Good old days

Farm Forum

I was chatting with my Grandpa Hammer back when I was a young whippersnapper and asked him about the good old days. I was interested in hearing exactly how good those days were.

Grandpa’s reply was along the lines of “not that great.” I was taken aback. My experience had been that people tend to idealize their past experiences.

“Farming was hard work back then,” said Grandpa. “An ambitious man had maybe ten acres of corn.”

Being youthful and arrogant, I scoffed at the thought of a guy having a mere ten acres of corn. That was just a large garden!

Grandpa quickly corrected my misperceptions. “You have to remember, it was all done by hand or with horses. You had to walk along in the dust behind a single-bottom horse-drawn plow. When I started out, I didn’t have a corn planter so I had to mark the rows with a twine and plant by hand. I spent the whole summer cultivating and hoeing.”

After listening to his litany of labor, I realized that what Grandpa had described was an insanely huge garden.

I was born long after forage-fueled horse power had been replaced by fossil-fueled horsepower. But I still have some harrowing tales regarding my good old days.

When I was a kid, it was common to plant corn in checkrows. This process began by stretching a wire from one end of the field to the other. As the corn planter traveled down the field, the wire passed through a trip mechanism; knots in the wire caused the seeds to drop in a checkerboard pattern. In the good old days, a rusty, knotted wire as close as we came to having an internet.

It was a point of pride for a farmer to have laser-straight checkrows. I know this to be so because Dad would become upset whenever his cross rows developed a crook. In the good old days, a summer Sunday afternoon’s entertainment was driving around and admiring our neighbors’ checkrows.

As soon as the first tender corn shoots emerged, we bolted our four-row cultivator onto the front of our John Deere “A” tractor. This was in an era before attaching farm implements became as easy as changing channels from your La-Z-Boy. Mounting the cultivator was a task that was on par with digging the Panama Canal with a garden trowel.

Clouds of ravenous mosquitoes would descend on Dad and me as we muscled the cultivator into position. Mosquitoes were bigger and meaner back then. Swatting them just ticked them off; actually killing one required antiaircraft artillery.

I suppose we could have used jacks or a loader to make mounting the cultivator easier. But we never did things the easy way in the good old days.

We cultivated the corn three times each summer. The first cultivation was agonizingly slow. To ensure that we didn’t cover any baby corn plants, we drove the “A” at a pace normally associated with continental drift. Even so, a daydreaming farm boy might wipe out several yards of young corn.

Dad would invariably ask about the missing corn.

“Corn planter must have skipped,” I would offer.

“Looks more like iron blight,” Dad would counter. Something in the tone of his voice told me to be more careful. In the good old days, parents didn’t have to belabor the obvious.

As soon as we finished the first cultivation, the second one began. Thanks to the checkrow planting, we were able to cultivate at a right angle to the first pass and the cultivator thus uprooted many of the surviving weeds. As a bonus, the operator got to enjoy the dust boiling up from the cultivator as it churned though the hot, dry soil. By the end of the day, I would have enough dirt in my hair to raise a corn crop.

The third cultivation began when the corn became tall enough to touch the tractor’s rear axle. In an effort to bury the greatest number of escaped weeds, we would drive the tractor through the field at NASCAR-like speeds.

It seemed as though we couldn’t make up our minds, because the third cultivation was done at a right angle to the second one. Every 40 inches, the tractor’s front wheels would jounce over the ridge left by the previous cultivation. The cultivator operator felt as if he were riding upon a giant paint shaker that was constantly enshrouded by a cloud of dust. It was wonderful.

Farming was a lot of work back then, but I am grateful for the experience. Because now I have plenty of stories about the good old days to share with all you young whippersnappers.

If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can e-mail him at: His new book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at and at booksellers everywhere.