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The Planted Row: Learn from the older generation

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Farm Forum

By all accounts, my grandfather came by his patience late in life, but by the time I came along, he had had learned the trick — mostly. I could catch glimpses of his former self when I’d make a mistake while driving the tractor (like filling in a drainage ditch with a seedbed finisher). I could see him throw his hat on the ground and mouth his favorite curse word, but by the time I’d get to the headlands, he’d calmly tell me what I’d done and how to fix it.

By the time I was 12, my father was both running the farm and working his Extension Service job. This meant that he was always, always short of time. He would rush around trying to get things done as quickly as possible, and my grandfather would always be nearby, counseling a slower, safer, usually more labor-intensive option. Dad was concerned with getting the job done; my grandfather was concerned with getting the job done right.

Both of them thought they knew better than the other. My father went to college and had an ag degree. My grandfather had farmed almost his entire life, had significantly grown the farm started by his own father and read all the literature about modern farming techniques he could get.

When they had a disagreement about how to approach a task, my dad would usually ignore his father’s advice and do it his own way. Sometimes, this worked out great, and my grandfather would brag to all his neighbors about what his son had done. Other times, it didn’t work out (usually because my dad pushed himself and the equipment too hard), and while fixing the mistake or mechanical failure, my father would quietly say to me, “Well … I guess your grandpa knows what he’s talking about.”

Once, when planting our contoured land, my grandfather taught me how to do what he called a “half turn” to save time. Some of the curves were pretty sharp, and as you worked down the slope, there was no way to make the curve, so the rows would end up meeting each other in a “V” pattern. His trick was to stop at the end of the row, lift the planter, break the right rear wheel and back up. This would spin the tractor roughly 90 degrees and would line it up perfectly with the other half of the “V.” All you had to do was drop the planter and go. He made a point of telling me to lift the planter because otherwise I would fill the chutes full of dirt as I backed up.

Well, of course, the first time I attempted it, I forgot to lift the planter, and I jammed the chutes full of dirt. I was so mad at myself for making such a simple mistake, and I jumped off the tractor in a huff — as only a teenage boy can — and furiously started to unclog the chutes before Grandpa could walk over and lecture me about paying attention.

I didn’t make it. He walked up, and I just knew he was going to say, “Son, I told you not to do that!” Maybe it was a combination of the Mississippi heat and my wounded pride, but I think I was actually shaking in frustration.

Instead of lecturing me, my grandfather gently put one of his big, weathered hands on my shoulder and said, “Son, you have to have patience with yourself.”

Any farmer could have taught me that trick with the tractor, but only my grandfather could teach me that lesson about patience.

As of this Friday, it has been exactly 7 years since he passed away. I try to remember the things he taught me, and I would give anything to hear all the things he never got around to teaching me.

On Saturday I will be visiting the S.D. Farm Bureau Young Farmers & Ranchers Winter Conference in Aberdeen. The increasing average age of the American farmer is a statistic I often hear, so I’m excited to be meeting and learning from the next generation of producers who will take on the task of feeding the world. The only advice I’m qualified to offer them is this: Listen closely to the wisdom of our older farmers because they won’t be around forever.