~ Riceland Meadows ~

Farming Small
by Ralph Rice

Looking out our living room window, I survey the landscape that makes up our farm. The rain falls steadily on the already soaked ground. As puddles form and miniature rivers run to the ditches, the spring rain pushes the grass to grow.

I watch from my vantage point with mixed emotion. The rain refreshes all the plants in sight. It provides watery places for the wild geese and ducks to hatch and raise their young. The pasture grasses turn lush green as they grow fast and thick. The hayfields seem almost to jump in height. The ground that is to be our cornfield is wet, much too wet to plow.

The cows wintered in this field have left tons of manure. The manure soaks its nourishment into the waiting corn ground, made rough by the trampling of the cows' feet. The rough spots hold water. People tell me the wandering cows compact the ground. I have found it not to be true, except for limited areas near the gate. The tracks made by their cloven hooves help level the ground and prevent runoff. The action of the winter freezing and thawing leaves the ground friable and ready for the plow.

Like other farmers here in northeast Ohio, I wait. We are all anxious to begin the tilling and planting season, but the ground is too wet and still too cold. Some mega farmers must start early, using big machines and working long into the night. Those of us who are still sane can afford to wait for better weather and warmer temperatures. Some of the large farmers will have to replant due to their folly in planting too early.

Even though I plant small acreages, I feel the same pressure as my large neighbors. The same numbers of warm dry days are granted to each of us. The time and number of acres are relative. At one point we will each be halfway done. His remaining acreage may be 600, mine may be 6, but we are both half done.

My low input methods of farming return more dollars per acre than his. My neighbor, like corporations and chain stores, works on small profit margins and relies on volume sales to carry him through. He and his workers toil under constant pressure and are usually short handed to limit the number of ways the profits must be shared. My profits are by no means large, but my return vastly exceeds my expense of production.

In our area 30 years ago, 10 farmers earned a living milking and caring for 30 cows each. Today one man earns a living by milking and caring for 300 cows. The same number of cows require the same acreage farmed to feed them as before. The only difference is that nine men out of 10 are deprived of the opportunity for a quiet and peaceful life. The tenth man, too, is let down by the system he chose. For him the romance of farming is only a distant dream or perhaps a faint memory.

The aroma of my freshly poured coffee and the sound of the falling rain bring my thoughts back to today. I'll plan a little more. I'll recheck my fields and the acreage of each. I will make ready the corn planter and drill. The horses will draw the last of the winter manure to the fields as they toughen up for the work ahead. The warm dry days will soon be upon us and all will be ready.

My large farm neighbor and I will start turning ground on the same day. He will gobble up field after field. I will plow my fields 12" at a time with an Oliver walking plow. The sun will warm us both. The birds will sing for each of us, but I will hear them. My neighbor's tractor roars as he races for the end of the field, its deafening sound urging him on as tiredness racks his body. I stop to rest the horses, sip some water, and listen to the birds sing. My farm is small. My life is full. My heart is happy.

Ralph Rice's column "Reflections" appears regularly in Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the The Evener 2003 issue.

22 March 2003