An Ecologically Sane Farm
Driving north on Route 53 out of Kenton, Ohio, where almost 200 years ago Simon Kenton ran a gauntlet of angry Delaware Indians and survived, I ride through a level, lonely countryside settled mainly by Germans who left their country and came here in the latter half of the nineteenth century to escape military conscription. They built big, boxlike brick homes, even though they were surrounded by an absolute glut of wood. They built with brick because they were accustomed to brick, and they burned the trees for heat to bake bricks.
The economics of government grain subsidy shapes this land now, just as once a homesick memory of Germany shaped it, and the great slate-roofed brick houses stand mostly as a monument to a past when farmers could afford to build homes that few top executives could afford today. The fences are gone now, along with the livestock and most of the woodlots of yesteryear. The great barns, once filled with animals, crumble now into a landscape of road-to-road corn and soybeans. The farmers who plant and harvest these crops spend the other half of the year in the county Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Committee office, groveling for the subsidies that allow them to go on planting and harvesting grain they cannot make any money on without more subsidy. And so the vicious circle goes on, some surviving, even profiting a little because of inherited wealth or at least inherited solvency, and the rest slowly but surely succumbing to their indebtedness.
The month is September 1989. With a farmer’s eyes, I can tell where the land is well drained and where it is not by the look of the soybean fields. A very wet spring delayed planting in these parts, and except where the soil is deep and underlain with a limestone gravel, or well-tiled and carefully cultivated, the large-scale farmers were forced to plant too late or in soil too wet, and the beans are stunted and will make barely twenty bushels to the acre if an early frost doesn’t ruin them altogether.
Suddenly, out of the forestry of tall corn hiding the landscape, a narrow, paved road runs into open, well-fenced pasture fields. I imagine that I have broken the time barrier and have been launched back into 1940. A flock of sheep grazes in the field to the right, a bunch of hogs loll in a large barn lot on my left, and beyond the big brick house that dominates this acreage, cows, horses, and—what goes on here!—a herd of donkeys graze.
I brake to a stop. A lean, leathery man who could as easily be fifty as he could be sixty turns his head from where he leans on the pasture fence eyeing the livestock. He studies me as I slowly climb out of the car. This is the moment I hate, even after thirty years of reporting. Will he think I am a salesman? Will he think me too bold? Will my smile be too ingratiating? Will he be too private a person to share his work with me? Will I be able to break through the strangeness between us to an honest communication?
“I hope you’ll forgive me for barging in on you, but are those really donkeys out there?” I try hard to look appealingly naïve.
“Not on this farm, they aren’t,” he says, not with hostility, but not with much friendliness either. “They may be donkeys someplace else, but here they are mammoth jack stock.”
“There’s a difference?”
“You bet your sweet life there is, when you are doing business with the mule trade.”
I am helpless with ignorance. I did not know there was a mule trade in this day and age and I cannot even remember for sure what the breeding relationship is between mules, horses, and donkeys.
“Mammoth jacks are what you breed mares to, to get the big draft mules,” he explains in a now kindly voice. “Mules are sterile and they’re smarter than horses. They will quit working when they get tired, whereas you can work a horse to death. And a mule won’t overeat and founder like a horse will. But I don’t raise mules either. I just raise jacks and jennets.”
I introduce myself. He is Jack Siemon, and I learn later that he is an internationally known and respected breeder of mammoth jacks. On his small, 180-acre farm he keeps about eighty head of jacks and jennets, selling about twenty a year. He can identify each of them by their looks, although he doesn’t name them. “I don’t think I know that many names,” he says. When I show more interest, he takes me out to the field and leads me from one animal to the next, talking rapid fire, about mammoth jacks in general and his own in particular.
“Now this one here with the white mark on her cheek, isn’t she a beauty? She’s the daughter of that jenny we saw over in the other field. That’s her sister right over yonder there, and a brother to her is in the field down the road a bit. See how she carries herself? Good heart girth, proper curve to the rump—muscle, not fat. That’s as fine an example of Catalonia stock as you can find anywhere in the world. She’s bred to that jack in the barn I showed you and she should have a poppin’ good colt.”
