The Planted Row: Teach them while they’re still young

Farm Forum

Last weekend, I took a drive with my wife and kids through the countryside. My New York bride normally resists my urge just to drive around and see what’s happening on the farms and ranches that surround Aberdeen. For her, if she’s seen one farm, she’s seen them all.

Last Saturday, however, she relented. Due to our conflicting schedules, we hadn’t seen each other in about a week. I suppose she took pity on me, and we ended up on a drive that I’m sure was far longer than she had intended.

I had a good time explaining to my children the differences between all the crops and the purposes for all the various buildings and pieces of equipment. I pointed out the wetlands and explained why they weren’t being farmed. I made sure my kids knew the differences between the crops. We saw a few wheat fields that were not quite ready for harvest, and my children were interested to learn that fields like those were the origins for the bread in their peanut butter and honey sandwiches. We saw farmers cutting and baling hay, and the kids wanted to know exactly how that process worked and why. I could see my son’s astonishment when I explained that, of all crops, grass has perhaps been the most historically important to human civilization. I could see him realizing that it was much more than something he simply cuts with a lawnmower.

We saw fields of soybeans, some struggling under weed pressure and some as clean and pretty as I’ve ever seen. My kids wanted to know all about soybeans and how they are used. They were surprised to learn that soybean oil is in many of the foods they like to eat.

I could see my wife’s lips start to turn downward as I said this. When I mentioned that soybean meal is used in feed for farmed fish, she began to object. She said that while it may make the fish larger, it’s not good for the fish. So, I pointed out that studies show it’s just fine for the fish and reduces the amount of wild-caught fish processed into fish meal to feed farmed fish. She then said that farmed fish aren’t really good at all, and only wild-caught fish are fit for human consumption.

At this point, I remembered some good marriage advice I’ve learned along the way — you can be right, or you can be happy. I decided to be happy.

Most of all, on this drive, we saw corn. It’s breathtaking to view the simple vastness of the corn acreage here in northeast South Dakota. In Mississippi, where I grew up, we have few fields as large as those I see here. Even the Delta, where they grow cotton, corn, soybeans and rice from horizon to horizon, pales in comparison to the sheer, massive scale of production here on the Northern Plains.

“Look at the size of those corn fields!” I said to my family, in tones of awe. My kids, too, were amazed.

“You could get lost in that field forever,” my son said.

My wife said, “I wish they didn’t have to use corn in everything.” I couldn’t resist arguing with her, and she admitted that corn was a healthy vegetable. She admitted that ethanol was a good product. However, she kept repeating that it was terrible that genetically modified corn was used to make high fructose corn syrup, which is used in so many processed foods.

As we argued, I looked in the back seat at my kids. They were looking out the window, amazed at the vast fields of tall corn. From them, I took my lesson.

If we are going to tell the story of agriculture, we had better catch our listeners when they are young.