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Acres and pains

There is a delightfully droll old book by that name lamenting the ways that nature humbles and humiliates farmers every step of the way from planting to harvest. I have been a victim of nature’s whims (my whims really) this spring and I’ve got the acres and the aches to prove it. I planted a plot of open-pollinated corn like I do every year in hopes of developing giant-sized ears of corn. I do this mostly for fun, not for money, and it’s a good thing, because this year my corn growing has been a rather pathetic experience. There is a great learning experience involved, about how cultural habit so often overwhelms rationality but I am trying not to think about that.

Considering my primitive planting method— two hand- pushed garden planters connected together to do two rows at once— the corn came up nicely in soil worked well with a tractor-powered rotary tiller. The date was May 12, the perfect time for corn planting here. Oh happy days. Yeah.

Birds pulled up nearly every little spear of corn and ate the sprouted kernel. I think crows were the culprits because if it were less wary robins or blackbirds, the usual attackers, I would have caught them in the act.

I have tried scarecrows in other years, but not with much efficacy. So I waited, thinking (hoping) that the birds would lose interest before much damage was done, as is usually the case. Not this time. I had planted very shallowly because continuous rains had kept the soil wet and cool. Made it easy for the birds to uproot the kernels. When I re-planted on the last day of May after the soil had warmed up, I planted three and a half inches deep, risky in any event and something I could not have done earlier in spring. If the cussed birds were going to eat the kernels, they were going to have to work for them.

More heavy rains followed, plastering the soil down so only two thirds of the corn came up. At least the birds didn’t eat it this time. Whether it was because the corn was planted deep or because the foul fowls were no longer hungry for corn, I don’t know. But then some of the corn that did come up turned yellow, then brown and died in the moisture clogged soil. Hardly a half crop remained and it looked poorly.

Interestingly, I could not find bird damage out in the fields of neighboring farmers. Does my old open-pollinated corn taste better than hybrid corn, especially GMO hybrids? Lots of old-timers think so, but I don’t know. Commercial hybrid seed is usually treated with a fungicide. Maybe that’s why the birds didn’t bother it. I used to douse my corn seed in a slurry of kerosene and tar before planting when I had bird problems years ago, but the birds ate it anyway. So who knows? There is so much mystery in farming. Maybe that is why we poor souls who want to feed the world keep at it, despite the acres of pain.

I write this on June 21. I replanted for the third time yesterday, the ultimate madness. Corn planted this late has about as much chance as the proverbial snowball in hell. But hope springs eternal. Perhaps we will be overcome by global warming this fall and it won’t frost until November and I’ll have a crop after all. Or perhaps the small portion of the crop that survived from the May 31 planting will produce some 16-inch ears of corn which I can foolishly brag about. I am obviously demented, a perfect example of how culture so often wins out over reason. Tilling soil is my heritage. We could raise most of our food without tearing up millions of acres of soil every year, but I must remain faithful to my culture.

Learning experience? How about this lesson. Before I replanted the third time, the quack grass had swarmed and frolicked gaily over the bare soil, threatening to overwhelm the struggling corn that still remained from the second planting. Quack grass loves rainy weather and bare soil. It is one of nature’s defenses against soil erosion. Nature hates bare soil. I eyed the quack grass ruefully, knowing full well how livestock love this free gift from nature when it is young and lush. The obvious madness of growing annually cultivated crops was staring me right in the face, but I remained unmoved, chained to corn by my culture. I ripped up the quack grass with the tiller. Take that, Mother Nature. We raise corn in the cornbelt, and by heaven we will continue to do so until death do us part.

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