Have you ever picked rocks in a freshly tilled field? If you were lucky, it was a nice, warm day—but not too hot. There was a cool breeze to whisk away the sweat, but not so windy that the dust from the drying, exposed soil stuck to every damp surface of your body, going into your eyes, nose, and ears. You scanned the field looking for fist-size or better rocks that could damage the planter or cutter bar on the harvester. Maybe it was your first time picking rocks and you filled your t-shirt with them before dumping them in the bucket of the tractor—it’s certainly a lot quicker than running back and forth. At the end of the long day, bending and picking, hands black from the dirt, muscles sore from tossing heavy stones, you found you had completely ruined one of your favorite shirts!
Then again, maybe you’ve never even heard of “picking rocks.”
Picking rocks is one of the basic truths of farm life. Every farmer has done it in their lifetime, almost regardless of where they farm in these United States. Some areas are much worse, of course, and some fields are a constant problem. But, why in the world do farmers pick rocks???
Every spring, farmers go to their fields to plant soybeans, corn, wheat, and everything else under the sun. The long-honored traditional method of opening up a field is to plow it, cutting through the soil and flipping large, relatively deep swaths to both break up (and kill) weeds and expose the soil underneath to the warm, Spring sun. Plowing aerates and loosens the soil, distributes organic matter and nutrients, and helps dry out the wet soil in preparation for planting. In working and disturbing the soil in this fashion, many rocks are brought to the surface…even if the field has been worked year after year, generation after generation. The rocks just keep on coming! Frost heaves them from the earth below, providing a constant “perennial garden” of rocks.
All of these rocks must either be hand-picked, removed mechanically, or rolled over with a cultipacker or heavy roller that pushes them back down into the soft earth—it all depends on what equipment or how many helpers the farmer has on hand, and what she plans on planting. Some farmers put a “rock rake” on their skid steer that makes picking rock much easier, scooping and sifting out the largest offenders. Large sod farms use specialized equipment to remove even the smallest stones—since they can’t have any at all!
Some of areas of the country are worse than others, based on the geology of the region. If you’ve ever been to New England, surely you noticed all the rock walls lining the countryside and small towns. It’s incredibly quaint, until you think about the generations of farmers that put them there year after year, farming the very rocky soils. Each one was placed by hand, having been dug up and moved from a field nearby. My home state of Wisconsin and neighboring Minnesota have areas with many, sometimes enormous rocks, due to the glaciers that scraped and dumped them eons ago. Talk about a battle that can never be won!
Since the late 1990s, “conservation tillage” has become a much more common practice in the US, versus the more intensive tilling described above. This is a broad category that generally means at least 30% crop residue is left in place, slowing soil erosion, preserving soil biodiversity and sequestering carbon. There are fewer passes with equipment using conservation tillage practices, saving on fuel and time, and reducing soil compaction. Terms like “no-till,” “low-till,” and “strip-till” all refer to ways that farmers can approach planting time while minimizing soil disturbance. Conservation tilling practices can delay spring planting, however, as the dark earth isn’t being exposed to the sun’s warming rays. As with all things agriculture, there is always a trade-off.
But frost still heaves rocks in these fields. Picking rock is indeed a fact of life on the farm, no matter how hard you try to avoid it!
My first experience picking rocks was when I was 6 years old. My father was the high school band director for the local school, and was always looking for fundraising opportunities. (Some things never change!) He volunteered his students—and his 6-year-old daughter!—to pick rocks at any farm willing to donate to whatever the cause de jour was…new uniforms, band trip, or music camp scholarships. As I recall, the kids were not amused and we soon turned our fundraising efforts elsewhere. My husband can tell you stories of his childhood, when his neighbor would put his tractor in 1st gear, tie the steering wheel in place, and hop out to pick rocks as the tractor inched along. Seems he invented the original driverless tractor over forty years ago!
Bring up the topic of rock-picking with just about any farmer and you’ll be genuinely entertained by their stories. In fact, in preparation for this article, I reached out to a “women in agriculture” group on Facebook and asked for their experiences. Was it different for them, depending on where they lived and what they grew? Women from all over the country, regardless of age and type of farm, had stories to tell of picking rocks: Women in their 80s fondly remembered helping grandparents clear a field; young women reported that their 3-year-olds especially loved to help. Others shared videos of equipment working or pictures of the rock gardens they had built around their homes, repurposing all that field stone. I was pleasantly surprised to find the topic so common—a love/hate relationship we all share.
So, for all those readers that never “picked rock” a day in your life, count your blessings! On the other hand, perhaps it is unfortunate that you have missed out on a virtual rite of passage, one of the most basic and ancient truths of farming.