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When all the locals are combining grain here in northwest Missouri, there is so much dust in the air that it makes for beautiful sunsets. Sort of a purple haze over the Corn Belt. Makes us sneeze, as well. The fall air is clear, and the colors are sharp, shades of brown, gold, and grey. The fall days are long, lasting well into the night, as we hurry to get the crops from the field.
Our harvest crew includes my two brothers, my dad, mom, wife, sisters-in-law, son-in-law, daughter, and three nephews. We’re all dressed in overalls or blue jeans, heavy jackets, and baseball caps. The family resemblance is strong, and my brothers and nephews are big guys, so the overall effect is a bit spooky. Think of a Faulkner novel, substituting rusted-out pickup trucks for mules.
I had to laugh at a recent Nicholas Kristof column in the New York Times, in which he had traveled back to his family’s farm in Oregon and was remembering how it was when he was a boy. But that idyllic time is lost, all lost, and Kristof concluded that farms have lost their soul. Or at least “industrial” farms operate at a soul deficit. I don’t know exactly what Kristof meant by the loss of soul. Reading what others write about agriculture, I sometimes think that what others see as “soul,” we farmers remember as grinding poverty and isolation. Does the fact that I follow the grain markets on my iPhone imply a loss of soul? If so, then this “soul” business is all cabbage, and the hell with it.
Kristof and others constantly romanticize the life they imagine we live, or used to live, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other. But it can be as sharp as a serpent’s tooth.
But if he means a family, working together from dawn till dusk to bring the harvest in, a place where love and affection and forbearance bind the workers together, then soul still exists, and we’ve got plenty of it. My grandkids ride with me on the combine (no emails please: the machine has an extra seat, complete with seatbelt, inside a roll bar–equipped, air-conditioned cab) and my grandson just sits, grins, and at intervals tells me that “I like the combine, Poppa!” Poppa is better than a video. Of course, combines come complete with a video screen that has global positioning information, yield totals, and moisture content of the grain. All of which my granddaughter finds boring, and she asks me to change the channel.
The fact that we love each other doesn’t preclude some tension between family members. Intergenerational tension, for example, as Dad, 75, refuses to go gently into the night and works each day like a man half his age. This is admirable, of course, and his wisdom and experience are invaluable. You rarely have to ask in order to benefit from that accumulated knowledge; he freely shares his thoughts on most any subject. This can cause friction with the younger generation. That would be young in agricultural terms, as the average farmer is 57 years old. There is also brotherly competition, as each strong personality is convinced he knows best. Wives add spice to the mix, and, finally, the next generation is surprised to find that the latest ideas from our state’s land grant institution are not always met with wide open arms. Jane Smiley wrote a novel about an Iowa farm family, using King Lear as her model. I didn’t read it, but I can understand where she might have gotten the idea. None of this is unique to our farm. Kristof and others constantly romanticize the life they imagine we live, or used to live, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other. But it can be as sharp as a serpent’s tooth.
We’re dealing with the same family issues that have bedeviled multi-generational businesses forever.
Once, several years ago, CNN did a story about our farm. They brought a film crew that took video of us harvesting, asked us some questions, and insisted that we have a picnic lunch in the front yard. The story ran with a voice-over by a “reporter” who wasn’t along with the film crew. You can’t expect the “talent” to travel to the back end of nowhere, I suppose.
After the story ended, one anchor commented to the other that it sure looked relaxing out there on the farm. This brought a chuckle. Soul we’ve got, but harvest time can be tense. In fact, as they were interviewing my father for the piece, my brothers could be heard in the background, chasing cows out of the corn. In this picture of pastoral innocence, if you listened carefully, you could hear language so salty it would make a sailor blush.
Critics of the food industry are upset that we feed cows corn, by the way, convinced that it’s unnatural, and gives cows a bellyache. Cows, on the other hand, routinely break down fences to get at corn. Maybe if we would have screened “Food, Inc.” in the pasture, the cows would have stayed where they belonged.
