Lessons from 22 tons of education


Today’s Southern breeze gently rustles the heavy-headed tulips outside my office window before sweeping through the apple tree to sprinkle a shower of blossom petals onto an emerald lawn.
A second later it picks me up on its warm wings and carries me back to the southern Illinois farm of my youth.
Planting wins. Back there, April brought two seasons – planting and baseball.
Without fail, though, planting beat baseball because all hands, no matter their size or skill, were needed on the farm.
Mid-April usually planted me on the steel seat of an Oliver 77 that dragged a four-section spring harrow against the grain of our many fall-plowed fields.
Seat? I didn’t sit. No one could as the narrow-front tractor bobbed like a cork from mellow plow slab to mellow plow slab slowly turning the bleached gray skin of that farm into a moist, jet-black bed of hope.
Precious find. Despite the body-bruising, brain-rattling ride, I kept a keen but bouncing eye on the freshly turned soil of the previous pass for the tell-tale white of an arrowhead, rifle flint and musket ball.
One of those precious finds, a cream-colored arrowhead, rests on my office desk today.
It’s a perfectly sculpted artifact of those long and long-gone days; a testament to the fact that while cultures come and go, only the land lasts forever.
Jobs. My father would often be in an adjoining field, reworking my work with what was then a massive field cultivator – maybe 16-feet wide. Not far behind him was the planter, manned by leathery, nearly always complaining Jackie, our farm’s main hired hand.
Dad, of course, had the responsible job, applying the pre-plant herbicide, then working it in with the dirt-shaking cultivator.
A homemade rig of steel saddle tanks, a PTO-driven pump, and hoses going everywhere made his 1850 Oliver look like something out of the Battle of the Bulge.
The spray only added a final, sinister touch: yolky-yellow Treflan for beans; milky white atrazine for corn.
Breaking down. Dad’s rig easily outpaced Jackie’s because the planter, a six-row ground-driven Oliver, was designed to break down.
A whirl of sprockets, chains and plates – but no monitor, of course – it often tossed drive chains off its row units for no reason other than that was what it was engineered to do.
From afar, I could always tell when that happened.
Jackie, upon discovering he had just planted five rows and not six for a half-mile, would rub his three-day-old whiskers and fling fabulous curses into the wind. He hated that planter.
College sabbatical. I quickly learned to hate it, too, the year I planted the farm’s entire crop while on a Dean Warren Wessels-imposed college sabbatical. (“You’re taking up a space for someone who actually wants to be here. Come visit me when you’re serious about a world-class education.”)
That was the same year – what with an excess of bone-headed, youthful labor at hand – Dad put the planter’s tall and long dry fertilizer boxes back on.
It meant more chains, more breakdowns and more work.
I toted, emptied and then planted 22 tons of dry fertilizer, one 50-pound sack at a time, that spring.
Back to school. It was the education Dean Wessels somehow knew I needed because the next planting season found me back at the University of Illinois lifting myself and my young family forever out of the reach of spring harrows, saddle tanks and Oliver planters.
And arrowheads, warm spring days in the field, and long evenings of quiet, tired satisfaction.
Dad’s education, too. My and the lovely Catherine’s return to Champaign carried a hidden bonus for Dad.
Since he was destined to be the main corn planter the following spring, the main corn planter quickly became a shiny, new, monitored John Deere Max-Emerge.
Shortly thereafter, the fresh-air, log-wagon 1850 was traded for an air-conditioned Ford 9600 and the cranky Oliver baler was ditched for a Vermeer round baler.
Guess Dad got an education during my final planting season, also.
Odd how an aching back can train an under-used brain, and apple blossom petals on a green sea, can float you off into yesterday.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at agcomm@sbcglobal.net.)


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com