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HomeConsider ThisBeginning Farming at the Dixon Place

Beginning Farming at the Dixon Place

Editor’s Note: Awhile back I wrote a Scoop about getting started from scratch in farming and ranching, asking folks if they’d share their ideas or stories. Here’s one from Don Ashford for us all to enjoy.

Don and Betty Ashford visited us at the On Pasture booth at the National Conference on Grazing Lands in Grapevine, Texas.
Don and Betty Ashford are still happy in love after all these years.

I am not sure exactly what our thinking was, but there was no question it was time for us to be on our own. Donnie was beginning to walk and  become more of a handful for Betty and we needed our independence to begin to grow into being parents. When we moved in with my parents, everyone involved knew it was not to be a permanent arrangement, and it is true, no house is big enough for two women. There were never any harsh words or hurt feelings. It was just time for us to be on our own. We bought a little house in Brookstown on a little lot that required about 30 minutes to mow. It was located on a little cul-de-sac so there was not a lot of traffic and this made it perfect for kids.

Not long after we moved to Brookstown, I went on a job down at Wyandotte Chemical. Every day we would pass Talbert’s tractor Company and every day I would look with longing and wishful eyes at all of the red and green tractors lined up on display. I knew that a new one was out of our budget, but one day there it was: a little John Deere, bright green and just begging me to come and take home with me.

JohnDeerTractorNow understand we were living on a 50′ x 75 ‘ lot surrounded by a whole bunch of little houses sitting on little lots. When I came home with all of the papers that declared me to be the proud owner of the little green tractor plus the obligation to pay a note every month for this privilege of ownership was the first time among many to follow over the next almost 60 years that Betty knew without a doubt that she had hooked up with a crazy person. Bless her heart, she handled it well, no screaming or question of my sanity or lack of. She asked one question, “What are we going to do with a tractor?”

I had no logical answer for this query and no real defense for what I had done. I just knew that I had not given up on my dream to farm and that dream required a tractor. The only answer that I could give was a weak, “I’m going to take it up to Daddy’s until we find a place.” Without any more planning than that the search for a farm was on.

Barn falling down
Don didn’t send us a picture of the barn. We just imagine it looked like this.

Not long after, I saw an ad in the Clinton paper advertising a place for rent. The ad did not include many details, just land and a house for rent and a number to call. I called the number and we went to look at it that day and had it rented before dark. This place was 100 acres of hills and bottom land on the Comite river just south of Clinton, Louisiana. The old house was habitable, and that is about all that could be said for it. There were no cabinets in the kitchen and the bathroom was one of those add-ons that just kind of hang on the side of the house. There was no barn. The old barn that had been there was now a pile of rusty tin and half rotted lumber that had fallen in on itself a few years before and was left in its own misery.  There was a little tenant house that sat right down the hill from the main house that was leaning to the left more than 20 degrees and looked to be on the verge of giving up the fight at any time. The fences, such as they were, needed fixing, and gum sprouts had made a good start of taking over the pastures. On the hill to the North of the house there was enough broom straw growing to burn the parish if a match was put to it.

Our farms always look beautiful in our imaginations.

To me it looked like the cover of the Progressive Farmer magazine. Betty did not have much to say one way or the other, but if I wanted it, she wanted it. If I never did another right thing in my life, I knew that day that I had done a right thing hanging my future on this girl that had somehow thought enough of me to  trust me to do right by her and the kids.

Karen was born in September and we moved to the Dixon place in October, 1959. This was the beginning of two of the most hard, doing without, happy years of my life and I do not regret a minute of it.

When we moved to the Dixon place, I didn’t see all of the hard work that needed to be done as a problem or something to dread. This is what I had been wanting all my life, the chance to operate my own farm. Now understand, all my life had not been that long. I was only 22 years old, but this was what I wanted to do and Betty had not backed up from anything we had tried to do so far, and even with two babies we thought we were ready.

