Plowshare

The first time on a mammoth tractor is not for the faint of heart.

Marilee Foster working her farm in Sagaponack.

Marilee Foster working her farm in Sagaponack.

For a long time the 4840 was the most powerful tractor in our fleet. She’s a John Deere, 150 horsepower and is married to a four-bottom rollover plow. The tractor is as hefty as she is attractive, well-proportioned in color and physique.

There is no extra bulk or gewgaw. This tractor has been known to plow more than 500 acres without so much as a hiccup. It was an act of preservation when a larger tractor and a five-bottom plow replaced her. Then my brother told me if I took care of the tractor and kept the plow greased, I could use the 4840.

Sometimes it seems easier to rely on another person’s skill than to develop your own, but this doesn’t fly in farming. My brother knew he wasn’t offering me an opportunity so much as an ultimatum. Until then I had relied on him to plow my fields.

For all the times I had watched the plow and marveled at the way its gleaming shares folded the earth into itself, I had never driven it. I knew how the engine should sound as the tractor comes to the end of the field. And how it should sound after it turns around and takes off again: The engine claims another octave, a plume of diesel and a hurrah of power. A bumping up of the throttle, and she’s at operating speed.

I was also familiar with the plow because one of my jobs had been to grease it before the tractor set out each day. I knew which lever lifted the plow and which rolled it, but I knew nothing of the art—the smooth combination of shifting and hydraulic commands—required to make the massive job neat and exacting. On our farm there is an emphasis on straight rows. It is an aesthetic backed by sound philosophy. When you are farming hundreds of acres, going straight creates the necessary uniformity to be efficient. The plow essentially gets the whole affair underway.

To drive a tractor well you must certainly have good eye-hand coordination. You must constantly check behind and in front. Some corollary adjustments are in your hands, the steering wheel, throttle and three hydraulic valves. In the good operation of the tractor, like the horse it replaced, there is something to be said for a “seat,” that is, you can feel beneath you the position and willingness of your machine. Lastly, sometimes, you’ll want to use your feet. There is a set of breaks on the floor that can help you stay straight while traveling on an incline. The differentials are yet another subtlety of tractor work. What a tractor driver needs is eye-hand-ass-feet coordination. I sat on the edge of my tiny field, and I was terrified.

I found a focal point and set the plowshares against the ground. Once I released the clutch I would be irreversibly moving forward in a very large way, tons of dirt would be moved. It’s easy to make a mess. On my first pass I was so intent on going straight I did not breathe.

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Marilee Foster farms and writes in Sagaponack.