GENE LOGSDON: Dancing With the Weeds



The Contrary Farmer

It is fashionable now to see who can come up with the most damning information about herbicides and I take my turn at that pastime too. But those of us who grew up on farms when only the hoe and the cultivating shovel stood between us and the avenging weeds, the arrival of 2,4D was more welcome than Santa Claus. Weeds are what drove so many of us to the cities. No city slum is any worse than the space between a brush-choked fence row and tall corn when you are scything  weeds there in August. No city street pavement is as hard as clay soil when the hot sun hardens it after heavy rain, especially when as a boy you are trying to push a wheel cultivator through it. No city traffic jam can equal the feeling of powerlessness that comes over you when staring at the rollers of an old corn picker choked tight and fat with weeds.

Before agriculture, there was no such thing as weeds. The plow invented the weed. As humans increased and multiplied, so did weeds. Those who battle them on a grand scale today adore the great god Monsanto who came down from the heaven of science to save us. But not even gods are a match for weeds and now we face a grim world where we have a choice between killing them with chemicals so powerful that they might kill us too, or going back to those seemingly primitive times when nearly every human spent time wielding a hoe.

A hoe, used wisely, can become an instrument of peace and tranquility, not slavery. But most farmers made the same mistake John Henry, the Steel Drivin’ Man of folklore made. They tried to use their muscles to compete with the piston engine. They hoed, and made our children hoe, all day and into the night. Inevitably the children fled to town. FFA changed from standing for Future Farmers of America to Farmers Farming Alone.

Fighting weeds in the beginning of farming was something of an art form and not so back-breaking because many people “made light the task.” In the early Middle Ages, without metal-bladed hoes, the first agriculturists used a forked stick in one hand and a hooked stick (called a weed hook) in the other. The idea was to avoid bending over so much.  Advancing across a crop field, the farmer used the forked stick to push down the top of a weed and pin it to the soil surface until, moving forward, he could step on it with one foot while his other foot was holding down the weed he had previously pinned to the ground. That weed he would pull out of the ground by hooking it close to its base with the  weed hook in his other hand. Thus he would glide forward: pinning down a weed ahead of him while simultaneously hooking and pulling out the one behind him already pinned down. As he did so, he left the pulled weeds in neat mulch rows for the later harvesters to walk on as they cut the grain. The whole process required practiced skill and an athletic sense of measured balance.  Dorothy Hartley wrote in her fascinating book Lost Country Life (1979) that this rhythmical action “was perhaps very like a swinging dance.” To make sure the work did not get too oppressive, the weed dancers were allowed generous noontime breaks for napping, so old medieval records reveal.

With the hoe, another kind of athletic and artistic skill came into play, then as now. To avoid being “backbreaking drudgery” the knowledgeable farmer or gardener hoes when the weeds are only just emerging from the soil or even before they appear. Not only is it much easier to destroy the weeds at this stage, but it means that the soil remains in a loose condition, easy to slide the hoe through. Astride a crop row or between two rows, the hoer falls into a rocking rhythm that is also sort of a swinging dance. In this way, a considerably large plot can be kept clear of weeds with only an hour or two of work every day.

If somehow hoes become our herbicide of choice today, the garden farm could hardly  grow beyond the size that a family of hoe wielders could handle in a few hours every day, with plenty of time for a noon day nap, etc. Lots of etc. The number of garden farmers would increase until they could produce enough food to “feed a nation.” Weeds would become a great boon,  an effective job creator.

I am being facetious, of course. Sort of. In the same vein, I fear that the end of herbicides would not mean the end of agricultural oligarchy as I would like to see happen. The plutocrats would continue to hold on to most of the land by employing robots instead of human workers to hoe the weeds. Properly programmed robots should easily be able distinguish marestail from corn.

In either case, buy stock in companies that make hoes.