April 18, 2013
Our family made its way to Maryland's Eastern Shore recently. Mount Hermon's Plow Day 2013 was the attraction. We had gone to two previous Plow Days, but this time we would take our grandson and our twin granddaughters. It was an all-hands evolution.
Cool and clear weather made the day perfect for plowing. Farmer Gaylon Adkins and his wife, Tammy, have hosted Plow Day for seven years. This farm festival celebrates rural life and agriculture. Hundreds come from all over Maryland's Eastern Shore, and many of the plowing teams-of--oxen, mules, and horses--come from as far away as North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
The basic idea is for young men of the county to compete by plowing up the land for spring planting. The competition is popular and the contestants help raise money for local charities. There's no government to direct it, but this festival springs up from the nature of rural living.
We're often told that Americans are individualists, even rugged individualists. That may be so in our relation to government, but it has never been so in farm country. Farm communities learn cooperation from the start. The owners of those teams that come to Mt. Hermon Plow Day will show off their skill and celebrate their pride in achievement with these magnificent animals. And Mr. Adkins will get his farm land plowed. Every one benefits from this event. Barn-raising and quilting bees were just two examples of cooperation and community.
Blessed is the Nation whose God is the Lord (Ps. 33:12) reads the sign we all see as we enter. Farm values just seem closer to our origins. Everyone on the farm is needed. It's naturally a family-friendly, child-welcoming environment. The lady in the old fashioned skirt and bonnet who welcomes us boasts of her eight children.
Children watch the exhibits wide-eyed. They learn how the wool comes from the sheep, how it is carded and woven into cloth. They see the cow with her twin bull calves in their pen. She is getting restive and we move on, thinking it best not to bother Bossie.
The petting pen houses sheep and goats. Scripture tells us there will be a winnowing of sheep and goats on the great day. That's a good thing, since I am not always sure what I am looking at myself. Still, grandchildren love to pet willing sheep and goats.
An eight-mule team comes by, harnesses shining and jingling. They are truly beautiful animals. And powerful, too. I learn that oxen are not driven with reins. Instead, a single man walks alongside the yolked creatures with a long stick. His rod he uses as a guide and prod, but gently.
Percherons are large, beautiful, and very powerful horses. I engage one of the owners--a lady from Westminster, Maryland, in a conversation about her horses. I tell her the only thing I know about these horses comes from reading Shelby Foote's classic history of the Gettysburg campaign of 1863, Stars in their Courses. The great Southern author wrote of these farm animals:
...the magnificent-looking horses, the great Percherons and Clydesdales, turned out to be a disappointment in the end. Consuming twice the feed, they could stand only about half the hardship of what one [rebel] artilleryman called "our compact, hard-muscled little horses."
Mrs. Westminster's smile was gracious, but dismissive. Not everyone who writes books (or quotes them), her smile seemed to say, knows anything about horses.
Which is another reason I love Plow Day. I make no pretense of knowing about farming. And the good people here are only too eager to teach me. And my family. I think it's important for them to know where their daily bread comes from. And where it's grown.
Early in our history, 95% of all Americans lived on farms. Most Americans were fully familiar with farming--even if they did not hail from the farms themselves. Great Americans like Ben Franklin and Sam Adams were city men--but they understood farming far better than most of us urban and suburban Americans do today.
I recall a story told about Calvin Coolidge, Jr. The 15-year old lad was working on a farm in Western Massachusetts through the summer of 1924. He awoke one August morning to startling news. His employer told him that the senior Calvin Coolidge had been sworn in as President of the United States the previous evening on the unexpected news of President Harding's death in San Francisco.
Young Calvin calmly took in the information and then said: "Sir, what field would you like me to work this morning?" The farmer, surprised at the boy's reaction, said:
"If my father had just become president, I wouldn't worry about going to work the next day."
Smiling, Calvin, Jr., replied: "I your father were my father, you'd go to work."
That story rings true because faith, family, and honest labor have always been a part of America's rural heritage.
The event closed with organizer Owen Perdue mounting a haystack. Two young men pitchforked twelve feet of hay from the stack into a wagon. It was hard and sweaty work, despite the cool air. Both of these men had served multiple tours in Iraq, we were told.
Mr. Perdue informed us the hay had been stacked last fall, a week before Tropical Storm Sandy had ripped through the area. Now, we would see if the bushels of white potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and apples had made it through the winter. This was how so much of farmers' produce wintered over, before refrigeration. They are not frostbitten or rotten. And Mr. Perdue bites down on his apple to show how crispy it still is.
Last year, I heard Owen Perdue's son-in-law tell me about farm families: "We may not be the richest, we may not be the ones the media focuses on. But we know where we we get our daily bread." Acknowledging his lead, I replied: "Yes, seek ye first..." He nodded agreement. We understood one another. It's why we keep coming back to Plow Day.