Tennessee Mountain Stories

Plowing the Corn

I can’t see a crop growing here but this appears to be a cultivator that Uncle Lester Key is using.

I can’t see a crop growing here but this appears to be a cultivator that Uncle Lester Key is using.

I sent my daddy a note that I needed to talk to him to learn how to raise corn.  Now when I send out a request like that I often get chastised with, “Ain’t I taught you nothing?”

Well I have been listening and watching – I’ve even written down some notes on how best to plant a garden and when things ought to be planted or harvested.  However, I’ve seen only demonstrations of horse-drawn-farming and when I’m putting together a book I want the details to be right.

How many times do you hoe corn?  So that’s not a question a modern farmer can answer – they wouldn’t know how to handle a hoe.  Yet for generations on the mountain, where corn was the primary staple for both man and beast, hoeing corn was a ritual enjoyed by every member of the family.  Of course we had plows – I mean we weren’t Neanderthals, right?  So I’ve certainly seen a corn crop cultivated (I’m trying to carefully differentiate the terminology here because we call it all plowing but there’s plowing to turn the ground and then there’s plowing to cultivate a crop).  If a farmer today hooks up a cultivator to his tractor, he will pull into a field and put his wheels between two rows then set that implement down over 2 or 4 rows (I think they have some big ole’ 8 or 10 row cultivators but I’ve never seen one).  However, the horse drawn setup puts all three parties - horse, plow and man – in the middle of two rows of the crop. 

There is an obvious advantage here despite the many difficulties of working with a horse or mule.  The crop can be cultivated even when it’s quite high.  Daddy says he’s seen farmers plow corn as tall as a horse’s back.  You just couldn’t do that with a tractor.  In the modern era crops are planted and weed control often sprayed over the soil.  This is supposed to eliminate the need to cultivate.  It doesn’t always work.  While it’s a little intimidating to imagine following a horse through the size of some of our fields today, if you’re looking at a crop overtaken by weeds, setting down a cultivator in those rows begins to sound like a pretty good idea.

I feel compelled to mention that in recent years the use of herbicides is becoming taboo.  The more we want to go organic the popularity of cultivators will again increase.  We may even need those hoes again, have you still got one?