Without encouragement he launches into a short history of mammoth jacks, a remarkable animal in which is fused, he says, all the main jackass breeds of old Europe—Catalonian, Poitou, Maltese, Majorcan, Andalusian, and Italian, becoming recognized as a single breed about 1888 with the beginning of the Jack Stock Stud Book. Most of the good mammoth jack stock traces its lineage back to “General Logan,” considered the best jack of the 1800s. “Some of mine trace directly back to ‘Rowdy,’ one of General Logan’s sons,” says Siemon.
At first I think that Jack Siemon has himself a nice little retirement hobby on his nice little farm, until he casually remarks that he just sold a jack for $4,000—”and I wouldn’t take six thousand for that one over there.” He figures that his jacks and jennets bring him, on the average, about $3,000 each, “depending.” Again a casual remark catches me by surprise. He says that summer has been “one long, hard haymaking season” for him and his two hired employees, to make up for the lack of hay in the previous year’s drought. It dawns on me that for this veteran farmer (he admits to seventy-six), his body still as lean and sinewy-tough as whang leather, this is no hobby and a far cry from retirement. This is serious business.
The chief “product” of his business is mammoth jacks, but they are not the only animals he raises and sells. As we walk over the 180 acres, my astonishment grows. I have been on thousands of farms from the East Coast to the West, and never before have I seen such a variety or number of animals grazing per acre: not only the eighty head of mammoth jack stock, but about a dozen draft horses, a couple of lighter harness horses, a few dairy cows and calves, a bunch of fattening steers, a flock of sheep, a barnlot full of hogs, a barnyard full of turkeys, peacocks, ducks, geese, guineas, dogs, cats, and a genetic explosion of all kinds of chickens. Every niche of the farmstead is filled with animal life, and in reaction to anything unusual, a chorus of squawks, gobbles, quacks, whinnies, bellows, bleatings, and barking erupts, all drowned out by a crescendo of ludicrous-sounding hee-haws from the jacks and jennets. Jack Siemon’s farm is a celebration of the earth’s vital forces.
Siemon got interested in mammoth jacks seriously right after World War II in which he served. His wife owned a farm in Arkansas, and for a few years he tried to do the impossible: raise cotton in Arkansas and corn in Ohio at the same time. “I learned real fast that in weeding cotton, a good man and a mule could do a better and much more efficient job than a tractor weeder. But there were no good mules around. The army had bought most of them at the beginning of the war, and with the rapid adoption of tractors and trucks, mules just disappeared. So I started raising mammoth jacks to get some good mules back in circulation.”
“But who buys them now?” I asked.
“Some of the Amish prefer mules, and the Amish are not decreasing. There is also a lively hobby trade in draft animals, both horses and mules. And, believe it or not, there are small farmers not of Amish persuasion who use draft animals on real working farms and in logging. In the South, mules are preferred because they can stand more heat. And remember, two-thirds of the world still relies on draft animal power in agriculture. I just had some visitors here from Colombia, for example. Nice folks. Furthermore, I still believe that petroleum will finally get so high-priced that horses and mules will again come into favor even in industrial countries. People laugh at me for that sometimes, but I’m seeing interest increase, not decrease.” He pauses to let that sink in, then adds, My interest in breeding high-quality animals actually started with poultry. I still raise and sell a few prize white Langschans. This locale was once a real hotbed of poultry breeding. At the Hardin County Fair, we’d have maybe 800 entries in the poultry show. I saw that interest come, and then I saw it fade, and now it’s coming back, too, just like in draft animals.” Can he account for that? He looks at me, and a grin spreads across his face. With the calculated wisdom of lean old men who have beaten the odds—even the odds against acquiring the inevitable potbelly of modern man—he says, “Oh, it’s not written in stone somewhere that big-scale farming is always going to be the wave of the future. Could be we’re in for a surprise.” He pauses again, studying me for a reaction. “I’ll put it this way. If you scar a tree, it heals over the wound and is stronger there than ever. That’s the way a small farmer is. Owning some land is everything. You never are going to drive the small farmer out of farming if he wants to stay in. There’s almost an unlimited number of ways today that he can finance his farming with a related business or job.”
