Monday, June 14, 2010


My father is a farmer. His father was a farmer. My family roots as far back as I can trace have been farmers. Perhaps the original immigrants who first came across the sea from where abouts still unknown to me were farmers. I tell people I was born with dirt beneath my finger nails and that my favorite smell of spring is that of freshly turned dirt. Some people suspect that dirt is what runs in my veins. Yet a few ask why I am an engineer and I have no ready answer other than I happened to grow up during one of the worst decades to be a farmer here in the Midwest. Some call that decade the Farm Crisis of the 80's. Yet this year is another reason that I chose to leave farming behind. I couldn't deal with the uncertainty.

It is just barely past four in the morning as I begin this post, my wife has just left for her day in residency in the urban jungle and my daughter is still in bed and will be for another three hours. Yet I am awake and can't get back to sleep because of the sound of what seems like the eternal rain. My rain gauge is broke, victim of another cheap plastic part that just wasn't meant to sit outside in the sun for very long and yet has weathered through three or four seasons replacing the last cheap plastic part that broke the same way. I have yet to device a holder out of something metal that will last my lifetime and so the rain gauge itself lays on the piano in the back room. Long story short, I don't know how much rain we have received this last three days but it is safe to say that feet might be the better way to measure it. You wouldn't have to count so high.

This is the third year in a row, that we have had an exceptionally wet spring.

My parents planted the corn crop in good shape earlier this spring. It was too early to plant the soybeans and so they waited but not for long. The rains came and essentially have never stopped. That was two months ago. Since that time, they had about one week of dry weather in which they were able to replant over 5oo acres of their corn that had been drowned out by the rain and put in 700 acres of soybeans, still a few hundred acres short of a full crop. Then the rains came again. Those 500 acres of corn and most of the 700 acres of soybeans went the way of the others which is to say they drowned. Now here it is just shy of midway through June, it is now 4:30 in the morning and it is raining. In fact, the ten day forecast is nothing but rain. Give four or five days to get things dried out once it stops raining and suddenly we are now in July and there is still no crop in the ground. What little has been planted and happened to be on hillsides where it didn't get drowned out, it sickly and yellow and way behind schedule. At best, it will make a half crop but even that is reducing with every inch of rain.

My parents are taking it well. They built a tree house of sorts for my daughter whenever she visits the farm. It is really nothing more than a platform on a decapitated Chinese Elm stump some ten feet in the air in the side yard. There, they have spent many an evening, in-between rains, watching the western horizon and sipping some wine. There isn't much else to do. As I mentioned in the comments of I believe Beau's blog, I much prefer a drought to a wet year. In a drought, you can do things while your crop suffers without moisture and you may end up with a fraction of a crop but you still have a lot of other things done around the farm. It a wet year like the last three, especially this year, you have nothing but acres of mud. You can't do anything because you get stuck or you simply get exhausted of trying to lift your feet and you still get a fraction of a crop or perhaps none as this year is shaping up.

So back to my original point. I'm an engineer. I was more than a student of the farm crisis in the 1980's. I hate uncertainty. I gave up farming and instead decided that a job in manufacturing was more certain than farming. I've lost two jobs to a migration of manufacturing to foreign countries but thankfully, still have one during the worst recessions in almost a century. So thus far, I can still go to work everyday, just like today, rain or shine. I'm thankful for that. But a large part of my heart is still buried in the mud on a farm less than an hour's drive from here and it feels like it keeps getting buried deeper with every deluge we get. To quote a song from John Prine, "I'm praying for some sunny countryside."

It is currently pouring rain.


Vince said...

This year on this side of the Atlantic we've had the driest six months on record. This after the wettest two years. I was out fishing only once last summer.
But you have this cycle also, don't you. I seem to remember that the late 70s early 80s were very bad in the central US also.

R. Sherman said...

I'm afraid, I wouldn't do well with the uncertainty. As I've said before, the average Joe has no idea what it takes to get his sandwich from field to mouth in this country.