It would be too long and boring to try to list all of the work that needed doing to make this place a paying operation. We were young and innocent and the truth be told this was a different time. Folks still believed in the idea that hard work was worth the effort. No one ever told us, nor did we believe that this was the way to become rich and famous, but life on a place in the country was a chance to make a living, which was the equivalent to us.

It was becoming more evident as each year passed that there were changes on the horizon. Off-farm income was becoming more and more a necessity than a choice. The fact that I was enrolled in the pipefitter apprentice program with Local 198 in Baton Rouge made it a given that I would work at a job during the day and farm in the evenings and on weekends. Trade school was two nights a week and National guard was one night every week with some weekend drills and two weeks summer camp every year, so it was not possible to become involved in any farm enterprise that required continuous attention. The natural choice was a beef herd and this at the time was thought to include some farming to raise feed corn and a hay crop. Betty and I both believed in what was called by the agriculture department “living-at-home” which simply meant producing as much of your living as possible. For us this was a big garden and a milking cow; the meat production would have to wait until we could afford a freezer.

We moved on this place in the fall, so it was possible to spend that fall and winter getting ready for our first spring. The first need after we had done as much as we could to make the house habitable was to resurrect the barn. As it turned out this was not possible. The best hope was to salvage what we could and use it to put drop sheds around the old tenant house that sat down the hill form the lot. We did build a little shed and stanchion so the cow could be milked close to the house and later built a set of pens where the barn had stood. The job of building the sheds around the little house was slow going. With funds being non-existent it was necessary to straighten nails and use every piece of lumber and tin that could be dug out of the pile that had in a previous life been a barn. It has been a lot of years since that fall of 1959 and trying not to be too melodramatic, I do not know of anything that we have done since then that has given us as much satisfaction as building a barn/crib/feeding shed from a wobbly leaning tenant house and an old barn that had fallen in on itself years before.

With having to drive to Baton Rouge to work and all of the aforementioned obligations, we were always pressed for time to get the work done. It did not seem possible to keep enough house wood cut and the fences were in sad shape. But again, with no money to spend, the best we could do fence-wise was a serious amount of propping patching. Getting up early enough to milk the cow before going to work wasn’t so bad. But milking late at night was a bitch. The cow didn’t like it, the calf didn’t like it, and I sure as hell didn’t like it. But the babies needed milk.

I want to stress something one more time before this narrative seems to turn into a bitching session. We were doing all of this because it was what we wanted to, no matter how foolish it may seem to someone here over 50 years later. We believed that we were building for our and our kids future.

The Berlin Wall being built in 1961.
The Berlin Wall being built in 1961.

The time at the Dixon place was cut short, not by any misfortune or mishap on our part. Those damn Russians built that wall in Berlin and the guard unit that I was in was called up to active duty. But those two years were some of the best and will always be a very important part of our life. Betty and I both did a lot of growing and made some life-long friends. But I guess the most important thing was that we knew without a doubt that this was the life we wanted to live.

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Don Ashford
Don Ashford
My name is Don Ashford and my wife is Betty and we live in Ethel, LA. It would be impossible for me to write a bio about myself without including Betty in it. We have been together since high school. I was in the senior class of 1955 and she was in the class of 1957. Do the math. We have raised cattle since 1959 except for a little time that I spent with Uncle Sam. We have grazed stockers, owned several cow- calf herds and custom grazed cattle for other folks. I worked as a pipefitter for more than 25 years. Until we went into the dairy business in 1977 we were as most people down here part-timers or week-end ranchers. Later after we had learned enough about MIG to talk about it so that it would be understood by others we put together a pasture-walk group to introduce it to our friends and neighbors. We belong to more farm groups then we probably should but we get great joy working with other people. What makes us most proud are our son and daughter, our 5 grandkids and our 7 great-grand kids. It has been a hell of a trip so far, but we are not done yet.

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