Gene Logsdon: Old (Farm) Wives’ Tales

The Contrary Farmer

We are down to only three hens at the moment, thanks to foxes or coyotes exacting their yearly tribute, but we are still getting two eggs every day. One of the two recently was a small, yolkless egg. “Old wives” told me when I was a child that such an egg signals the end of a hen’s laying season until she molts and starts up again. But since that yolkless little egg, we have continued to  get two normal-size ones every day. One might argue, in defense of old wives’ tales, that the third hen started laying the minute she noticed that one of others had laid a small egg. But if something that outlandish could be true then, according to another old wives’ tale, that first egg she laid should have had a little dried blood smeared on the shell which was not the case.

There’s another mystery involved. I asked my sister, the one closest to me in age, if she had heard about this last egg-first egg morsel of folklore and she said no. How could she not have heard what I heard since we grew up together. Perhaps her memory is dimming quicker than mine, although I would not dare say that in her presence. So I ask all of you: have you heard this folklore? Did I just dream it up?

Another quaint belief from the past is the notion that  you should not graze your sheep on red clover because it will cause pregnancy problems. I grazed my ewes on red clover for years, sometimes on fields that were almost entirely red clover. No problems. I notice that Ulf Kintzel, who writes very knowledgably  about sheep in Farming magazine, agrees with me. So where does this notion come from?

When I worked for the Soil Conservation Service I was taught that  good forest farming meant not allowing wild grapevines to grow up the trees. And so I instructed others. Grapevines climbing up the tree trunks would kill trees or ruin them for high value timber. When I first became a tree farmer, I assiduously cut off grapevines that were clinging to my trees too. Eventually I grew older and lazier and the grapevines grew faster and faster, and it occurred to me one day to wonder exceedingly. If grapevines hurt trees, how did so many hundreds of thousands of trees reach good timber status in wild grape country before the coming of the white man? Surely the Indians didn’t spend their time cutting grape vines in the trackless forest, especially without sharp steel axes. So one day I asked my timber buyer who has been in the business since 1955: do grapevines  really cause enough harm to merit all that work? He gave me a kind of sneaky little grin, like he knew he was about to say something heretical  and replied: “I don’t think so.”  Then recently, I read an article by a nature writer, Scott Shalaway inFarm and Dairy who headlined his essay with this title: “Grapevines are aggressive but are not deadly” and went on to give his experiences.  He was roundly scolded by a Forest Service worker in the next issue for such heresy, but now at least I am not afraid to disagree with orthodoxy.  And I will always remember visiting a farmer in Pennsylvania years ago who had a tame Concord grape vine growing up one of his yard trees. The vine was loaded with fruit and the tree was as healthy as any.

My favorite old wives tale comes, again, from childhood. There had been a destructive hailstorm on the other side of the county. An elderly neighbor  was visiting, talking to Dad about it. “Course, we don’t have to worry about that,” he said at the end of the discussion. “The Injuns hereabouts allus told how hail never fell bad between two rivers, like where we are.” He never cracked even the smallest grin and you can bet I was paying very close attention. As a child, my equivalent of television entertainment was listening to old farmers’ tales. And you might understand why, many years later, I wrote my doctoral dissertation in cultural history (which, like so much else in my contrary life, was never approved) on the folklore of my home county.

Here’s the fun part. Not to tempt fate, but in 80 years we have never had a really destructive hail storm right here in our neighborhood, more or less sandwiched between Tymochtee Creek and the Sandusky River.