Marketing grain like a stunned gull

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Farm and Dairy file photo

This will sound like an old Johnny Carson routine. “I am so old that…”

Well, I am so old that I remember some really good times with a moldboard plow.

Nowadays if you got the plow out instead of parking it out front with a for sale sign on it, hoping that there was still one guy who wanted one, the neighbors would gather for an intervention. Time was, though, that we all plowed, and we all tried to get the plowing done in the fall.

Aesthetically, those were good days. It felt good, and looked good, and there are good memories.

Animals

The night the fox decided it was easier to hunt mice in the tractor lights, so she walked in the furrow ahead of me, trusting if she got slowed down by a nest, that I would stop and let her finish and not just run over her.

The night I realized that with a cab on the tractor, the herd of deer had no fear of me. I plowed around and around one land of sod until they finally had to jump to the next land to avoid being hit.

I remember plowing tall sweet clover sod one afternoon when a deer jumped out from under the tractor. He had stayed hidden until I actually straddled him.

Birds

My strongest memory may be of the seagulls. These are still around, and I saw several hundred scattered around a field just yesterday, hunting worms after a steady rain. They have changed their hunting habits, though. I remember starting to plow one day when, on a tiled farm in wet farming country, I was the first in the area to turn the soil.

First there was one bird, then three. Then, after the scouts had reported back (I never figured out how that happened) there were several thousand.

Seagulls follow a plow in a pattern learned and passed down to the kids for hundreds of generations. (Nowadays they tell them, I remember when …)

They fly toward the front of tractor in a column formation that is exactly the width of the plow, then swing in a left 180-degree turn to land on the soil as it is just settling off the plow. They hit the worms just as they are landing, unless they have to scuttle around a little to get one.

They stay sitting for a minute or two, then join the flying formation again. From a distance, this must look like a continuous painting of white and gray.

The width of the plow is covered with birds for several hundred feet, and there is a mass of birds constantly in formation. Watch carefully, however, and you see occasional scattered birds that remain sitting and don’t rejoin the flying formation.

Mouse

These are the gulls that swallowed not a worm, but a mouse. It took me awhile to work out what had happened to these stragglers the first time I led this formation. Then, I saw it. The bird hit the soil, grabbed the mouse, worked him into his stretched-out throat, then just sat with a glazed expression with the membrane stretched over the eyeballs for as long as an hour.

I have a theory that a gull just cannot fly with a mouse in his gullet. Having made the decision to eat the whole thing, he is committed to sitting it out until he is comfortable again. He has all the food he needs for the day. But, he is also vulnerable. If a predator came along just now, he would be a sitting, well, gull.

Farmer

Here is the point now. There are farmers just like that gull. Instead of a steady diet of small worms, they occasionally take a big bite out of the market, then just sit and wait until that bite is digested.

I have a farmer-gull who sold me corn twice early last summer when July futures were in the middle fours. At the time, he was not sure if this was a good idea, but he worried that it might be a nice big bite that would get away.

He sat and digested it for a long time, worried that he was too soon, but enjoying filling his gullet while he had the chance, instead of just taking a small bite here and there. He was vulnerable if a predator in the form of a hot market had come along, but meanwhile, it felt like his belly was full. Now that farmer just wishes he had eaten a mouse a day for a month last summer. He is not as hungry as his neighbors, but it was only two mice.

Farmer marketing is an art, not a science. Sometimes it feels good to eat the mouse, but it is always more comfortable to nibble along on worms. This winter the worms are skinny and sour, and the diet has been the same for a long time. If the market would heat up and show us a few mice, more farmers would bite.

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