By Louis Bromfield
llustration by Wm. Keith Harrison
Pulitzer prize-winning author Louis Bromfield
(1896-1956) wrote eloquently about the importance of rural
life and sustainable agriculture to our collective future.
This charming excerpt from his story, "My Ninety Acres," is
reprinted from Return to Pleasant Valley , a
collection of Bromfield's writings edited by MOTHER EARTH
NEWS contributing editor George DeVault.
In the first weeks after I came home I never thought about
my father's friend, old Walter Oakes. Indeed I had very
nearly forgotten his existence. And then one day I heard
Wayne, one of the boys on the farm, say something about My
Ninety Acres, and I remembered it all and asked, "is Walter
Oakes still alive?"
"Alive!" said Wayne, "I'll say he's alive. The liveliest
old man in the county. You ought to see that place.
Brother, that's the kind of farm I'd like to own. He raises
as much on it as most fellows raise on five times that much
Wayne, of course, was only 20. He couldn't know how once
people had laughed when Walter Oakes spoke proudly of My
Ninety Acres. Clearly they didn't laugh any more. Clearly
Walter Oakes was the best farmer in all the county, very
likely the best farmer in all the rich Ohio country.
The next Sunday I walked over the hills to My Ninety Acres.
As I came down the long hill above the farm I saw it hadn't
changed much. The house still looked well painted and neat
with its white walls and green shutters, and the barn was a
bright, new, prosperous red.
As I walked down the hill I thought, "This is the most
beautiful farm in America—the most beautiful, rich
farm in the world—My Ninety Acres."
The corn stood waist high and vigorous and green, the oats
thick and strong, the wheat already turning a golden
yellow. In the meadow the bumblebees were working on clover
that rose almost as high as a man's thighs.
I pushed open the little gate and walked into the dooryard
with the neatly mown grass bordered by lilacs and peonies
and day lilies ... I remembered enough to know I should
find old Walter somewhere in the fields. Sunday afternoon
he always spent walking over the place. As a small boy I
had followed him and my father many times.
So I went down toward the creek, and as I turned the corner
by the barnyard I saw him down below, moving along a
fencerow. Two sheep dogs were with him, the
great-great-great-grandchildren of the pair I had known as
a boy. They were running in and out of the hedgerow yapping
joyously. I stood a moment, watching the scene.
It was Nellie that had that idea about lettin' fencerows
grow up. I always found out Nellie was pretty right about
farmin'. She was hardly ever wrong... I guess never.
The fencerow bordered a meadow of deep, thick hay, and
below, among feathery willows, wound the clear spring
stream where I had often gone swimming with Walter's boys:
John, who had been everything Walter had hoped for in a
son, the best loved, who was buried somewhere in the
Argonne; and Robert, who had gone away to become rich and
powerful. There was something lonely about the figure of
the old man wandering along the fencerow filled with
sassafras and elderberry. For no reason I could understand
I felt a lump come to my throat.
Then I noticed the old man's-erratic progress. He would
walk a little way and then stop and, parting the bushes,
peer into the tangled fencerow. Once he got down on his
knees and for a long time disappeared completely in the
Finally, as he started back along the far side of the
fields, I set off down the slope toward him. He seemed to
realize I must have seen him for a long time, ducking and
dodging in and out of the fencerow. A faint tinge of color
came into his face and he said, shyly, "I was just snoopin'
around my 90 acres, I like to see what goes on here and I
don't get time during the week."
He looked down at his big hands and noticed, as I did, that
some of the black, damp loam of the fencerow still clung to
them. He brushed them awkwardly together. "I was just
digging into the fencerow to see what was going on there
underground. A fellow can learn a lot by watching his own
land and what goes on in it and on it. My son John - you
remember the one that was killed in the war - he went to
agricultural school, but I don't think he learned more
there than I've learned just out of studying my own 90
acres. Nellie always said a farm could teach you more than
you could teach it, if you just kept your eyes open ...
Nellie ... that was my wife."
"Of course," I said. "I remember."
Then he said, "Come with me and I'll show you something."
I followed him along the fencerow, and presently he knelt
and parted the bushes and beckoned to me. I knelt beside
him and he pointed. "Look!" he said, and his voice grew
suddenly warm. "Look at the little devils."
I looked and could see nothing at all but dried, brown
leaves with a few delicate fern fronds thrusting through
them. Old Walter chuckled and said, "Can't see 'em, can
you? Look, over there, just by that hole in the stump." I
looked, and then slowly I saw what he was pointing at. They
sat in a little circle in a tiny nest, none of them much
bigger than the end of one of old Walter's big
thumbs—seven tiny quail. They sat very still not
moving a feather, lost among the dry, brown leaves. I might
not have seen them at all but for the brightness of their
"Smart!" he said, with the same note of tenderness in his
voice. "They know! They don't move!"
Then a cry of "Bob White!' came from the thick, fragrant
clover behind us and Walter said, "The old man's somewhere
around." The whistle was repeated, again and then again.
Old Walter stood up and said, "They used to laugh at me for
letting the bushes grow up in my fencerows, but they don't
any more. When the chinch bugs come along all ready to eat
up my corn, these little fellows will take care of 'em." He
chuckles, "There's nothing a quail likes as much as a
"Last year Henry Talbot, down the road, lost 10 acres of
corn all taken by the bugs. Henry's a nut for clear
fencerows. He doesn't leave enough cover along 'em for a
grasshopper. He thinks that's good farming, the old fool!"
And the old man chuckled again.
We were walking now up the slope from the creek toward the
house, and he went on talking, "That fencerow beside you,"
he said, "is just full of birds—quail and song
sparrows and thrushes—the farmer's best protection.
It was Nellie that had that idea about lettin' fencerows
grow up. I didn't believe her at first. I was just as dumb
as most other farmers. But I always found out Nellie was
pretty right about farmin'. She was hardly ever wrong ... I
It wasn't the last time I saw old Walter. There was enough
of my father in me to make the friendship between myself
and the old man before long very nearly as warm as their
friendship had been. And after all, between them, they had
taught me many of the things I had come with experience to
value most in life. The Sunday afternoon visits to My
Ninety Acres became nearly a habit, for I found gradually
that old Walter was in himself an education. He knew more
of the fundamentals of soil, of crops, of livestock than
any man I have ever known. Some of them he had read in
books and in farm papers but he didn't trust the things he
read until he tried them out, and many of them he didn't
even attempt to try since out of his own wisdom he
understood at once they were rubbish. Instinctively and out
of experience he rejected things that ran counter to the
laws of nature.
"Nellie," he would say, "always said that Nature and the
land itself was the best answer to all these questions. 'If
it wasn't natural it wasn't right,' Nellie would say, and
I've never found that she was wrong. She used to say that
there were two kinds of farms—the 'live' farms and
the 'dead' ones—and you could tell the difference by
looking at them. A 'live' farm was the most beautiful place
in the world and a 'dead' farm was the saddest. It depended
on the man who worked them, whether he loved the place and
saw what was going on or whether he just went on pushing
implements through the ground to make money. Nellie was
awful smart about a lot of things."
Copies of Return to Pleasant Valley , published by
the American Botanist, are Stock No. 1893 on MOTHER'S
Bookshelf; to order, call (866) 833-7096. You can visit
Bromfield's Malabar Farm, now an Ohio state park; for
details, go to www.malabarfarm.org , or call (419)
Mother Earth News