Siemon’s “related” business is, of course, the mammoth jack stock, but more basically he brings to his farming an uncommon knowledge and skill at breeding good animals of all kinds. “I’m not a trader, I’m a breeder,” he says more than once. “If you want to succeed in animal husbandry, you have to have good stock, whether it’s mules or cows or whatever. Takes nearly as much to feed a poor cow as a good one, and to succeed, a small dairy has to have good cows. Now you take this Guernsey cow. The dairyman only sold her when she was a calf because she was a twin and he believed the old folklore that says a twin won’t be fertile. But I could tell by the shape of her head that she was okay. I bought her and then looked up the dairyman and found she was out of a Guernsey that gave 18,000 pounds of milk a year—very good for a Guernsey. So now I’m seeing what I can breed from her. There’s a fine-looking heifer calf already, and if she gives a lot of milk, she’ll be worth a lot of money.”
The hogs he raises are top-notch Chester Whites, the Guernsey steers are the largest of that breed I’ve ever seen, and the Percheron horses are sleek as silk. One draft horse Siemon raised was once grand champion at the local fair, edging out over 100 entries, and placed third at the Ohio State Fair. The sheep are a Dorset Finn cross—Finns for their reputation for multiple births, and Dorsets for being able to fatten efficiently on pasture only.
Siemon, after scratching his head deliberately, calculates that there are about 300 animals on his little farm. The common denominator underlying all of this careful husbandry is high-quality, low-labor pasture. It represents, in a manner of speaking, the third level of Jack Siemon’s farming soul after you peel away Jack Siemon the breeder and master salesman of mammoth jack stock, you find Jack Siemon the gentle husbandman, and under that one lies Jack Siemon the master agricultural ecologist. His land is a living testimony to the falsity of the modern myth that “pastures don’t pay,” a notion that has plunged so many farmers into financial hardship, they must depend on handouts from the government to keep them solvent while their topsoil washes away in the production of surplus grain. Except for twenty-nine acres in corn, all of Siemon’s farm is clothed, in September, with bright green legume pastures that protect the soil and enrich it by taking nitrogen from the air and adding it to the soil. The oats field of earlier summer is now sheathed in alfalfa, as pretty a first-year stand after grain as I have seen anywhere. (Oats make excellent feed for mammoth jacks, horses, and sheep.)
This farm is not only being sustained, it is being constantly regenerated. After two or three years in legumes, with generous applications of manure, a field does not really need any commercial fertilizer to get good grain yields, Siemon points out. “I started farming here in 1946, and in all that time there’s not an acre on the place that’s received a thousand pounds of purchased fertilizer altogether, and most of that has come in the last year when I planted corn after corn because of the drought. I never really needed to use herbicides, either, but I’ve used a little lately, again because my rotations are out of whack because of the drought. And I’m getting old and it’s easier to spray than to cultivate weeds. I’m for the happy medium. A little doesn’t harm anything in my opinion.”
Although Siemon’s gross income does not approach that of a large-scale farm, I don’t need a calculator to figure that his net income from this 180 acres is better than many farms I know that are ten times this size. (In fact, I know quite a few farms ten times this size that operated at a net loss throughout most of the eighties.) This remarkable productivity means something more than Siemon’s profits alone. It also makes it possible, and in fact necessary, for him to hire help—one more or less full-timer and one or sometimes two part-timers. Rather than invest in expensive feeding equipment, he relies on human help. It would be most interesting to punch those numbers into a computer. If a 180-are farm can support two or three laborers, think how a fabric of similar farms would alleviate the problems of city congestion and joblessness and revitalize the economy of rural areas. Farms ten times the size of Siemon’s, that is, of 1,800 acres, certainly do not employ twenty to thirty people. An 1,800-acre grain farm barely keeps three laborers employed half the year.
If Siemon, as a businessman, has a flaw, it is in his reluctance to find someone who can take over the farm in his absence. No one else knows the little details of how he cares for all these animals without expensive automated machinery, and even so, he finds it hard to trust anyone with the responsibility. “Yes, I should cut back. I hope someone comes along who wants to go into this business himself. There’s got to be a lot of love and dedication to make this kind of farming work. You can’t hire it. I’m pretty well tied to this place.” Then he smiles. “But that’s fine with me. I like being on my farm. I can’t think of anyplace to go that’s as nice as it is here.”
See also Gene’s Oxen Power For Family Farms
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream 1994
Image Credit: Reference Jacks
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