France – Glimpses Of A French Farm

It was in 1903 that I first secured a letter to M. E. Delacour of Gouzangrez. I recall with keen pleasure all the circumstances of that first visit. M. Delacour came himself to Paris to fetch me to his place. He was a stalwart, courtly, handsome man, and his clothes were pot at all farmer-like. We went out together on the little train that runs out to Vs; he did not speak English nor I French, yet we managed to converse all the way. We did it in sign language. I had lived once among the Ute Indians. We would look out of the car windows and see a field all a-bloom with riotous clovers, or a field waving with glorious wheat; then we would point to it and smile and wave our hands appreciatively. We would see some sort of farm practice that did not look good to us; thereat we would frown and shake our fists. I had not the least idea when we should find an interpreter, knowing only that M. Delacour had asked that I should not take one with me. We alighted and entered a fine carriage, drawn by two beautiful horses, and drove out over the plain on a moisty, misty half-sunny morning. Soon M. Delacour with smiles and gestures told me that we had entered upon his domain. The first field that I recall was of wheat, being harvested by American binders, each one drawn by two yokes of splendid oxen. The wheat stood level with the backs of the oxen, a thick, shining, yellow mass of it and not fallen to earth. As the wheat was taken away, the stubble was green with young clovers and alfalfa. Beyond the wheatfield lay the meadow, and here eight men mowed the rich, rank grass and clovers, all a-bloom. They used scythes with wide, sharp blades and straight snathes. I got out of the carriage to try my skill with the scythes, and so sharp were they that I did quite good work, it seemed to me, until the old man laughingly took the tool away from me and showed me how much more skillfully he could use it than I. As fast as the grain was mown, it was raked together by women and tied up in tiny shocks, which were close-set, so that the rain that fell frequently just then would not bleach it. Of this, I am sure, I had never before seen so great a burden of grass, clover and alfalfa together upon a piece of land.


Beyond the meadow we came to a field of sugar beets. Short, strong men worked in the beets, hoeing them with an abandon and a fury hard to comprehend until I learned that they were Belgian la-borers, and that they all worked at piece work and not by the day. The beets were luxuriant; their dark green leaves covered the earth. We drove through the narrow streets of an old stone-built village; the houses were occupied by laborers who did the work of the farm, and in the midst of this quaint and picturesque village I marveled at the great castle where lived the Delacours themselves, surrounded by their cattle, sheep, horses and peasantry. We drove through a great archway into the court of the old castle, and at once there came to meet us a strong young woman who spoke English nearly as well as she spoke French. She was governess in the Delacour family, and was to be our interpreter, it seemed. At once my questions began to fly. We went first into the very large stone stables which housed 2,000 sheep, beautifully clean and fat and fine. All were Dishley Merinos, that curious cross-bred race of France. It is a combination of Leicester and Soissonnais Merino. They were bedded in clean yellow straw, stood nibbling green clovers with the blossom on, and were as beautiful a sight of the kind as I had ever seen. There were more sheep, to be in perfect health, than I had ever seen together away from the western ranges. Presently a wise old shepherd, with a wise old dog, took the sheep away to the stubble-fields to glean, and we went to see the cows in their stalls. They were eating ravenously the delicious fresh-cut green clovers, sainfoin, alfalfa and red clover mixed. We saw the great Percheron horses coming and going with enormous loads of sheaves of wheat; we saw, in fact, much of the life of the farm. And then we went to luncheon. The interior of the house was elegant, with fine books, pictures and silver. The luncheon was of course a good one, and the talk, thanks to our interpreter, went far afield, crossing the Atlantic and going to South Africa, where M. Delacour had a son who had gone to introduce the Dishley sheep.

Later we roamed the place again, I in the lead, the others good-humoredly following to answer my questions, for I was like a child. We came to an enormous pile of manure, one of the greatest that I had ever seen east of Nebraska, and I stood for some time gazing at it. M. Delacour spoke rapidly to the interpreter; she turned to me with a smile.

“Ah, you gaze upon the pile of manure, Mr. Wing?”

“Yes, pardon me; it is such a big pile, is it not?”

“Indeed it is. M. Delacour asks me to say to you that Gouzangrez always has been famous for its fine heaps of manure, but he thinks that this year he has perhaps a finer lot than ever before. He asks me to tell you that his father and his grandfather before him were noted for the manure heaps that the stock made, but he thinks that he has greater ones. And all this fertility that you see about these castle walls, all the wealth of grain and all the bloom of clover, come from the careful hoarding of manures. The manure feeds the land and the land feeds the sheep, cattle and horses; yes, and the men, too, who live about these castle walls.” It is no wonder that they prize it and glory in its amount and nature. After a time I walked out a little way to a rise, whence I could look afar over the great farm. There were the meadows all pink and purple with bloom and the wheatfields rich and yellow; everywhere that I turned I was presented with a sight of a land teeming with fertility. I dug my foot down into the earth; the soil was loamy and filled with humus—a happy place indeed for plant roots. This thought came : “In Ohio we have lived scarcely one hundred years, and already we begin to talk of worn-out lands. Here are fields that one hundred years ago were old fields.” Then I reflected a bit and added : “Yes, five hundred years ago these fields were old,” and then a further thought came to me, almost making me shiver with the immensity of it, and I said, “Yes, yes, a thou-sand years ago these were old fields and yet today they are more fertile than any in America.”

I examined then, with care, to see what it was that these men were doing that resulted in such fertility. Wide were the fields of wheat, but wider were the fields of sainfoin, alfalfa and clovers. Legumes covered the land’ and reddened it with bloom. Their roots were laboratories that incessantly gathered nitrogen from the air. The crops grown were fed to good animals and the manures returned to the land. Some mineral fertilizers were added; then they just kept at it for some hundreds of years; that was all.