Reflections: Farmers have always been jacks-of-all- trades

My dad had two sayings about farming that he apparently lived by. The first was that during that era (the 1940s through the 1960s) the only poor farmers were poor farmers. The second was that to be successful, a farmer had to be a jack-of-all-trades, even if he was master of none.

My dad along with three of his brothers moved from Dust Bowl Kansas to northern Illinois in the 1920s and 1930s, three of them to farm and one – who said he’d had enough farming to last him two lifetimes – to become a house painter. The three transplanted shortgrass prairie farmers learned the ins and outs of tallgrass prairie farming well, none of them farming poorly or failing to earn a decent living.

In fact, one of my dad’s first cousins came east to Illinois as a young man out of high school to learn Illinois prairie farming techniques, from crop selection and rotation to what kinds of livestock were good moneymakers to how to properly use and maintain farm equipment. As an apprentice, he learned his lessons well, going back to Kansas to apply his knowledge, raising a family and sending all four of his children through college.

One of the lessons my dad really stressed was the advantage of farm maintenance: taking care of the land, buildings and equipment necessary to earn a living.

Something as simple as storing farm equipment under a roof instead of letting it stand out in the weather increases its lifespan and saves money while making sure it’s ready to be used immediately, given farming is so weather-dependent. The only equipment allowed to stand outside year-round in those years were disks and drags, neither of which had transportation wheels in that era.

Maintaining a farm’s infrastructure also was one of my dad’s major goals, keeping buildings in good repair and maintaining the farm’s miles of fencing. Fences on modern grain farms have largely gone the way of other once-common Midwestern things, from passenger pigeons to prairie hens. But in the days of diversified farming, when each farm produced crops as well as a variety of livestock, fences were key to making sure the operation was successful.

The region’s pioneer farmers began building fences, both to keep livestock in for their own protection against prairie wolves and human thieves, and to keep livestock out during the early free-range days to protect crops from being destroyed. The best early fences were made of split rails ingeniously constructed so that even wily wild hogs could be kept out. But splitting rails was labor-intensive, and the timber they required was never as plentiful as farmers would have liked out here on the Illinois prairie. Some farmers tried sod and ditch fences, but the region’s roughly 3 feet of precipitation a year silted in the trenches and dissolved the sod walls with dismaying speed.

Hedge fences were a popular alternative, with Osage Orange being the favored variety to plant. Osage Orange grew sort of slowly to start, but relatively soon. And ith proper care, pruning, and training the plants’ branches as they grew, a nearly impenetrable hedge fence could be produced within a few years. True, Osage Orange needs to be aggressively pruned to keep the plants from overspreading areas near the intended fence rows, but the tree’s wood is extremely dense and burns hot for a good firewood.

In the April 12, 1854, Kendall County Courier, published in Oswego, the Whiting brothers advertised “Osage Orange Hedges Made. The undersigned will contract for making Hedges of the Osage Orange Plant next spring and will warrant them to make the thing for which they are designed. Also the Osage Orange Seed and Plants for sale.”

After the Civil War, fueled by passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, farmers began moving onto the western shortgrass prairies where trees were virtually nonexistent. And that drove the need for fencing material to something faster than waiting for an Osage Orange hedge to grow. Thus, the development of barbed wire strung on wooden posts. The most famous of the barbed wire inventors and manufacturers were, of course, the Gliddens in DeKalb. But in Kendall County, four inventors held patents on barbed wire fencing, and one, A.V. Wormley of Oswego, made a good living off his version.

Interestingly, all those mature hedge fences became living fence post factories as farmers had to prune and trim them annually to keep them from taking over fields. Osage Orange fence posts proved nearly indestructible and the fences made with them not only helped win the west but proved invaluable on the Illinois prairie.

With properly fenced fields, livestock could be safely turned out in them after the harvest was complete to clean up missed or dropped corn and finish off oat, wheat, and barley stubble. Maintaining all those fences was part of the routine farm maintenance that was so important for a successful operation.

And those old Osage Orange hedge fences? Most farmers eventually just let them go since they were difficult to maintain and even more difficult to remove. When modern construction equipment became available after World War II, farmers started removing the miles of hedge fences that snaked across Kendall County. That created more arable farmland, of course, but it also removed miles of valuable wildlife habitat. All things considered, most farmers felt, and feel, the elimination of hedges is an economic no-brainer. Hedges suck up valuable moisture during the region’s droughts and also occupy an astonishing number of acres that could be cultivated. A friend estimates the remaining hedges on his farmland remove more than 30 acres from cultivation.

So as autumn settled in during those diversified farming days, after the harvest good farmers, along with their usual daily chores, spent their days maintaining their equipment and getting it ready for planting, repairing their fences and making sure their buildings were in shape for another winter. And while times have changed out on the farm, farmer’s annual routine isn’t that much different than it’s been for decades.

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