Farm Life Journal - October 2017

By Mark Jackson

Without a doubt, October is one of my most favorite months. When harvest begins rolling after a year's worth of a family's investment in time and money, it's not unlike Christmas morning all month long. More universal, October is the tenth month of the year, and the name is derived from the Latin word "Octo," meaning "eight" (from the old Roman calendar) and it's the sixth month with 31 days. For me, the September startup curve has been overcome, and we find ourselves settled into October's "harvest groove." My body is adjusting to the longer work days and the repetitive actions common with long hours of machine operation. But without a doubt, the rustling sound of standing corn, the rich hues of autumn leaves and the freshness of cool fall breezes, all add to the exhilaration of the harvest season. And along with the innumerable loads of golden corn and rounded soybeans, my pumpkins, gourds and sweet potatoes add to the total feel of fall. Maybe it's that distinctive orange color of a ripe pumpkin or the thought of homegrown, fresh-baked sweet potatoes drizzled with honey, or the countless shapes and colors of ornamental gourds that can bring a special touch to your home décor or craft projects.

In years long past, my grandfather shared many harvesting stories from the 1920s and 30s – a legacy of pride farmers seem to share. A 100-bushel day was a good day; 50 bushels of ear corn shucked and scooped into the crib by noon, another 50 by dark. Grandpa would also tell stories of doing his livestock chores by lantern, both morning and night, so as to spend a full day picking ear corn.

"A strong hand shucker could have at least two ears of corn in midflight at any given time, never looking up, as the old mule pulling the bank-board wagon, kept pace down the long rows of corn," he would say.

One generation later, my Dad found pride in harvesting a thousand bushels of corn in an hour with his modern combine, cleaned and shelled. The reality of the past can reinforce the value of continuous improvement in the world of agriculture today.

Ride Along with Grandpa

Combine ride-alongs are an annual tradition on our farm. I cherish the many memories I have of riding alongside my father, just as my son and daughter did with me and now with my grandchildren. Safety is paramount, and with modern machinery, the comfort-controlled cabs make the ride along just as pleasant as if you were riding in your car, maybe even better. (After all, I have full surround vision from my elevated perch.) The seats are comfy, the temperature is perfect and with a stash of assorted goodies in my mini-frig, the smiles and wonderment of the moment are priceless. Farming is as much a business as a way of life and family is the cornerstone of U.S. agriculture; a business like no other.

Pumpkins, Pears and Sweet Potatoes

The gardening season is rapidly drawing to a close. My last few chores have been digging my sweet potatoes – a task that needs completion prior to frost. Picking and cleaning pumpkins and gourds as they mature on the vine will reduce insect damage and result in a longer shelf life. My tomato plants are winding down but still producing, meaning I've been covering them during frosty nights to extend plant life so that we're able to enjoy the treat of a fresh, late-season tomato. The last of my apples are being picked to make a few more batches of applesauce, a family favorite of all ages. And, of course, Grandpa's favorite – pears – can go late into the year if not picked. We enjoy them served fresh in a fruit salad or canned for a yearlong treat.

Into the Night

Not unlike Grandpa's time, modern agriculture requires many long days, often with 80- to 90-hour work weeks during our busy seasons. Days may begin with an energizing sunrise but often continue "into the night." This is a term that farmers are all too familiar with, as most think in segments of job size not blocks of time. We target goals, and though we often meet our expectation in a timely fashion, the "unexpected" can sometimes make our days slip into the wee hours of the night. Maybe it's because of an approaching weather system, or breakdown delays that can be driven by sheer determination to finish a project, nevertheless a trademark behavior of many farmers.

One struggle I have been faced with in our 2017 soybean harvest has been green stems and yet the soybean pods are dry, a combination that makes for tricky combining. Unlike corn combining, which strips the ear from the plant to thresh, the entire soybean plant is fed through the combine to separate the bean from the plant. The green stems can wrap spinning shafts, plug sieves and put a major strain on the threshing process. It is amazing to watch my combine's cutter head take a 30' swath of standing soybean plants and feed it into a 40-inch throat for threshing. (Kind of like eating your favorite veggies using Mom's largest ladle). And sometimes all it takes is a loose drive belt or a broken bolt to slow the system and cause a total shut down of the threshing (ongoing maintenance is essential). Modern combines have sensors on all major components, monitoring shaft speeds with computers capable of sounding alarms if shafts slow or to shut the machine down if need be. In years past, the operator would judge combine performance by sound, vibration or motor RPM speed, but computer technology has maximized engine horsepower while monitoring grain loss for enhanced clean grain samples, preparing grains for sale or storage.

