If Rocks Were Worth Money, a Hilltop Farmer Could Get Rich Quick

I can't shake the suspicion that first-time visitors to my farm take a look at my machinery shed and think to themselves that I've gone overboard. How can I justify owning three tractors for the purpose of raising a few acres of strawberries on a Vermont hilltop? Well, the first two tractors have their particular uses, which I won't go into here. The third tractor I own solely because my farm is on a Vermont hilltop. It's my rock-picking machine.

In the fields around here, rocks are like weeds: always plentiful, and with apparent powers of spontaneous regeneration. They're the ever-belligerent enemies of the expensive equipment that I pull behind those first two tractors.

It's a never-ending conflict. On my side, the weapons are a crowbar and a spade. My big artillery is that third tractor. Spring, summer or fall, there's hardly an idle moment that wouldn't be better spent out fighting the rocks. I can just about get a day's work done and lean back in my chair, when the unpleasant thought creeps into my mind that, while I'm taking my leisure, the rocks are calling in reinforcements.

That third tractor is an ancient (1956, to be precise) International Harvester 300 with a bucket loader on the front. It's this loader that makes it my rock machine. I pick an armload of rocks out of the field, carry them over to the bucket and throw them in. When the bucket's full, I drive the tractor to the edge of the woods, push the nose of it as far in among the trees as I can and dump the rocks. I've made some impressive piles this way.

When I find a rock that's too big to extract with hand tools, I come back on the tractor to try to dig it out with the front-end loader. You can't tell how big a submerged rock really is when you start digging, and the old tractor and I have ended up in some mighty battles.

Sometimes, the rock wins. If I can't budge it with my 300, I make a note of it on my mental map of underground dangers. The notes on this mental map accumulate for a year or two — until the next time I happen to have a hired backhoe on the place. When the operator finishes whatever job he came out for, I lead him on a meandering tour of the fields. I point out the trouble spots. It might look like smooth soil from above, but when he puts the teeth of his backhoe in — clang! That's the sound of doom for any smug boulder that thought it had defeated me.

Not long ago, the rocks and I were engaged in a temporary standoff, and I was finally able to enjoy a relaxing moment flipping through the pages of a gardening-supply catalog. I was chuckling over the ingenious ways this company had thought up to separate gardeners from their money. Then, on the second to last page, I came across something that stopped me cold. These good folks were selling rocks — 12-inch rocks with "irregular shapes" to be used as "garden accents." A gardener who wanted one had to send in $14.95.

You might think that my chuckles would change to guffaws at the notion of people buying rocks. Far from it. I suddenly saw that I'd been going at this whole thing with a wrongheaded attitude. Rocks aren't my enemies; they're my meal ticket.

I did a quick mental inventory of the 12-inch irregularly shaped rocks that I've dumped in piles over the years. I added in the rocks that the farmers who worked this land before me had picked up and piled in stone walls. To that sum, I added the rocks still in the ground — a number that approaches infinity, as any Vermont farmer can tell you. I multiplied the total by $14.95. It seemed that my fortune was at hand.

All I had to do was find buyers. As I worked on my marketing plan, I had to admit that I probably wouldn't sell too many rocks to my neighbors here in Vermont. But there are huge areas in the middle section of this country where there isn't a rock from one horizon to the other.

Then I remembered that the prairies were settled by refugees from New England who fled a thousand miles just to get away from rocks. Yes, some German and Scandinavian immigrants also settled the prairies, but I suspect they were trying to get away from European rocks. The marketing wizards who put out glossy catalogs may think they can sell rocks; I'm beginning to have my doubts. As far as I can tell, the world is made up of two groups: people who already have too many rocks in their ground, and people who moved to get away from rocks. (I'm not counting people who live in cities. They have other things to worry about.)

I'm not ready to give it up. Folks shouldn't be held back by the prejudices of their ancestors. So what if your (and my) great-granddaddy would roll over in his grave to hear of it? A nice rock really can look good in a garden. I'm not just saying this. Long before any catalog guru had come up with the idea, my wife and I had already figured it out. In fact, the prettiest rock I ever hooked a plow point under now holds a place of honor among our lilies.

So if any of you out there wants to try a rock in your garden, grab a spade and crowbar and come see me. The price? Don't worry, I'll dicker. If you can picture an artistic grouping, I'll offer a quantity discount. It goes without saying that rocks still in the field are much more reasonable than rocks already dug. If you bring your own backhoe, I won't charge a thing.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.