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Bigger farms, bigger headaches

Even though many of us take a dim view of monster farms, this year we should all be praising the people fool enough to operate them. In the impossible spring planting season of seemingly constant rain through most of the cornbelt, the crops did get planted (some a second time) and now in late June things don’t look too bad even though late. To get that done required an extraordinary effort, the likes of which will, I think, be lost once this generation of big power farmers has past. The men and women who put out the corn and soybeans this spring are VERY skillful with their high technology, but also have that kind of dedication to the job that was instilled in them by their more traditional fathers and grandfathers. I have a hunch that many of the younger generations do not share the come-hell-or-high water dedication of their parents and grandparents. Nor do the younger farmers know the intricacies of growing corn and soybeans like their parents do. When the older generation dies off, a lot of 10,000 acre farms are going to be broken up (or swallowed by huge factory farms) simply because there will not be enough old school farmers with new school experience to run them. And the huge factory operations, like the state farms of Russia, won’t be able to do the job.

That aside, some of the colossal headaches that colossal farming can bring on when nature does not cooperate are amazing and sometimes almost amusing. No one could have predicted, for instance, that birds would burn up a considerable number of big tractors this spring. Do I have your attention? I did not personally see any of the burning tractors or the bird nests in them that caused the fires, but I have heard of at least seven cases just in this area.According to word of mouth, one tractor model, the International Magnum, seems to have nesting sites particularly attractive to the birds. I can hardly wait to learn more about this strange phenomenon. Whenever I hear of another incidence, I ask what species of bird is involved, but you know farmers. Their sophisticated knowledge does not go much beyond their crops, machinery and playing the government and the grain market. For many of them all birds are simply birds and all bugs are simply bugs and we’d be better off to get shut of them all.

We all see those huge rigs rumbling across the fields and do not suspect just how often they break down or would break down without genius farmers and mechanics hovering over them. Like my mother used to say about washing machines, she didn’t want any of the new ones with all those rinse and wash cycles. “All that fancy new stuff just means more things to break,” she maintained.

It is still true. So you have a monster 60 row planter, let us say, and suppose you can plant 800 acres a day with a couple of them. To cope with such awesomely complicated sizes, these planters are now controlled by sophisticated computers. As we all know, computers tend not to work, especially when after ten days of rainy weather you can finally get into the fields. The thing that infuriated the farmer telling me about his computer woes is that his planter could plant just fine without computerization, but like his mechanic said, “when it does work, sure makes things nicer.”

A new genre of farm folktales is making the rounds where the tall corn grows about farmers who misjudge the power of their new machinery. This spring these stories focused mainly on giant rigs getting buried in mud. In one case a farmer, in a hurry to beat yet more rain, tried to plant through a wet hole and when his tractor started sinking, he made a bad decision. He’d just bull right on through to drier land ahead. He had power to burn, literally. When he finally could go no farther, the tractor was half below ground and a wall of mud at least six feet tall was rolling up in front of the planter. It took three 150 hp plus tractors, two backhoes and a bulldozer to finally free the rig. In the process three pull chains, each with 55,000 pound pulling capacity, snapped in one awesome surge of assembled horsepower. The country road alongside the field looked like a superhighway as the local population drove by to enjoy the show.

Another farmer accidently drove his huge tractor and disk into a pond when he misjudged the bit of delay that can occur between turning the steering wheel on one of these battleship-sized tractors and its response. Not actually being a battleship, the tractor sank partly out of sight. The farmer managed to swim to safety, but then, realizing that the tractor was still running, he swam back out and turned off the motor. That’s what I mean by “come hell or high water dedication.” It took a couple of giant cranes to raise the monster from the deep.

My favorite story about modern farm machinery concerns a tractor operator who got into trouble with the law and lost his driver’s license. No problem. When he was out in the field during harvest and ran out of cigarettes and soft drinks, he just drove his big self-propelled combine into town to get some more. Didn’t need a driver’s license for that.

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