Three generations of flat-land farmers at the stump of my family tree and 22 years in service of Wisconsin dairy farmers have often rendered me enraptured with "ordinary" country experiences. A rural route the length of the Land of Lincoln straight as a chalk line, or Farmington Road riding high on a Jefferson County drumlin can be a six-sense overload.
A has-been, half-rate bike racer, and the son of a long boom crane operator and fisherman is required by blood to live in constant awareness of the wind’s direction, velocity… and character. Three weeks past the expiration of daylight savings time I found myself heading west on Dane County BB in hot pursuit of a down cow, waltzing in my mind as Jason Isbell mourned a high school classmate, “you never planned for the bombs in the sand, or sleeping in your dress blues.”
Suddenly my entire olfactory apparatus was saturated, from nostril hairs to frontal lobe. Incapable of calculating the loss of a loved one in another man’s war simultaneously with the victory of a six-month battle against flood, drought, leaf hoppers and root worms, I turned Jason to a whisper. Like pulling my palm across a snifter of fine single malt scotch, the aroma of earthen loam and peat flooded into the cab through the cracked window, along with an airy-cool hint of sand.
My eyes followed the prevailing northwest wind upstream until I saw what looked like stadium lights crawling across the field. A 200-horse John Deere powered a 48-foot chisel plow, burying the stubble and chaff to decompose.
I clenched my fist and smiled, uttering a silent “yes”.
The first six inches of snow would fall by midnight. With 180 bushels to the acre safely in storage, he could be at Crawfish Junction treating his haggard harvest crew to burgers and beers. But next May, the rains may only give him a 48-hour window; another quart of coffee and fifty gallons of diesel fuel in November could be the difference between getting a crop in the ground, or staring at a pallet of $500 per bag seed corn shrink-wrapped in the shop.
The NFC Championship game is decided in three hours. The winner goes to the Super Bowl, the loser goes golfing.
Raising a crop of corn takes all year. The winner borrows a hundred grand to buy seed and fertilizer, books his fuel for the next year and prays the Asian markets hold strong.
The cycle begins anew each spring. On Easter Sunday we pour out of Church, peel our jackets and feel 57 degrees on our bare arms for the first time since September. Anxiously waiting for the snow to melt so we can golf and rake last fall’s leaves, we all make bets with Kenny Setz as to whether this will be an all-time record for ice out on Rock Lake.
Meanwhile, Dave Schroeder is measuring soil temperatures and fretting.
The tractors are fueled, oiled and greased. The planter is calibrated and ready. Put corn in the ground too early and it germinates poorly, rots and fails to emerge. Pass on an opportunity between May rains and risk not making 112 degree days to mature a crop.
And so went the spring of 2014. As a result of a painfully late spring, harvest time came and corn has been slow to dry down in the field. Mother Nature will dry corn down to 15% moisture for free. Wait too long and she will also dump six inches of wet snow on a crop before Deer Season (yes, capitalized as a proper noun; this is Wisconsin, damn it). Gavilon Grain will dry your corn from 20% down to 15% moisture for a dime for each percentage point. With markets at $3.33 a bushel at best, those 50 cents are the difference between a paltry profit, and loss.
En route to the Haack farm, I met Dave Strasburg pulling two gravity boxes around the big curve by Topel’s Trailer Park and Driving Range, bound for Vita-Plus. I took my right hand off the wheel, raised my thumb and waved a silent “git-er-done”. Once he’d passed and out of sight, I gave a full-fledged, clenched-fist upper cut right into the dead space over the center console of my Dodge Ram. Last Sunday when Aaron Rodgers found Randall Cobb for a decisive third down conversion, Packers play-by-play announcer Wayne Laravee maniacally threw his trademark, “And There Is Your DAGGER!” assuring a Packers win. After six months of ulcers, 700 bushels of corn safely in storage feels like no less a home team victory to me.
I asked Ryan Haack what he felt around harvest time. After an obligatory period of contemplation, he stared into a field of bean stubble south of their calf barn.
“I love the cyclicity,” he said. “You start with a bare naked field in the spring, you plow, disk, and plant the field. You hold your breath for the first green to pierce the surface, then you spend the summer praying for rain to come and the fall praying for it to stop,” he waxed.
"You can hear the crack of the cornstalks, even before you can see the combine gobbling them up. One day, 10-foot stalks stand like beacons in the harvest moon, rustling like the waves of Lake Superior against Bayfield beach. The next, there’s nothing but a few dry leaves blowing across an empty field."
Ryan Haack, philanthropist, philosopher, farmer and poet.
As it turns out, not everyone is charmed by the fall harvest.
Running just on time for afternoon appointments, I stopped short of the clinic's front porch to fish my phone from my breast pocket, three layers deep, “What’s happening, Uncle Ned!”
I answered in what I expected his standard over-jovial tone to be, though with a hint of reservation. Ned and I don’t “Face Book” or text, and he seldom calls midday. When he does, you don’t let it go to voicemail. Ned wakes every morning to three great boys and a beautiful wife, and is famously happy-go-lucky. He started the conversation off mad enough to spit a ten-penny nail through a two-by-four and finished just a little bit hurt, like somebody had stepped on a puppy.
Ned had delivered two gravity boxes full of corn to Gavilon Grain. Back at the farm, Herbie Altenburg napped in the cab of his combine, burning daylight, diesel fuel and time, as he waited to unload his hopper before the snow flew. In road gear and at 2200 rpms, a John Deere 4250 will go 19.5 miles per hour. Pulling two empty gravity boxes, one wiggle and you end up with a really expensive “yard sale”, all over State Highway 12.
