hitting the ground every third step.

The plow skipped along the ground and finally dug in. The plowshare wasn't too shiny, making the plow pull hard. The horses picked up the pace to compensate for the harder pull. I, in turn, went even farther over the handles to where my feet barely touched the ground at all. When I got to the end of the field I choked out a thankful "whoa."

I looked back over my shoulder at the most pitiful furrow I had ever seen, and saw a grown man almost crying. He was holding his sides and biting his tongue. He said, "I think we need to lengthen your lines." I laughed and agreed with him. The laughter, once started, was hard to stop. We made a few adjustments and I struck out again.

I was working much harder than the horses. I fought the plow as I constantly tried to steer it. I would tip it the wrong way for the direction that I wanted it to go. There was also the impossible task of walking in that 12" furrow. Sweat soaked my flannel shirt on that cool spring day. I grunted and groaned as I made entirely too much work out of that job.

The Plowman made just as many trips as did I, following behind me with his team and plow to fix the places where I messed up, yet he never looked tired. His feet were bigger than mine and he trudged along effortlessly. My feet and big boots tripped me often. I stumbled and fell. I crawled on my knees a couple of times. Thank goodness I had quiet and well broke horses.

We managed to finish the field and my much needed lesson that day. Thanks to the plowman, it looked good afterward. I have plowed many acres since then, improving with each round of the field. I have learned many things over the years, but that cool spring plowing day remains one of the most educational days of my life.

My team and I now contest plow for fun. The day I won my first contest, as I finished my last furrow, an old farmer, bent from hard work and old age, beamed with pride and told me, "You did a good job boy." That praise echoes in my memory as the best trophy I ever won. I had become a plowman.

Ralph Rice writes regularly for Rural Heritage. This article appeared in the The Evener 2002 issue.

22 March 2003