Farm Life Journal – July 2019

By Tom Oswald

As the calendar turns to July, it means more than heading into the last half of the calendar year for our farm and family. In most years, July means fieldwork is over till harvest. Dad always said that “once the crop is planted, the rest of the time you fight weeds.” Essentially, the “fun” of preparing the ground, planting the crop and related fieldwork moves to a type of drudgery. 

As farm practices and herbicide systems have evolved, weed control has less to do with cultivating the soil (think slow, hot, and dusty) and cutting weeds (be that with a hoe or a mower). With modern technology, the drudgery of weed control is reduced. Very few farmers I know would want to return to hand weeding a crop field.

The old saying “knee high by the fourth of July” doesn’t apply to modern corn production. It’s common to be shoulder height by this time of year. Photo credit: Tom Oswald.

The old saying “knee high by the fourth of July” doesn’t apply to modern corn production. It’s common to be shoulder height by this time of year. Photo credit: Tom Oswald.

The good part about hand weeding or “walking beans” was that it was a family affair. We all went out together. There were rules in what Dad expected. One rule was not to “run ahead,” potentially missing weeds and not being helpful to someone on your side. I always had an edge row and part of my job was to make sure we didn’t start drifting from our swath. Mom was always to my side in the swath of five or six family members, each assigned four rows. I often took some of Mom’s rows, taking the load off her. It was a fair trade, because Mom also prepared the snacks and meals.

I remember starting walking beans when I was about eight years old. Dad believed in paying his kids when we were working certain jobs. You might say it was a bit of an allowance, but it was tied to work that could be counted by the rows covered or by the hours. If memory serves me correctly, I was paid ten cents per half mile length of row or forty cents a mile. Dang, that was more than 50 years ago.

Few farm kids had “town jobs” back then, so we worked on our own farms or neighboring farms doing manual labor until we grew old enough, and hopefully mature enough, to drive equipment. I remember a few bean walking crews that were all high school girls. In some cases, those crews had quite a few members, so they were able to take a swath through the field and cover quite a few acres per day. I don’t recall many all-male high school aged bean walking crews. By the time boys reached high school, they often focused on heavier weight work like handling hay bales, doing farm repair and construction, and shelling out corn cribs.

As a kid, most corn was picked in the ear with corn pickers. Harvesting corn with combines and storing the grain in grain bins was new technology at the time. Corn cribs were structures designed to provide natural ventilation to help dry the grain on the cob. When it was time to empty the corn crib, it took manual labor with a scoop shovel or raking fork to feed the sheller. The sheller was a machine that would strip the kernels off the cob and separate the grain from the foreign material. Today, combines do it all at once right out in the field. Hot, dirty, dusty and occasionally overrun with rats and mice best describes cleaning out corn cribs... it’s a job I do not miss.

As I think about it, most of the summer farm work brings back fond memories. As I said earlier, going out as a family working together had a special flavor. You learned a lot about each other when the work was hard, the heat index was high, and you weren’t allowed to complain. The cool water from an insulated water jug was always good on the short breaks we’d take after every trip through the field. We’d position the jug in the shade of a soybean row next to the lunch bag of cookies or treats that awaited us on the end rows. 

Your pride wouldn’t let you complain when working for neighbors. When the work was done, the accomplishment and a check to deposit made it worthwhile. But the memories still linger there, too.  Sometimes you’ll visit with someone you worked with and say, “Remember the time when...?” Often these conversations will relate to a near-miss or a real accident that could have been much worse or maybe a hideously hot day where you wonder how you didn’t get heat stroke stacking bales in a barn.

Even to this day, the issue of lunch, dinner and supper holds in farm country. Dad remembers when you did early morning chores, then had breakfast. I never experienced that. But when we were working hard physically, lunch could mean a mid-morning break and/or a mid-to-late afternoon break. Dinner was at noon. The timing of supper depended on the work of the day. With long summer days, it might mean 9 p.m. As I think about what all we used to do, I’m not sure if the word lazy or lucky best describes summer work and life nowadays. It’s different for sure.

With the advent of labor-reducing technologies, physical labor and cost have been replaced with machines and herbicides. There are those who might argue, but better herbicide systems have been hugely helpful even at the cash cost. The “family” labor that did so many of the jobs I just described just isn’t there today. There aren’t crews of high school aged girls and boys to do the work. Families have fewer kids and farmers are aging. There’s a chicken and egg story here. With technology and equipment, you don’t need big families to do farm work. With technologies you can farm until you are past “retirement” age, thus there is less available land for younger families. Though I look forward to the future, I do have concerns about rural sociology. Neighboring (exchanging work) helped keep rural communities strong. There’s not much of that these days.

Looking at the present, there’s no question that 2019 has tossed farmers a bunch of challenges in the form of excess water. Fortunately, it wasn’t as bad as some years I have experienced. I hate to use the word “hate,” but I HATE wet springs. My worst wet spring was in 2013 when we had more than 9 inches of rain Memorial Day weekend and a whole lot of beans yet to plant. That year, I quit planting on June 30. What I couldn’t patch in on June 30 didn’t get planted. This year, I did the same, though I had less area that couldn’t be patched in compared to 2013. Once you hit July 1, the likelihood of a soybean yield worthy of the effort is quite low. The area I planted this year on June 30 probably won’t do much. It got even wetter in the first week of July when we had 3 to 4 inches of rain soaking the seeds I mudded in a few days prior. At least I tried.

There’s a certain calming once you reach July 1. You know that there’s no more pressure to try and plant. The cards are dealt. What’s planted and growing is what it is. You’ve done what you can do. That calendar year’s corn and soybean crop is in the ground. Other than fighting weeds, maybe some treatments for plant disease or insects, the crop is out of your hands till harvest activities kick in.   Depending on your spirituality, all you can do is hope or pray you made good decisions in what you did during the planting season and that the weather will be favorable to finish out the work you started. It’s out of our hands.

The spike on the top of plants tells us that the tassel is near. This photo was taken July 13. Photo credit: Tom Oswald.

The spike on the top of plants tells us that the tassel is near. This photo was taken July 13. Photo credit: Tom Oswald.

Some might wonder if the old saying “knee high by the Fourth of July” applied this year. Knee high is not a good thing anymore, because corn needs to be further along. We always take a “corn picture” on July 4 because my brother was born on the Fourth of July. This year the corn was shorter than some years, but not disastrously short. I’d say we are about a week to 10 days behind. It’s important to get the corn tasseled in July because it takes about two months to mature after tasseling. It appears our first tassels will show the week of July 14.

Finally, this month’s art in agriculture. For non-farmers, you might wonder why you see fields of corn with stripes. In commercial corn (not seed corn) fields, strips like in the photo are when two different genetics are planted in a “split planter” fashion. Different genetics reflect their personalities as they grow. One way to compare old versus new or seed corn products from different companies is to split the planter so you have strips. In my case, the planter has eight rows of one variety while another is in the other eight rows. When the planter comes back, you end up with 16 row strips (40 feet wide). At harvest, you have great opportunities to compare yield. This also helps spread risk. 

See you next month,

Tom