Monday, October 27, 2008

Harvest in the Heartland - Part 3

She climbs into the cab of the tractor to begin the long trek to town. She plods along the road with the valuable cargo, keeping a steady speed of around twenty miles an hour. She stays close to the right shoulder of the road as much as possible while carefully avoiding errant mailboxes and telephone poles. A few impatient city slickers honk and glare, or flip her the ” international sign of disrespect” because they are not familiar with the rhythms of farm life. But, fortunately, that is the exception. They don’t understand the need to continually move tractors, wagons and equipment from one field to another, from fields to town or between farmsteads and fields. Townspeople and other farmers share an easy camaraderie embodied in a toot or a beep in friendly recognition, or especially the universal country wave: keeping both hands toward the top of the steering wheel, they raise just the fingers of one hand in salute to the oncoming driver. It is second nature to always be prepared for this sociable gesture when traveling on open roads, regardless of whether or not they actually know the oncoming person.

Farmers need to have the patience of Job, the confidence of an egomaniac and the resilience of a coiled spring, as well as an eternal optimism that they will have a good year next year. Unfortunately, Mother Nature is their arch enemy. The grain growing season begins in early spring with planting. They pray for gentle spring rains and warm weather so the seeds can germinate; too much rain and they may rot in the ground, too little and the newly emerged plants will wither and die. My Mother used to walk out into the field on a regular basis, first to dig up a few newly planted seeds to see if they were sprouting yet, then checking again every few days to marvel at the miracle of new life.

The summer presents weather challenges as well. High temperatures are necessary for corn and soybeans to reach their maximum maturity, but drought conditions and extreme heat will stunt or destroy the crops. Some crop yields can be so dreadfully low that farmers have been known to plow under their fields rather than waste more money on harvesting.

Floods can happen any time of year to wipe out a crop. If it occurs early enough in the spring, and if the water dissipates quickly enough, then the farmer may be able to plant another variety of beans or corn that will mature in a shortened season; unfortunately, these alternate crops will yield significantly less and it is very expensive to replant each field.

As the seasons progress, the farmers closely watch the development of each crop. They keep a sharp eye out for any anomalies in growth, hoping to catch any problems early enough to find a resolution before an entire crop is ruined. Some of the culprits are insects and diseases, such as corn bores that break the stalk off near the ground or rust that blights the crop. Unfortunately, there are no remedies for everything, or they may be cost prohibitive. Once a crop reaches full height, tractors and ground machinery can no longer be used to apply insecticides or treatments, so there will be additional expense to bring in airplanes or helicopters to make the applications.

One of the things I greatly enjoy about flying is to see the patchwork quilt patterns of the farm fields from the air. It is interesting to differentiate between corn, soybeans, hay and wheat. When fields are plowed or disked, the machinery leaves distinctive patterns in the soil. If large green “crop circles” appear, they are most likely the result of water that is delivered via a center-pivot irrigation system. The center of the irrigated area is a stationary point around which the arms of the spigots rotate. Hopefully that explains these huge circular areas, as opposed to the more fanciful concept of visiting alien beings.

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