Freedom’s name is mighty sweet;
Black and white are gonna meet;
Keep your hand on the plow, hold on;
Hold on, hold on;
Keep your hand on that plow, hold on.
I once moldboard-plowed a field; it was spring 1989. When I finished I was glad the 10-acre plot was isolated in the middle of the 240-acre farm I was soon to own – rather than next to the road. It looked like I’d turned a group of truffle-hunting hogs loose to churn the ground.
Within six months I’d begun converting that field and the rest of my newly purchased farm to a grass-based dairy, thereby permanently eliminating tillage from my spring and fall to-do lists.
In the current era of tillage methods the moldboard plow is still used but sees less action each year. No-till and minimal tillage are becoming more-popular ways to achieve seedbeds, less prone to soil erosion. I recently spoke with Matt Oehmichen about moldboard plowing. He and his brother Craig Oehmichen are co-owners of Short Lane Ag Supply in Colby, Wisconsin. The brothers were recent recipients of The Wisconsin Land + Water 2021 Special Recognition – Friend of Conservation Award. They are strong advocates for a shift toward regenerative agriculture.
“People in our area still moldboard-plow and have their reasons for doing so,” Matt Oehmichen said. “I see it as a tillage tool that works but is out of date.”
He compared it to using a chest freezer from 1968.
“It still works despite its energy inefficiencies,” he said. “The argument that moldboard plowing is necessary to turn over grass sod isn’t very grounded.”
He’s seen farmers take fields of killed reed canary grass and work them with a less-aggressive disc after spraying.
“Following discing the application of regenerative seed mixes including brassicas, buckwheat, radishes and annual ryegrass allows these farmers to transition to minimum tillage,” he said.
My grandfather told me he hated plowing. It was the only negative thing I recall him saying about any aspect of his farming days.
“Back and forth all day in the sun and wind.” he said with a far-off look in his eyes. “The progress was so slow. It was unbearable to watch the opposing fence line as it never seemed to grow any closer.”
When I bought my woodlot property his single-bottom Oliver horse-drawn walking plow hung from a truss in the back of a shed. I moved it out next to an old syrup cook. I was surprised by how light the plow is; the front guide wheel that can be adjusted to obtain a specific plowing depth turned freely.
After spending most of this May clearing my woodlot edge of juvenile maple and hickory trees I exposed a large granite boulder that had the look of a theatrical display, nestled amongst the larger showy maple trees. It was large and flat; it tilted toward an open field where I garden. It looked like a good place to set that plow.
I gave the old Oliver plow a coat of various paint colors and managed to work it to the top of the rock. It stands out nicely. If I had to speak to the color selections I’d describe the wooden handles as Ford-tractor blue. The straps that connect the handles to the iron plow beam are white like a David Brown Selectamatic 990. The moldboard and plow jointer are mid-1970s Duetz-tractor green. The iron plow beam is Minneapolis-Moline yellow. Finally the gauge wheel is Allis-Chalmers orange. That covers a fair share of the traditional tractor-color rainbow and makes for an eye-catching display.
I’m not a big fan of the moldboard plow but I’m a sucker for old school. It’s said a plowman turning a single furrow walks 11 miles for each acre plowed. I imagine my grandfather spending those long days in the field plowing a single furrow at a time, with his hands held fast to the horse-drawn plow. I can hear his baritone voice singing the traditional folk song, “Gospel Plow.” It’s also known as “Hold On” and “Keep Your Hand on the Plow.” I can see him with his eyes fixed on a fence post at the other end of the field, holding on while letting the horse do the work instead of unnecessarily fighting the plow handles. It’s where my mind goes when I come over the hill to see the plow displayed at the edge of my woodlot. And it feels good.
See you next week, friend. May the beginning of haying season find your bearings greased and sprockets oiled. And don’t forget to check the twine box!
Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.