The Planted Row: Reaping more than grain

Farm Forum

Our farming ancestors had little tricks they used to peek into the future to see what it might hold. If a halo ever appeared around the moon, my grandfather would expect rain in the near future, and my old granny used to say, “Red sky at night, sailors delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning.” (Rumor has it that my uncle saw a red sky to the north one evening and called all the old women in the community and told them the Russians were bombing Canada, but that’s not really the kind of prediction I’m talking about.)

Farmers today have a few signs of their own, and the ones we can see don’t look that great. For one thing, here in Aberdeen, there isn’t much snow on the ground. My wife is a meteorologist, and between you, me and the fencepost, she says we could be in for a drought. We also have this really useful sign called the Chicago Board of Trade, and it says the price of corn is hovering around breakeven.

I’m not sure we can see into the future with any greater accuracy than our ancestors. There are many variables in play that could drastically improve the kind of year we have in 2014, not to mention the mitigating factors of modern technology, advanced farming techniques and outstanding seed genetics. Still, it takes guts to stare down the barrel of $4 corn and seed your ground anyway.

At times like this, I try to remember that a farm is more than the price you get for your grain or cattle. It’s more than your yield per acre or average daily gain. It’s more than the renewable fuel standard.

A farm is your kid playing in the dirt in the headlands while you make your rounds. It’s lunch on the tailgate of a pickup truck. It’s washing grease and dust off your arms before supper. It’s the dry smell of harvested grain. It’s the satisfied exhaustion you feel at sundown, knowing your seeds are in the ground or your harvest is in the bin. It’s the glue that can hold your family together.

My 10-year-old nephew was recently eating lunch with a classmate and my father. When the classmate learned from my father that we didn’t watch much football (or TV in general) in our family, he asked my nephew what our family did for fun. My nephew answered, “We work.” The classmate thought he was joking and said, “No, seriously, what do you do for fun?” My nephew looked him in the eye and said, “We work.”

While my nephew has a flair for the dramatic, he was certainly being honest. Some of the best times of my life were spent working right alongside my sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents. We had fun. We joked and told stories while we went about the hard work it takes to run a farm. I will admit there were a few times in my teen years when I was jealous of my friends who didn’t have to get up so early and could go to the pool or the mall in the middle of the day, but those times were rare. For the most part, I realized I was living a very special life. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had each other. The shared work made us close and taught us that we could count on one another. (The occasional dirt clod fight didn’t hurt things, either.)

No matter what challenges this year might throw at you, remember that farmers reap more than grain at harvest. They also reap the rewards of working close to the land and to their families, and those rewards come whether or not commodity prices are in the basement.