Family farm's eye on history

Preservation: Dan Magness collects antique equipment and displays it.

October 26, 2003|By Mary Ellen Graybill | Mary Ellen Graybill,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BY THE time Dan Magness realized he liked to collect antique Porsche tractors, he and wife Pat and children Dan Jr., 20, Erin, 16, and Ben, 14, were in high gear working together at their farm in northwest Harford County.

The Magness family loves its herd of 70 black-and-white dappled Holstein cows and 70 calves and heifers -- prize-winners at the Harford County Farm Fair and a source of income for the family. The grazing herd yields wholesome milk -- at 3 a.m., when Pat or Dan oversees a mechanical milking ritual.

When they see the collection of wooden plows and farm tools in the Magness' barn museum, visitors can compare farming methods of the past and present. An 1852 horse-drawn self-raking reaper and an 1831 reaper invented by Cyrus Hall McCormick are part of the collection. The reaper was the first major development in mechanized farming. It cut wheat and raked it into small piles called "gaffs."

Visitors can see a collection of hand tools, including grain flail, which was used before the thresher. Grain was separated from the straw by beating it with a flail. Also on view are a grain sickle and a scythe from the late 1700s. The scythe eased the backbreaking stooping that came with using a grain sickle.

The combine-harvester-thresher of the 1880s that was pulled by a team of horses draws the most interest during the Magness tours, which take place near Bradenbaugh and Harford Creamery roads.

Magness farms more than 286 acres of barley, soybeans, corn and alfalfa hay. With his $114,000 combine, he can harvest an acre in eight minutes -- compared with 40 hours an acre with the hand-crafted wood cradle and two hours an acre with a reaper. Because he and his family know old farming methods and new ones, they believe it is important to keep the history of farming alive. Magness has been giving tours, featuring recycling, energy conservation, recovery of and minimizing waste, and, for protecting the Chesapeake Bay, nutrient-runoff management. .

The farm's displays include pictures of a 1957 Porsche diesel-tractor with an air-cooled, two-cylinder engine. The tractor has five forward speeds, a rear-lift hood for servicing and a passenger seat on the fender. Magness has received comments on the tractor from as far away as Friedrichshafen, Germany, (where it was made) and Australia. This restored tractor appeared in the 1997 Classic Farm Tractor Calendar that is posted on a museum wall above a row of bright-red tractors, retired in perfect working order, on the gravel floor of the museum.

At the museum, Magness' neighbors share history, helping to identify items and taking part in open houses. When Magness bales hay there are two volunteers to help demonstrate. Erin helps make rope with a hand-cranked rope-maker that her father constructed, using 100-year-old wood and hinges.

Magness' tour starts at an 1870s barn, moves to a small engine shed with early chain saws arranged on the floor. Next, visitors see cows, silos and milking. Visitors also can see a calf being fed. The tour is meant to be hands-on. Activities may include trying the rope-maker, a water pump, flour mill, corn sheller, corn chopper, hand-powered cow clipper, butter churn, cream separator, scales, pedal tractor pull or blacksmith forge.

Historical tour

The tour, covering farming as it was done in the 18th and 19th centuries to the present day, often includes a wagon ride to see a windmill.

When Magness takes visitors out in a 24-passenger wagon that he built, they often see birds such as the Lapland longspur and upland sandpipers. He shows waterways, strip cropping, buffer areas, stream fencing and crossings.

Magness shows off his cover crops in season, grasslands and woodlands, as well as habitat protection. He discusses the possibility of having to deal with such problems as the gypsy moth or a giant rat from South America that consumes tidal marshland, mute swans or the invasive giant hogweed. In a setting of preservation farming, in which the farm is an ecosystem at the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay, Dan and Pat Magness have support from neighbors.

Jo Asher says, "Dan teaches and doesn't know he teaches. He has created such a beautiful farm there. He sets a fabulous standard for excellence, just like those tractors he restores."

It is the daily attention to detail, consistent and persistent, Asher says, that people will find fascinating in the Magness' farm operations -- a pursuit of excellence whether in wetlands restoration or making a tour come alive for adults and schoolchildren.

But Magness has not stopped at tours. He has also invented a bale wrapper and sold it to an Amish manufacturer, Farm Lund. He designed a 22-row, no-till corn planter for his combine, and the liquid manure spreader he designed eliminates odor and runoff by injecting the fertilizer directly into the ground. He also created a portable hoof trimmer.

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