When you’ve seen a jack wielded by your father accidentally slip and break you mother’s hand, it’s a memory that sticks with you.
A friend once described those evangelical mega-churches as being an interesting combination of the new and the old. The newest technology, video screens, guitars, and music, combined with theology that has changed little for centuries. That uneasy alliance between the new and the old could describe today’s farm, as well. We’re using seed developed in Monsanto’s cutting-edge laboratories at the same time we’re raising the same crop my grandfather did in 1917. The Whiskey Rebellion occurred because of taxes levied on alcohol made from corn. The story could have been taken from last year’s headlines when ethanol sparked an internecine war in both the Corn Belt and the Beltway. We’re dealing with the same family issues that have bedeviled multi-generational businesses forever. Technology may change, but family chemistry is little different than farms one generation or a dozen generations ago.
Every farm has landmarks. Places where we leave the truck, change crops, or where the combine caught fire that year. We often tell the newest members of the farm to meet us at the Hackberry Tree. This always makes me laugh, since the Hackberry Tree died during the Carter administration. Everybody knows where we mean, and it all works because of shared experience handed down through the years. There’s no mission statement here, no listing of goals or procedures, no operations manual. Just the sort of knowledge and way of thinking that’s been handed down through generations.
I have a picture of my two-year-old grandson and me leaning against my pickup. He’s crossed his legs in just the manner I have. That can be scary (for me) and confining (for him), but it also serves a purpose. We do things the way we do because of lessons learned by our fathers and their fathers. When my son-in-law joined the farm, I found myself having to show him things that I learned, unconsciously, as a boy. The proper way to hold a wrench so that when it slips off the nut, the knuckles are spared. The safe way to run a handyman jack, or at least the safer way. When you’ve seen a jack wielded by your father accidentally slip and break you mother’s hand, it’s a memory that sticks with you. The fact that you always turn an implement away from a fence, instead of into a fence. That lesson caused me a bit of embarrassment, as my grandfather had to rescue me, a tractor, and a disc, when we were trapped against the fence.
Some of these things can only learned by experience, but some are learned by observation, and the only way to learn them is a long and painful apprenticeship. Family farms are populated by some of the most conservative people in the world. Conservatism learned as a child, reinforced by years of being at the mercy of bugs, wind, drought, and flood, and the conservatism that comes from being the object of government attentions. Farmers as a group aren’t free marketers, but do have a well-earned skepticism about the efficacy of government attempts to make things better.
If the movie “Food, Inc.” can be said to have a theme, it is that corn is too cheap. Cheap corn has led to industrial uses, cheap fast food, and, horror of horrors, corn fed to cows. This year’s harvest is bad news for documentary makers, because we’re bringing in a tremendous crop. Corn prices are at two-year lows. Author of Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser’s pain is palpable, but a big harvest should be a cause for celebration for everyone else. Farmers make the news when weather causes low yields and high prices, but plentiful and reasonably priced food is such a given that nobody but we farmers celebrates a great crop like this one. The rest of America should celebrate, and be grateful for the abundance that agriculture provides.
There is nothing more fun than a record crop, if you’re a farmer. We have a monitor in the combine that approximates yields as we pass through the fields. In the last several years, due to floods, droughts, and a very memorable wind storm (if you recognize your farm on one of those tornado-chaser videos, it’s a very bad sign), we’ve rarely hit 200 bushels per acre on that monitor. This year, I’ve had days when I barely dropped below 200 bushels per acre. I’m old enough to try to capture this crop, this year, in my memory, given the very real possibility that I’ll not farm long enough to see its like again. We farmers are protected from extremely low prices by the government, our crop insurance is subsidized by the taxpayers, biotechnology has made yields and pest control more predictable, we can harvest and plant in a fraction of the time it took my grandfather, but we’re still at the mercy of Mother Nature, and she’s a tough taskmaster. When we escape her worst, it’s a harvest of joy.
Blake Hurst is a farmer in Missouri.
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.
Nobody but we farmers celebrates a great crop like this one. The rest of America should celebrate, and be grateful for the abundance that agriculture provides.
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