PhilippinesPhil said...

My people were simple yeomen; farmers, merchants, and soldiers or combinations of all those, going back to the days before many of them came over from Europe starting in the early 1600s. We Americans, as a population, used to consist of more farmers than anything else. Starting with the industrialization period starting in the early 19th century, farmers began to become a smaller and smaller portion of our society. So be it; things change. Let me ask you this Ed, if your parents or other small family farm types go under or throw in the towel, who or what comes along to plant those fields? Do they go fallow, or does someone else come along and plant them? The Spear Farm in Kingston Michigan was cultivated and had animals for about about 90 years before the last farming Spear on it died in '79. That land was subdivided and is now covered with a tract of homes. Things change... perhaps not always for the best.

Ed said...

Vince - They were.

R. Sherman - The worst part is this is largely a local problem consisting of a handful of counties. Statewide the crops are in good shape.

Phil - Their land gets bought up by larger farms that run bigger equipment and more efficient methods to cover the land. When I was 8 years old, my father owned 80 acres. He now owns over 2400 acres. If I outlive my parents and I inherit the land, I will probably rent it out to a adult son of one of our neighbors who farm many times more land collectively as a family. Possibly the end of manufacturing arrives and I go back to farming. But that truly is a doomsday scenario.

Murf said...

Wow. You haven't brought out Prine in a coon's age. :-)

I couldn't do it for the mere fact that it's a lot of hard work...although I wouldn't mind a ride on a combine.

Beau said...

It would be tough to be a farmer.Amazing that you've had so much rain. We're practically parched here now. Lots of thunderstorms have passed to the north and south, but we've had very little over the past few weeks. I haven't heard John Prine in ages...

malor said...

I always want to be a farmer but reading this post makes me re-think it. I hate uncertainty too. However, life is full of it. We never know about the future. When you think you get hold of it, things can change so fast and ca leave your head spinning.

Ron said...

The uncertainty of farming would do me in. We grow a lot of our own food, but there are other diversions too. When crops fail, it's painful of course, but we don't have to go to the bank for a loan or worry about losing everything. I respect farmers - it takes a lot of dedication to keep on keeping on.

The year hasn't been great for crops down here either. Every time the rain clears up, the sun turns things into sauna. Fungi are loving it.

Your parents farm a huge area! Wow!


PhilippinesPhil said...

A useful thing about our sprawling country is that the weather patterns do not usually ruin ALL the crops across the whole expanse of the continent. Parched in one place, too much rain in another, but overall there is generally enough success to keep the cost of food down, which is what we all want, except perhaps for certain farmers (grin). I used to do commodities and became fascinated with how this worked out. With that in mind, perhaps its a good thing if the conglomerates take over the farming industry; much easier for them to absorb isolated losses.

Ed said...

Murf - I know. A coon's age without Prine is way too long.

Beau - I kept saying last year was one for the record books. Darn if mother nature isn't going to prove me wrong.

Malor - Being a farmer does sound romantic to many people but it is usually far from it.

Ron - By county standards it is perhaps large. By regional standards average and by national standards small and getting smaller.

Phil - In this case, the disaster in only a dozen county area so it barely even makes the state news. Affect to prices for the average consumer will be zip.

TC said...

My Dad farmed. His Dad farmed. His Dad's Dad farmed. Neither my brother nor I stayed on the farm. And though some days that breaks my heart just a tiny bit, I know my Dad didn't want us to stay. He wanted more than that constant worry and wonder.

Great post, even if it's a sad reminder that this rain is more than just "annoying." People who haven't lived on a farm tend to forget that's where food really comes from, and that too much rain really does affect them.

sage said...

It must be hard on them to continue having to replant... Sounds as if the rain keeps coming they may be moving into that tree house! :)

Bone said...

Excellent post, Ed Abbey.

I think I won't be so quick to mentally roll my eyes the next time I hear an old-timer say we really could use some rain.