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I grew up on a farm in north‑central Minnesota in a community of Norwegians, Swedes, and Germans. My parents, both born in Hungary when it was still part of the Austrian‑Hungarian Empire, got along well with  the other farmers after the initial suspicion of strangers was broached.

By the time I graduated from high school, my mother had died and my older brothers and sisters had left the farm and started new families of their  own. After my return from Vietnam, it was just my father and me on the farm, where we raised milk cows, beef cows, pigs, and chickens.

And as I mentioned before, we got along very well with the neighbors. That is, with one exception. Our back pasture bordered the property of a neighbor I’ll call Alfred.

(Alfred has long since passed away and had no surviving relatives.)

We had pretty good fences, but even the best fences can have some weaknesses if livestock have a notion that the grass is greener on the other side. Cows can be clever about finding ways to get across a fence.

Now one particular summer, Alfred had a field of ripening corn that some of our cattle must have felt it was just something too tempting to pass up. It didn’t help matters that a recent wind storm had snapped a tree branch across one part of the fence. At any rate, our cattle got across that fence. To say they made a feast of the neighbor’s corn field would be an understatement.

It took us a while, but with the help of some other neighbors, we got the cows back on our side of the fence. Then we immediately began the task of strengthening any weak spots that we could find in the fence.

Alfred, of course, was unhappy. “This is going to cost you, Joe,” he told my father in no uncertain terms. “Your cows did a lot of damage to my corn. You should have checked the fence closer.”

Being young and a bit hot‑tempered, I put in, “Yes, but the fence is a common boundary between our farms. The responsibility for keeping it up depends on you too.”

He nodded, a wry smile on his weather‑worn, leathery face, “True, but it was your cattle that broke out, wasn’t it?” I couldn’t argue that.

“How much do we owe you?” my father asked.

Alfred rubbed his whiskery chin. “I haven’t figured it out yet. When I do, I’ll send you a bill. I can’t let something like this go without getting paid for it.”

My father nodded. I was at a loss for words. But I wasn’t when we got the bill. “No way!” I told my father. “He’s charging way too much for his corn! Not all of it was damaged. I know he can salvage quite a bit of it. You’re not going to pay that much are you?”

My father shrugged, “What choice do we have? Take it to court? That’s not a good idea between neighbors. We don’t have much ready cash, but we can come up with the money somehow.”

There’s not a lot of income on a small farm. When the cows are ready to calve in late winter and early spring, there isn’t much milk. Young stock are  sold only at certain times of the year. When things were slow, we’d cut wood for sale or take odd jobs. But we somehow came up with the money to pay for the damage to Alfred’s corn crop.

The following year was very dry. On Alfred’s land there were no ponds; he  watered his cattle from a well. We had a well for the cattle, too, but we also had several ponds on our land. The soil surrounding the ponds had moisture so that grass could grow—not always the best grass, but at least it was something when other pastures were drying up. Now during this dry summer, the grass suddenly seemed a lot greener on our side of the fence. And apparently, Alfred’s cows thought the same thing.

When cattle start pushing and shoving against a fence, trying to get grass on the other side, even the barbs on the wire don’t seem to make much difference. Something eventually has to give. It’s true; the wire was rusty and should have been replaced. We were willing to buy some, but Alfred, who was to split the cost of the new wire, was unwilling to pay his share.

Sometimes trying to economize creates more problems. One late-summer morning, we saw Alfred’s cows in our pasture. On our side of the fence. At first I was upset. But then I thought, Ah, the shoe is on the other foot now.

Alfred was very apologetic. “See,” I said smugly, “We should have replaced that old wire.”

One stern look from my father, and I said no more. “What do I owe you?” Alfred asked sheepishly. My father waved him off, “We’ll talk about that later. First, let’s get these cows back across. I’ve already disconnected the wires so they won’t cut themselves going back across.”

In due time, we had the fence‑breaking bovines back on their own side of the fence. When we got back to our house and sat down for a cup of coffee, I anxiously asked my father what he was going to charge Alfred for  this little incident.

My father sipped his coffee before answering, “Why, we’re not going to charge him a penny.”

I gasped, “You must be joking, Dad!”

“Look,” he said, “all they did was eat a little bit of hay. They didn’t damage  anything. And besides, we’re very fortunate that the good Lord blessed this farm with all those little ponds. Our pasture stays greener longer than Alfred’s does.”

“But he charged a lot for the damage to his corn last year!” I protested.

“That’s in the past,” my father said. “I know Alfred doesn’t have much money. In fact, I have an idea that will prevent something like this from ever happening again.”

And my dad’s idea was a sound one too. His reasoning was this: We would share pastures. “It’s always a good idea to rotate pastures if you can,” he said. “Early in the summer, before it gets too dry, we can run the cattle on Alfred’s land. When it gets dry, the cows can come into our pasture with the ponds.” After talking it over with Alfred, we put a gate between our properties.

Soon I recognized the wisdom of my father’s thinking. Fences are necessary on a farm. They separate what needs to be kept apart. But gates  connect—both pastures and people.

Tom Kovach writes from Park Rapids, Minnesota.

Over the Fence

by Tom Kovach
From the April 2005 Signs