Tailgate Picnics with a Purpose

I'd like to think farmers invented the tailgating process, later made famous by our nation's sports enthusiasts. As a child, my brother and I were Mom's little helpers, packing lunch into the pickup to take to the field. Back then, only farmers owned pickup trucks: a basic yet essential piece of machinery around the farm, not the sleek and sexy cross-over vehicles we all desire today.

Mom tossed several folding chairs in the back of the truck and off we'd go, bouncing along until we found Dad, often back in the farthest corner of a field. But no matter what, Mom would say, "Let's have a picnic and give your father a refreshing break to relax." We would drop the tailgate, scampering around as we spread out the home-cooked full course meal, always wrapped in towels to keep them piping hot. The menu was always amazing, anywhere from pot roasts with veggies and salads to casseroles, desserts and all the trimmings, always served on real plates with silverware. We would sit in a semi-circle, maybe wrapped in a blanket or hooded coats to stay cozy warm and often with a gorgeous view of the countryside. We would chatter back and forth, exchanging stories of our morning efforts. And as the meal progressed, you could see the day’s wear and tear on Dad's face drain away, the "picnic with a purpose."

Refreshed, energized and focused, Dad would hop back on his machine of the season and, with a wave of appreciation, steer it down the next row in order with a renewed purpose. Mom knew the true value of those tailgate picnics, something we practice on a regular basis yet today. Our children grew up with these events as well and reminisce, and it's a tradition passed down to our grandchildren, the next generation of a lifestyle in agriculture.

Grandpa's Grease Gun

Through the years, agriculture has seen many changes come across the horizon. In my Grandpa's era of farming, 22 million animals were utilized to do the work; today, approximately four million tractors have replaced the majority of the horsepower needed to farm. And just as some things change, so do other things stay the same. Machinery has advanced by leaps and bounds over the past century, but just like Grandpa needed his trusty grease gun to lubricate the many machinery bearings, so do I still today. Certain components on my combine require daily lubrication, though sealed bearings have greatly reduced the need. I recently came across Grandpa's grease gun, which has worn beyond value, a lever-style device not unlike many sold yet today.

Slow days or rainy days are also an opportunity for "me time," and one of my hobbies includes crafting welded art projects. What started many years ago as an outlet for my creative nature has become a passion for sculpting "barnyard critters." Each with their own story, made from recycled metal, worn beyond its original purpose. I give my "critters" a new life, telling their story about the world of agriculture, bringing pleasure to the eye and nourishment for the soul. Grandpa's grease gun, now a "barnyard critter" also lives a new life, telling agriculture's story from a unique perspective.

Mike has started drilling cover crops, which come in all forms: rye, oats, turnips, radishes and combinations of the above. Our short-term goals for drilling cover crops, immediately after harvest, include erosion control and nutrient banking, with the long-term goal of increasing organic matter, water infiltration and the overall improvement of soil health. Recent studies also show the long-term use of cover crops has enhanced yields with reduced annual nutrient costs.

I took the time recently to participate in a roundtable conversation on the complexities of food production. Much of what was discussed shows consumers are driven by perceptions versus the reality of agriculture and the everyday business on the farm. And, as we try to describe the process, some spoken terms can set a negative tone for any conversation surrounding agriculture. A slight distinction, I know, but to better understand each other's concerns, we need to have a respectful conversation. Terms such as "CAFO," or "factory farming" serve only to insight the uninformed rather than to educate. Why not use terms more unbiased such as "hog house" (a home for my hogs) and "modern agriculture" (where science drives innovations, not nostalgia and emotion). At the end of the day, it's about giving the consumer choices, lots of choices, all of which are links in the value chain for abundant and healthy food.

Rainy days can be a welcome excuse to stop harvest and utilize some less-stressful shop time. After the seemingly endless days of harvesting, "The bones get weary, and the muscles may tire, but the spirit is strong," a saying my Grandmother would share with a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face, especially during these busy times. The strongest of bodies need an occasional break, just as the most modern of machines need intermittent maintenance, such as oil changes among a long checklist of other items. This past week we passed three tractors, the combine and one truck through the shop for engine oil and filter changes. In comparison, that would be equal to nearly two dozen family cars.

All the while Grumpy and the two Bobs maintain a watchful eye around the shop, helping out when they can with a friendly nudge in exchange for a tummy rub or ear scratch. Home sweet home.

Every day is a new day,

Midwest agriculture at its best,

Mark Jackson