Bonfires and “building” a farm

By Rick Houser – 

In the summer, people like to have bonfires quit often, usually to get rid of brush that will accumulate on a routine basis no matter how careful we are. At the typical bonfire, hot dogs impaled on a pointed branch and marshmallows seem to claim the highest billing and turn the chore into a good time. Even though burning a big brush fire is illegal in most parts of Ohio, burning small fires is rarely considered a problem.
Thinking about bonfires caused me to reflect on some of the things I heard and experienced as Dad built our farm. I know that the phrase “build a farm” might not sound proper, but hear me out. The story goes that my parents purchased our farm near the end of the Great Depression from a man who had been struck ill and could no longer care for his farm. He had plowed the farm shortly before his illness put him on his would-be death bed and as the seasons passed, the plowed fields without the sod to stop it from eroding washed away in proportions that I doubt we can even imagine. This farm was one on rolling land and therefore erosion came easy if the land was let go as it was in this situation. I have heard neighbors and even my Dad tell that in some of the fields the erosion had advanced to where gulleys were made large enough to set a semi-truck in and it would be unable to be seen.
Now rest assured that Dad bought this farm at as low a price as he could get and even then he needed the help of his father to help him meet the price. Once it was his, he began filling the gulleys and ruts. He used any and all disposables that were at his reach. I have heard he would take all his corn fodder after the ears had been removed and place the shocks in these gulleys. By the time I became old enough to remember, Dad was continuing to fill some of these “hollers” and when he did so he would call on his friend Tinker Lucas to bring out his bulldozer and crush what he had filled in and move some top soil on it to create some more of the field.
As the years passed, Dad slowly earned back that farm one square foot at a time, causing it to eventually be the farm he had hoped for it to be. Now filling gulleys with fodder and trash can only go so far in restoring what had beenwashed away.
In 1961 the government created the Agricultural Stabilization Conservation Service, which was a blessing to a farmer who knew how to use it. I think my Dad knew how. First, Dad began removing areas of volunteer trees and grubs by bulldozer so more land became available to be used for his farming needs, but with this came piles of brush that in those days were removed in only one way- that was to burn them. Dad would put in time to burn off the unnecessary brush. This was no easy task but once completed, a farmer had more land to produce on than when he started.
Along with the removal of the unneeded groves in fields, the ASC also would assist in other areas and one was to clean out the old overgrown fences and help the farmer to build new woven wire fences, as it was considered necessary at the time to improve the productivity of the farm.
During this time of permissive burning, I of was there with my dad, my brother Ben, and our hired hand Wilbur. I mean just how could all this burning take place without the help of a seven-year old? Of course it didn’t. During this time it was discovered that I seemed to have pyrotechnic tendencies since I was always catching my clothes on fire, mainly my gloves. Since those days, I have been a pyromaniac and I enjoy burning brush. Even though I am careful and safe now, I still enjoy watching brush burn.
After all that burning and the new fences were built, there was more to restoring a farm. As the fields came back to their original size and the way they were supposed to lay, Dad took the next step. I never got the details but through the ASC office he got assistance so that he could test the soil of each field and he then was able to have them limed to their need so that the soil continued to regenerate. Each year at harvest time, I saw my Dad measure the yield and compare it to the previous and past years and he always seemed to see improvement.
I remember that one field got caught unprepared for a hard storm and it eroded a lot. My Dad commented that rain undid what he had worked 40 years to build. It was easy to see the hurt in his eyes. That was when I understood that my Dad had made a plan when he bought that farm and he had dedicated himself to making it the farm he knew it could be, but a success like that only came with hard work and structure. He did and had both. When the mid 60’s arrived, so did the beauty and productivity of our farm.
The story I have told is not limited to my Dad but was carried out by many of the area farmers. Success was enjoyed by many in the neighborhood. That was when it seemed that the government cared about the farmer’s success and looked to them to deliver the needs of the people of this country. To me, it was the best of times and for my father he got back what he put in and then some. Even though I tried to burn some of the plan down, the farmer and the government had a deal that worked for all.