Sunday, May 6, 2012

A work bee, with a twist or two

Driving back from running errands yesterday, Fred and I noticed a sign on Route 202 near the Hunt Farm in Orange:  "Plow Day."  When we stopped to look, we saw that a number of antique tractors were crossing and re-crossing the big field where George Hunt grows feed corn for his dairy cattle.

I already knew that there's a whole sub-culture of tractor collectors and enthusiasts.  I didn't realize, though, that some of them--in this particular case, Chapter 18 of the International Harvester Collector Club--periodically converge on a willing farmer's field to practice their plowing skills or just (as one man put it when I asked him about the event yesterday) "to play" with machines that they wouldn't otherwise get a chance to use.  A bit of Internet research on Plow Days turned up a definition, some similar events using draft animals, and a  YouTube playlist of videos from around the country.  (I wouldn't necessarily say that watching someone plow a field is less riveting than watching paint dry, but I did find that watching just a few of these more than satisfied my curiosity.)  Closer to home, I found some video of the 2011 event at Hunt Farm and an article about 2010's gathering.

This is actually proving to be a more complex event to wrap my head around than I thought at first.  On the surface, it looks like a bit of old-fashioned reciprocity among farmers (or new-fashioned, if you compare it with the crop mob phenomenon among a younger slice of the farming demographic).  I have land that needs plowing, you have a group of people looking for a place to use their tractors--hey, kids, let's get together and plow some fields!  The fact that the tractors are from a previous era just seems to make it an interesting example of using older tools and skills around the edges of the present-day farm economy.

But the hobbyist aspect makes this a somewhat different animal.  My guess is that the main reason the tractor enthusiasts are willing to volunteer their skill and labor is that it gives them a chance to do something removed from the realm of present-day farming.  The old tractors are fun and collectable in large part because they're obsolete, and the reciprocity is strangely indirect.  It takes a detour into the kind of antiquarianism that you encounter in living history settings, where people work to recapture the past for reasons of recreational pleasure, education, or self-discovery rather than for more utilitarian purposes.  This is something quite different from choosing old machinery because you think it has some inherent advantages (as Tillers International does, for example).

Still, it's interesting to think about how the "pastness" of the tractor collectors and the present-day operations of a host farm come together on Plow Day.  It strikes me that this is a precise mirror image of a historic site that invites modern-day farmers to work its fields in order to preserve a historic landscape (something that happens, for example, at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio).  This leaves me with the same sense of disconnection that frustrates me when I encounter it at historic sites--but at least the old and the new are butting up against each other within the same framework.  When that happens, there's the possibility that someone will figure out how to take things a step further.  And meanwhile, the fields are getting plowed and everyone is pleased--so even to my cynical eye, this seemed like a pretty happy occasion!

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