Jerry Nelson: Nothing vexes farmers like moisture

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum
Jerry Nelson

Few things are more vexatious to farmers than moisture.

We worry that it will arrive too early or too late, or that we won’t get enough, or that we’ll have too much. In essence, moisture presents the same set of problems as attending an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Farmers are always concerned about the amount of moisture in their soils. During more primitive eras, this may have led to such things as chanting to the rain gods or offering them a sacrifice. For example, in an effort to end a long dry spell, a desperate farmer might have tossed his umbrella into an active volcano, knowing that it’s likely to rain whenever you don’t have an umbrella.

There would also be extended episodes of relentless rain. A farmer of yore might have regretted that he didn’t follow the example of his next door neighbor, who had started to build an ark. At such a time, a wise farmer could cause it to stop raining by buying seed rice and constructing paddies. The rain gods enjoy nothing more than thwarting a farmer’s best-laid plans.

Despite the rain gods’ capriciousness, famers continue to try to control the amount of moisture their soils contain. This is why, during the spring melt, farm kids instinctively build driveway water diversion projects that often rival the Hoover Dam.

The field north of my parents’ house has always had a couple of small-yet-bothersome damp spots. Most of the time you can farm right through them. During a dry year, those spots might produce the best yields; in an excessively wet year, you might begin to consider planting rice.

When I was a little kid, Dad got his John Deere “A” tractor and its front-mounted cultivator stuck in one of those soggy spots. The “A” was never known for its mud-bogging capabilities. To make matters worse, the tractor had sunk so deep in the muck that the cultivator had dug almost halfway to China even though the implement was fully in the “up” position.

Dad tried his best to extract the tractor without asking for assistance. He lugged a pair of planks out to the field and placed them under the tractor’s rear wheels. The net result of this effort was to turn the planks into slabs of subterranean wood.

Dad eventually had to admit defeat and ask for a neighbor’s help. It took a trio of tractors and several long chains to extricate the “A” from the mud.

In 1964, Dad hired my uncle Sylvan to construct a drainage ditch in the north field. Sylvan used his road grader to make a long, straight cut in the land, employing the time-honored “just eyeball it” method of surveying.

I’m sure that Sylvan’s ditch helped some. But during extended rainy spells, those wet spots tended to remain, well, wet.

It has been 135 years since my ancestors homesteaded our farm. It’s mid-boggling to think of all the generations of our family who have gotten stuck in and sworn at those vexing little wet spots. This is why it was so cool when members of my family told me that they could address the areas that can be excessively moist during periods of excessive rainfall.

My brother Les and his son Dustin have a construction business. They recently added tiling to their repertoire of services.

I rode with Dustin in the cab of a humungous tractor that was hitched to a tiling plow. Dustin explained how the computerized GPS gizmo mounted in the cab was steering the rig on a precise course, placing the tile exactly where it needed to be and giving it the right amount of pitch.

I’ve heard tales of the “good old days” when farmers would use hand tools to install drainage tile. Dustin can probably accomplish in half a day what would have taken weeks and weeks with spades and shovels. And he could do so in the climate-controlled comfort of the tractor cab.

I’m glad that I wasn’t born a century earlier, when installing drainage tile would have involved wearing out a spade, a pair of work boots and your back.

Despite all of mankind’s super-duper quantum computers, nobody can predict with any precision what the weather will be next week, let alone during the coming growing season.

But I know what I’m going to do if it’s on the dry side. We have this one really nice umbrella, and I would just need to find the nearest active volcano.

Jerry Nelson's book, "Dear County Agent Guy," is available at and in bookstores nationwide.