May 25, 2005

Planting values, character in the next generation

Every April, my father with the heel of his workboot dug at the black soil around a cut cornstalk. Kneeling, he'd scoop the upturned dirt into a hand, examine it.

As he opened his palm, the dirt sifted across the air like a swarm of gnats falling to earth. "It's almost ready," he said, "maybe a week off."

Only seven years old, I stared blankly at him.

He motioned for me to come down to his level. "Go ahead, pick up a handful," he said. "Roll it around in your fingers, feel its texture. And remember it. Next week we'll check it again, and you'll see how different the soil is."

And he was right - a week later it was drier yet more pungent. That morning, my father hooked up the plow and started another season of planting.

• • •

Such a scene has been repeated between father and son for thousands of years before it happened to me. The crops were different but feeling the dirt in one's hands always was a necessity for people. It meant the difference between starvation and a bountiful harvest, between boyhood and being a man.

Farmers sometimes relied on other methods to tell when they should plant: a river's depth, the stars' position, an almanac's forecast. In Iowa, farmers waited for the return of golden plover before planting; the hardy little songbird flies 20,000 miles roundtrip from sub-Arctic Canada to Argentina then back again, stopping to rest in Iowa roughly the last week of April.

But that's not always the perfect predictor. As occurred this year in Iowa, rain can turn fields into bogs, delaying planting.

And the later planting comes, the more the anxiety. It means lower yields, a greater chance of crop loss from wind or late summer drought. A late harvest raises the other bookend of threats, such as an early freeze.

But rarely does a farmer ever see a perfect season; it's almost always too wet or too dry somewhere along the way. The moral: Take it day by day, week by week.

• • •

Iowa's earliest farmers planted these crops by hand. They "broadcast" or scattered their seed in the air as walking across the field. It wasn't until the 1870s that quality mechanized planters came to Iowa.

That resulted in surplus crops of wheat, barley, oats and rye. Then in the early 1900s, Iowan scientist Henry A. Wallace developed a variety of hybrid corn. His crop was perfect for the landscape and transformed it.

Raising corn was quite different from raising wheat. Corn had to be planted later in spring and harvested later in fall. It required a new feel for the soil.

Corn also grew best in perfectly aligned rows. Staying on the "straight and narrow" became a matter of pride for farmers.

• • •

Before the days of modern farm machinery, boys learned to plow, plant and harvest when quite young. From a father's point of view, there was no better way to teach his son how to set goals and the value of working hard to reach them.

Such character traits as strict morality with a just sense of obedience, social and public duty gave a man direction to live by. And as with any successful spiritual or political movement, it promised reward for such labor and self-discipline.

Indeed, as the fictional farmer-hero Jurnjakob Swehn says in the 19th century book "Letters of a German American Farmer": "My dear friend ... you see how it all came true for a kid off the sandy land of Hornkaten in Mecklenburg who dreamed of having two herds of cows as he moved out into foreign parts. Now we have plenty of everything, plenty of land and livestock.

"And it all cost plenty of sweat."

• • •

As the number of people growing up on farms declines, such values are not easy to instill in youth. Until a boy experiences the joy of keeping a straight line or knows that life depends on sensing the minute ways dirt can feel in his hands, how could he understand the value of a strict morality?

Yearning for some type of truth, many now turn back to the earth, but not as a farmer does. Instead, they herald nature in its original condition.

Iowa's farmers and their urban descendants were quite thorough in overturning the state's original prairie. Less than 0.1 percent of tallgrass stands remain.

Some of it exists in pioneer cemeteries. The state's first farmers typically picked plots of purple and yellow wildflowers with green grass and flashes of white mint for their final resting places.

There is a certain irony that almost all that remains of the prairie holds the bones of the very people who broke the wide plains into wheat then corn fields.

• • •

These days my father no longer farms, and my livelihood depends upon computer chips and the electronic flow of information.

But every once in a while when taking a walk, I like to kick at the dirt with my foot and scoop up a handful of it, just to see if it's ready for planting.

(originally published May 25, 2003)

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