Much to the chagrin of one particular motorist, constructors in 1927 decided it would be more efficient, environmentally sensitive and cost effective to route Highway 12 around Red Cedar Lake, rather than through it. As a result, there is a two-mile stretch just south of Cambridge that is not safe for a Porsche to pass an old lady in a Buick headed for the beauty shop, let alone a farmer on a mission.
Rearview mirrors don’t last long in a cornfield, and backup cameras aren’t yet offered on most gravity boxes. Hedging the shoulder is to risk rolling the rig into the ditch, punching a hole in a $5,000 tire or crushing a Corolla like an empty can of RC Cola when you blindly pull back on. Fully aware but with no other option, Ned and his John Deere in road-gear accumulated an eight-car entourage.
As the solid yellow line broke just past County A, cars peeked around to ensure no oncoming, and began to pass. They politely pulled well past the bow of the John Deere before drifting back into the south-bound lane. Cousin Karen frantically waved and swerved like a middle school cheerleader on Red Bull.
Last in line was a smartly dressed, dignified looking gentleman in a Toyota who we’ll refer to as “Prius Pete".
We’ll assume that Pete was waylaid for the entire two mile stretch. Knowing he would never think to exceed the speed limit, even if the Prius could, his desired speed will be assumed at 55mph. Behind Ned he could only go 35.5% of his desired rate of travel. As a result Pete had 4.2 minutes unceremoniously amputated from his day.
(Stork’s rules of rough math are fully in effect; the numbers are rounded in such a fashion that he can do the math in his head and if questioned they will hold up to cross-examination. To this point they have never been exaggerated to make a point.)
We can all agree that when a man has a plan, seconds seem like hours. Let he among us who has never pounded the dash and uttered a few of George Carlin’s “seven words” cast the first stone.
However, at high noon, one week before Turkey Day 2014, Prius Pete was not yet in the spirit of giving thanks.
When Pete’s turn came, he pulled into the space between whining lugs of the John Deere. He rolled down his window so as he looked up from his 2500lb 4-cylinder hybrid into the cab of the 20-ton diesel, Ned would know just how mad he was. Ensuring he had Ned's attention, Pete leaned into the passenger space, scowled, and thrust his middle finger violently at Ned.
Pleased that he had communicated the gravity of the injustice leveled upon him by the man who milks 85 cows, farms 150 acres of crops and feeds 150 people a day, he “floored it”, all 1.8 liters and both batteries whirring towards Fort Atkinson.
Pop country hunks in cowboy hats, cutoff T-shirts and ripped Levi's like to sing about pickup trucks, tractors and dirt roads. Farm and Fleet sells a million John Deere hats to folks who wouldn’t know a PTO from a GTO, and every beauty shop and bakery has a year’s back-issues of “Country Living” magazine dog-eared and wrinkled on the counter.
But when it comes to frozen fuel lines, backwards calves, bloody knuckles and sore backs - all before sunrise on Sunday - the farmer stands alone.
So Pete (as Merle Haggard almost said), when you’re flippin’ off a farmer man, you’re walkin’ on the writin’ side of me.
Milk doesn’t come from Pick-n-Save and bread from Panera. In order to get from their farms to our tables, somebody has to get a little shit on their shoes. Now and again, there will be a thimble of inconvenience, even for those who don’t have to step off the pavement. The Prius may have the acceleration of a jackrabbit, but 50,000lbs of corn does not start, stop or turn in the space of a Kwik Trip bathroom. He can’t go any faster.
The mission of this piece is an explanation on behalf of farmers in general. As it turns out Pete, the man you chose to disrespect a few weeks ago happens to be my first friend in the state of Wisconsin. He is a father, husband, brother and an uncle. I love him as if we were born of the same mother and I respect him. A saint Ned is not, though he does sing in the church choir.
He was up at 4:15 this morning. When I was 12, I moaned when mom made me pick up my dog’s poop and take out the garbage. Ned milked 50 cows every morning. In the 42 years since “Uncle Ned” has been the father figure and drill sergeant for his niece and nephews, a United States Air Force Blackhawk helicopter pilot, a beautician, a union electrician and a steamfitter. His sister worked two jobs to support them.
As an assistant coach, he has mentored all three of his boys and their teammates in tenacity, respect and wrestling. As is the case on most farms, theirs is a model of family and interdependence. It is made possible by his wife Sarah, the herd veterinary technician, relief milker, calf-feeder, mother and housekeeper. She is a college instructor, Sunday school teacher and private pilot. She is also my daughter’s Godmother.
With their skillset and work ethic, any farmer in America could take a job in town, work “5-8s” with health insurance and retire with a pension. Ask them. Some will tell you they love the independence or the pride of production. Others will say that’s just what they have to do. But all will say that farming keeps them closer to their family.
To be frustrated to the point of action that you later regret is human: Ned’s knee-jerk response would have been to dodge the mailbox on the right and crush the little hybrid like a raccoon having a bad day. .
Pete, please know that our purpose is not to delay your day.
If Pete is a life-long cheese head, this surely was not the first time he shared the road with a SMV. If he grew up on the south side of Chicago, it can’t be his first or worst traffic jam. It must require an astronomical accumulation of anger for a man to flirt with oncoming traffic side-by-side with a 20-ton four wheel drive tractor just in order to extend his most demonstrative digit toward a damn good man.
So Pete, we sincerely hope that one day you can find resolution to the injustices that “fried your backside”, and for the well-being of those who love you.