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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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.