Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Good Fences

Dan Allosso

Robert Frost famously epitomized New Englanders with the wry phrase, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  But even if your neighbors are far enough away for comfort and you like them, fences have their uses.  I’ve been thinking about these as I continue to work on 19th-century American history while starting up a small farm in the upper Midwest.  It’s interesting, because I suspect I’m living through a moment of historic change, and it’s all about fences.

In addition to influencing the relationships of neighbors, I’m learning fences have a number of other uses on the farm.  Of course, they help keep your animals where you want them.  And hopefully they help keep predators off your animals.  And they may keep wildlife off your vegetables, although hungry deer will jump any fence less than eight feet high.  Less obviously, though, fences define our relationship to the land and the uses we can put it to.

Most everyone is familiar with the story of the colonial split-rail fence.  There’s one on the cover of William Cronon’s Changes in the Land.  The rail fence, roughly cut from the timber settlers needed to clear in order to turn wild eastern forest into farmland, symbolizes European ideas of land use and ownership that settlers brought with them and imposed on the environment and the natives they found there.

This style of fencing was cheap and easy where settlers found trees needing to be cleared.  I took this photo at the Genesee Country Village and Museum in western New York.  This section of the museum represents life around the year 1800, when farming was a family enterprise done with ox, horse, and human power (I spent a 4th of July weekend in that cabin with my family as "The 1800 Farm Family").  An energetic farmer could clear about seven acres of land in a year, and often the family farmstead was split between a small cultivated field, a pasture for grazing animals, and a woodlot for fuel.  As families moved west, however, they discovered plains of prairie grasses that towered over the heads of children like Laura Ingalls.  The wooden fences of the East were impractical in many parts of the Midwest, where lumber came from far away at great expense, and was reserved for building things like houses, barns, churches and saloons.  And without internal combustion and irrigation, much of the land farther west was unfit for cultivation, but ideal for grazing if the animals could just be contained.

Joseph Glidden (1813-1906) was a New Englander who moved to Illinois in 1843.  He patented barbed wire in 1873 and died a millionaire.  Among his holdings were 335,000 acres in Texas: range land that his invention had allowed to be fenced.  The enclosure of the rangelands is one of the mythic moments in the story of the American West.  Through books and movies like The Virginian (1902), Oklahoma (1943), Shane (1953), Heaven’s Gate (1980), and Open Range (2003), it is as central to popular western history as Frederick Jackson Turner’s comments about the closing of the frontier are to the academic West.  Barbed wire fences dramatically expanded our ability to affordably control very large spaces.  Once again, Americans were able to impose our vision on the land (and also, once again, on the Indians).

Fences remain important to farmers, and their use is still a complicated affair.  Cattle and horses can be grazed on pasture enclosed by a few strands of barbed wire.  Sheep, with thick fleeces to protect them, will go through barbed wire.  Goats are even harder to contain – there’s an old saying that if your fence won’t hold water, it won’t hold goats.  And although chickens will usually come back home in the evening, there are a lot of varmints out there that will eat them in the meantime if they aren’t protected by a fence.  Farmers have used woven wire, hardware cloth, rigid panels, and electric wire to contain and protect animals.  Each comes at a price, and it adds up: a decent four-foot high sheep and goat fence will run you over a dollar a foot.  So these fences tended to be expensive and permanent.  Most small farmers use and endlessly reuse a variety of materials based on what they can get cheap, and hoard the bits they aren’t currently using.

As sustainability and soil depletion have come into sharper focus in recent years, innovative farmers have rediscovered what the old-timers knew before the age of chemical fertilizer: pastures will support a larger number of animals if they are grazed in succession.  Sheep and goats prefer to eat different plants than cows, so they can coexist with cattle on a pasture without competing.  And then the poultry can follow, eating bugs out of the droppings; which not only breaks up the fertilizer and spreads it over the fields, but also actually reduces the number of parasites and pathogens.  This is a win-win-win, the animals are better off, the farmer produces a larger quantity and wider variety of protein on a given plot of land, and the land itself is improved in the process.  The only catch is, you have to enclose and protect all these different types of creatures!  

That’s where the story gets interesting.  The cost of fencing has traditionally made it difficult for farmers to fence appropriately for intensive pasturing, and the effort involved in setting and moving fences has made land use inflexible.  But recently, battery-powered low-impedance fence chargers and moveable electric fences have changed the game again for small farms.  Deep-cycle batteries like the ones in your boat or RV can run miles of low-cost electric tape, twine or netting.  They can even be hooked to solar chargers.  And they’re easy to set up and move, allowing farmers to raise temporary paddocks and move animals as quickly or slowly as needed over the land.

This may not seem like such a big deal, but I think it may turn out to be.  The world’s food supply depends heavily on fossil fuels, both for transportation and for the production of synthetic fertilizers like anhydrous ammonia.  It currently takes fifteen calories of energy to put a calorie of food on your table.  If there’s any truth to either climate change or peak oil, multi-thousand acre cornfields and factory-style feedlots may turn out to be as much of a twentieth-century anomaly as McMansions and jet-setting to conferences.  But it has been suggested that the world’s food needs could be met by intensive techniques combining grazing with gardening.  Farmers like Joel Salatin claim that not only would intensive pasturing solve the world food problem, but “in fewer than ten years we would sequester all the atmospheric carbon generated since the beginning of the industrial age” (Folks, This Ain’t Normal, p. 195).  If true, this is a really big deal; and even if Salatin is not quite right about this, intensive pasturing still seems like a really good idea.  And these new fences make it possible.  That could be historic.


hcr said...

This is one of those topics that we probably all touch on when we teach, but never put together (like the history of agricultural subsidies). Thanks for doing it, and then tying it to the very topical issue of sustainability and peak oil. My sister lives in Europe and is shocked by how little Americans know about agriculture and agricultural history. In her country, every government policy begins with a look at how it will affect food production and the land. We were the same until at least the Nixon administration. Seems like it might be time to get back to those... roots. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Steven Cromack said...


This was a great piece. I think what I really like about it is that you take an issue that I have never thought about and pointed out that fencing really matters. Thanks. I plan to incorporate some of your ideas into my lecture notes on Western history.

I do have a question. Do you know if fencing is just as important in other countries? Do people of other countries view fences in the same way?

Gabriel Loiacono said...

Good post! I have often been astounded by the lack of fences between backyards since I moved to Wisconsin. I have also been intrigued by the lack of fenced-in animals as a major source of conflict between English and Indian neighbors in 1600s New England.