It’s hard to imagine a homestead farm without fences. There are so many different husbandry projects happening at once—pigs, chickens, sheep, ducks, turkeys, gardens, cows, crops, etc.! If the pigs were in the squash patch, the chickens in with the donkey, or any number of combinations, it is easy to see how something would go awry. Fences help maintain the order that is crucial in a successful agrarian enterprise.
The old saying goes that good fences make good neighbors, which harkens to the days when farmers were responsible for their side of the fence. Grandpa remembers his dad going out each year, trimming and mending the hedges and fences that bordered the neighbors. Neither family wanted the others’ cows in their corn or pigs in the yard. Prevention of unwanted escapes was much better than cleaning up the destructive aftermath.
For centuries, most fences were living hedges, the traditional English model of which involved cutting and laying the hedge every three years. Stems as big around as a person’s finger were sliced at an angle part-way through to allow them to flex near the base. These stems were then braided together along the length of the hedgerow. New shoots would sprout up from the braided stems, and these would be cut and laid three years later. As the hedge grew, the goal was to make it “Hog tight, horse high, and bull strong.” Every 100 years, a new variety of hedge plant like elderberry would be propagated in the hedge row to give new vitality. Counting the number of different plants in an English farm hedge is a rough estimate of how long that hedge has been tended by human hands.
Hedges and fencerows can offer important habitat for a variety of wildlife, as well as block wind and snow during inclement weather. In rural Vermont, the ever-present need to pick rock from the sloping fields and pastures became material for snaking stone walls that marked property lines or kept livestock in or out of desires areas. It was even common in colonial times to simply “fence the yard” and let the animals wander at will outside. The pigs lived mostly in the woods, the cattle in the pastures, and the chickens where they will, but at least the laundry, mother’s flowers, and the small children would be left alone!
Fences have also been an issue of contention between farmers. One of Abraham Lincoln’s legal cases in Illinois before he became President involved a dispute between a cattleman and a crop farmer. The crop farmer was outraged that the cattleman’s herd had invaded his fields and damaged the crop, and he wanted the cattleman to pay for fencing his fields. Ultimately, the law ruled that it was the crop farmer’s responsibility to erect fences to protect his property, not the cattleman’s.
The invention of barbed wire changed the face of ranching in the West as wheat farmer’s pushed into the plains. Huge herds coming north out of Texas to the railroad stations that took the beasts to Chicago meat plants reeked havoc on anything in their way. All the work into a wheat crop could be demolished in a few hours below stamping hooves. As the West was settled, cowboys found it harder and harder to make drives because barbed wire fences were going up everywhere.
Now with electric fencing, the barrier is no longer strictly physical. A single strand of high tensile wire with a pulsing electric fencing system can keep thousands of pounds of cattle inside. This is because electric fence works as a psychological barrier that requires training young animals to gain their respect. Our lambs begin in a traditional woven wire fenced pen so they can learn what a fence is (I can see through it but cannot run through it). They then graduate to an electric mesh fence on one side of a pen. A nose is zapped, the lambs run in surprise and bounce off the opposite fence. Once they learn that the “biting fence” does not pursue them as long as they leave it alone, the lambs are safe to be introduced to a fully electrified paddock.
The psychological barrier works as well for predators and other creatures meant to be kept outside of an area by electric fence. A sensitive raccoon paw soon learns that biting fences are no fun and leaves the sweet corn patch to itself. Coyotes pace the edge, looking for a way in—finding none, they continue on their way. But just as the Vermont sheep knew every spot in the stone walls that had fallen over, both livestock and predators know when an electric fence has been shorted out. Diligence in maintaining good fences is ever present in a farmer’s labors.
One of the first fences I helped put up on our farm when I was about 12 years old was not to keep out wolves or hold in sheep. Circling our first, modest raised bed garden, it wasn’t even in response to rabbits or deer. Grandpa’s black Labrador Meg had some funny habits, including making it her personal missions to pull out all the plants in the garden. Transplanted tomatoes? Rip. Half-grown sweet corn? Rip.
I was a bit of a bean pole then, and I’m sure that Mom and Grandpa did most of the fence post pounding. We strung the four-foot woven wire around the perimeter and built a wooden gate at one end. There, now our precious little garden was safe from the marauding dog! Later, we added chicken wire, to help with the baby rabbits that were lusting after the carrots and beets.
Now, 14 years and acres of garden later, we pulled out that old first garden fence—rusted, listing, and a little war-beaten by lawn mowers. A couple neighbor friends came over to help as we wrestled the bottom wire free from tangled quack grass roots and buried fence clips. Now a patch for perennial crops of rhubarb, asparagus, garlic, and strawberries, the garden no longer needs the old-fashioned metal protection. Meg has grown old and gray, resigning her urge to enforce her will on unsuspecting garden plants.
We pulled out the old T-posts, rolled up the unruly chicken wire, and opened this little piece of the farm into a new chapter. We almost left the garden gate—as a memento or conversation piece—but with typical German thoroughness, it all had to come out. If the old rig had stayed much longer, the weeds would have taken over the fence line enough to be mistaken as a hedge.
From the ancient to the modern, putting in, taking out, and maintaining fences is part and parcel of agrarian living. I don’t know how the weather does it, but the days you put in fence are almost always the hottest of the summer. And the days you pull it out are cold and drizzly. But yesterday’s fence pulling was pleasant enough, and we laughed as we wrestled and tugged on the old worn-out fence with our neighbor friends, who were lending a hand to the task. Guess good fences still make good neighbors. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com