Sunday, August 09, 2015
Letter from Harrisburg: On Farming
“It reminds me of the Dust Bowl of the ’30s,” my dad said, looking out the car window as I drove toward Harrisburg on one of this summer’s many hot, dry days.
In a bare field to the west, a tractor and plow stirred up an expanding cloud of dust, as though the plow were dragging a brown tornado laid on its side.
“How did you make it through those days?” I asked.
“Oh, we were OK,” he said. “Our part of Oklahoma was about 50 miles east of the worst of the Dust Bowl. We had a good supply of water underground. And a windmill. So we could water the garden, and the livestock had plenty of water. We managed all right. But further to the west they plowed up the shortgrass prairie and then it dried out and the wind came and carried off the soil. Tons and tons of it. It was terrible.”
Dad, who is 98 years old, lives in Minnesota but is spending the summer with us. Oregon’s grass-seed harvest is fascinating to him. He stands outside in his blue jacket and gray trilby hat and watches the equipment at work in the fields — windrowers cutting and raking the grass, combines eating up the neatly piled rows and augering the seed into farm trucks, and then a convoy of tractors and balers roaring in and baling the loose straw left behind.
“The bales are huge,” Dad marvels. “Not like we used to have. And these are just the right size to set on a truck. They stack them just so and it fills up the truck nice and even.”
“Farmer talk,” we call it, and there’s a lot of it at our house, even though we don’t farm any land ourselves.
Dad talks about Oklahoma in the ’20s and ’30s — farming with horses and learning to survive when wheat brought only 25 cents a bushel.
My husband cleans and processes grass seed and talks about germination tests and which lots of ryegrass are shipping out today and which farmer is finishing his fescue first.
Our daughter Emily comes home from working for a farmer a few miles south of us, driving an air-conditioned combine or tractor, and tells stories about her day. “The combine plugged up today,” she will say. “I turned it off of course, and then I had to take a big wrench and turn the header to unplug it because it’s an older combine so it doesn’t have a switch to reverse the header.”
Her brother Ben and I look at each other.
“Emily is talking farmer-talk?” he whispers, bending his eyebrows.
“Yes. Bizarre.” I mouth back.
After all, Emily is a college student who enjoys vintage fashion and writing computer code and discussing literature. She is also on her third summer of working for local farmers, so she can now discuss flail-chopping and fescue harvesting almost as easily as minimalism and multicultural communication.
And it all makes me reminisce about farming in Minnesota in the 1970s with a John Deere 720, disking fields on spring days, picking rocks and stacking hay bales that even a high school girl like me could handle, but just barely.
Farming is a diverse occupation, differing vastly in methods, equipment and crops from one part of the country to another and from one generation to the next. My dad talking about horses and sorghum is like a different language and culture from Emily’s harvesting ryegrass seed in Oregon on a John Deere combine.
“I used to find horseshoes when I was land planing last year,” Emily told us. “They would get hung up on the blade and make this big groove in my nice smooth dirt, and I’d have to stop the tractor and go back and pull it off.
“I guess a horse would throw a shoe and it would get plowed under and then gradually work its way back up again,” she guessed.
“Ask Grandpa,” I suggested.
“You didn’t have to put shoes on the work horses,” Dad said. “The buggy horses, yes, because the roads were hard on their feet. But the fields were softer.”
“Maybe that field was a pasture for the horses at one time,” Emily concluded.
Then we went silent for a little, thinking about horseshoes and land planes, what these flat brown fields have seen and how much farming has changed, from horses to sputtering narrow-nosed Farmall tractors to massive modern tractors guided by GPS.
“Our neighbors have one,” says Cousin Trish, “the kids can sit in there and read or play on an iPad, and the tractor goes along by itself. The only time they need to help it is on the corners.”
And yet, no matter the time or place, farming is about the same elemental things. Working the soil, dropping the seed, watching the weather. Fighting weeds, feeding stock, fixing equipment. Holding the head of grain in your hand, feeling its weight, deciding when to cut the first swath and then harvesting the loads of grain or seed or corn. And always, the miracle of life and growth and nourishment in that little dry kernel.
It’s also about character, wisdom, thinking of the future, and the dangers of ambition over caring for the soil and for each other.
“Do you think modern farmers are spoiled?” I asked my dad, referring to the physical work of driving a combine versus pitching wheat sheaves into a threshing machine.
“To some extent, yes,” he admitted. “But I’m more troubled by greed. The big farmers take over and think they have to have more acreage. They could do with 500 but they go for 1,000 or 1,500. What would happen if we had a crash like ’29? I don’t know. And I don’t see how a young man could ever get started with farming, the way the big farmers outbid the small ones.”
He believes in careful stewardship of the land. “A lot of the farmers left in the dry years,” he said. “The Okies, you know. The ones who stayed took better care of the land, so it wouldn’t blow so much. They didn’t do too badly then.”
“The ones who just grew one thing, like wheat or cotton, they went under in the dry years. But we diversified. Grain sorghum, sweet sorghum, milo maize. We’d harvest the grain from the sorghum and then put the stalks in the silo. It worked very well.”
I thought of the increasing number of filbert orchards planted along Powerline Road. Apparently Willamette Valley grass-seed farmers are choosing to vary their crops as well.
Local author Dan Armstrong researches agricultural logistics and encourages Oregon farmers to diversify, not only in case of a financial crisis but to encourage locally grown food sources in addition to seed crops. He works with small farmers seeking to grow food crops and market them in this area. He gave me a packet of quinoa seeds and told me how to grow them, a gesture that told me he is practical as well as theoretical.
He and my dad would get along well.
My husband’s extended family gathered in the front yard of Uncle James and Aunt Orpha’s house on a windy evening in July and ate grilled hamburgers and potato salad and cake.
As we ate and visited, two tractors towing equipment roared by and entered the field across the road. Up close, farm machinery is always much bigger than you thought. “My goodness,” said Aunt Nadine. “We sure didn’t farm like this when I was young.”
We didn’t when I was young, either. And yet, fundamentally, we did, and so did my dad, and so does the cousin with the latest New Holland combine the size of your house, and so did that farmer whose horse kept dropping his shoes for Emily to catch on the land-planer a hundred years later.
Dirt sifted through carefully analyzing fingers, prayers for rain or sunshine, life and hope in a million tiny seeds, food on the dinner table — the soul-deep essence of farming always will be the same. Farmers always will speak farmer-talk, the summer sun will be hot on their shoulders, and the tiny green shoot pushing through the soil will forever seem a miracle.