Musings of a modern day suburban farmer.
Often when I’ve just met a person and they find out I’m a farmer they almost always ask "what kind?" The answer to that is simple, I’m the very very careful sort. You see, farming is one of the most dangerous professions in the United States. It perhaps doesn't have the dramatic appeal of crab fishing, with the rolling waves and bone-chilling temperatures that will cause any hapless fisherman to go into hypothermia and death within only a few minutes of hitting the water. No, the danger of farming is more obscure to the uninitiated, hiding in plain sight. It is something iconic that every person associates with a farmer since they were a small child, the tractors.
You get used to working next to heavy machinery surprisingly quickly, especially when it is in the hands of very serious and skilled operators - the trust between the driver and the man on the ground builds quickly. This is also the danger and you never assume even the most skilled of tractor operators can see you at all times, it is your responsibility to get the hell out of the way as much as it is theirs to not pin you. Many of the tractors we use at the farm weigh anywhere from five thousand to over ten thousand pounds, with tires that weigh up to six hundred each, making a mistake here is likely fatal. During long, hot, tiring days one could easily take for granted a lot of things and that’s when horrible accidents happen to even the most experienced farm crews.
Unsurprisingly some of the most alarming behavior I have seen around tractors is from non-workers themselves. In this culture we seem to have a prevailing assumption that the person operating a vehicle has total command and would never run us over, even if the margin of error is merely a few feet. I often wondered what leads people to subconsciously think this way, until one day I figured it out - we all do it every single day.
When you drive to the grocery store you are quite literally trusting your life with dozens of strangers as they pass you by going the opposite direction. That Honda Civic going 45 mph in the other lane is quite literally only a few feet away from sending you to the hospital or worse. It’s really no different than trusting a complete stranger on a multi-ton vehicle to not suddenly jerk left and put you in the path of a gigantic tire as you pick out a pumpkin during a fall afternoon.
The truth of the matter is that the tractor operators themselves are at significant risk, perhaps more so than anyone else. This may be surprising to some, but the balance of a large tractor is an awkward reality and something as innocuous as an overlooked crown in the road can spell disaster. Virtually everyone in the industry either knows or knows of someone who has rolled their tractor over and been killed or seriously injured. Farmers live with this reality every day they go to work.
We take a lot of things for granted in life. Maybe the next time you see a tractor on the road or around the farm think about giving them a wide berth and a friendly wave, they'll appreciate it.
There are an infinite amount of ways to accomplish any task at hand, some are naturally better than others. We’re not a fancy lot at the farm, when presented with a problem often what gets the job done reasonably fast and safe is what works for us. Therefore we often turn to the old ways to handle age-old problems. When we have over 30 acres of field to plant during the early summer we don’t use expensive seed planters that can easily cost over six figures. We’re not that big of an operation. No, our planter is made out of steel rather than fancy plastic and metal alloys. The tires themselves are steel. The whole contraption is pulled by a John Deere 900 HC, with two poor souls sitting in metal bucket seats in a position nearly parallel to the ground.
You feel every bump in the soil, every rock larger than an acorn announces its presence when the steel wheels find them. These rocks exist because the entire part of northern Illinois used to be covered in glaciers long ago and they left these presents behind as a reminder. The feeling of hitting one of these is not unlike experiencing nasty turbulence on a plane, if you were seated on flat steel. It’s worse some years more than others, selecting high ground is far more paramount than an abundance of rocks in the soil, life finds a way around mere rocks, but flooding outright kills.
When we plant we’re doing it with one seed at a time. Grab about a dozen or so in your palm and then swiftly push a seed with your thumb over your index finger and into the soil about half a hand deep. The timing of course changes depending on how fast you’re being pulled, you want enough distance between seeds so one future plant doesn’t choke out the other. Sometimes you’ll accidently push more than one seed into the soil at a time, probably because you’re being launched into the air by one of those aforementioned rocks.
The two days we plant always seem to be absurdly hot, even for early summer in a continental climate. Ninety degrees plus with humidity is often what we have to contend with. I have seen coyotes run across the field mid day (this is odd behavior) panting uncontrollably. I have had the outer parts of my belt buckle melt against the steel planter just from leaning against it for a few moments. The air is often so warm and humid that intense small storms will suddenly appear out of nowhere due to convection. Shade is also hard to come by in the middle of an open field and along with the dust being kicked up by the tractor often leads us to looking like extras in a Mad Max film in no time at all.
Some years are better than others as far as yield goes. Besides the skill involved in planting and maintaining afterwards it’s entirely about luck with weather patterns. A bad result means two things: less money and some boring days during October because we’ve harvested everything already. These are cash crops of course, we survive if we don’t have a good year. As one Google review so eloquently put it we’re a “carnival with pumpkins,” we have other avenues for revenue. It does make one wonder though the immense stress that farmers of the past went through to have a good harvest, failure for them often meant the possibility of starvation.