About the time I broke the cotton shackles of my mother’s apron strings for the glorious freedom of my father’s farm fields, a technology wave hit the southern Illinois farm of my youth.
The exact year of the surge escapes me, but I remember its first hint: the purchase of a green-as-money, six-row, 30-inch Oliver corn planter.
The switch from a “four-row wide” cropping pattern, four rows spaced 40-inches – or the width of a horse – apart, to “six-row narrow” boosted one person’s productivity 50 percent in every field operation and substantially increased yields.
Change.It also brought change after change. Out went the front-mounted, two-row cultivators; in came one, rear-mounted, six-row cultivator. Out went the small, wooden dump wagons; in came two, 100-bushel, self-unloading wagons. Out went a clanking Kewanee drag elevator; in came a shiny, 50-foot, 6-inch auger.
Then, just before one year’s wheat harvest, the final proof of our farm’s progress arrived, an International Harvester 303 combine.
We already owned a tiny, self-propelled (remember that phrase?) Massey-Harris combine, but the International Harvester was an enormous leap upward: a 80-bushel grain tank, 11-foot grain head and twice the horsepower of that toy-like Massey. Wow.
Equipment.During that same era, Dad invested in two other pieces of then-high capacity, high-efficiency equipment few local farmers owned or even had seen.
The first was a Hawn Hi-Boy, a self-propelled, 250-gallon sprayer. It resembled a seven-foot-tall orange tricycle and was powered by a 20-or-so horsepower Wisconsin engine mounted directly in front of the operator and atop the rigid frame of the hinged front (and only) drive wheel.
It was a doddering, ugly, innovative beast with never-before-seen features like adjustable boom height, three independently-operated boom sections and a 12 – count ’em – 12-row width.
The other hi-tech machine was a self-propelled hay swather-conditioner.
Dangerous. It, too, was a tricycle affair engineered by some machinery masochist because everything on it – from its flapping canvas roller aprons to its impossibly touchy, double-levered steering – was designed to amputate or murder; and sometimes it even slaughtered alfalfa, the lifeblood of our Holstein herd.
That swather, I also remember, was the focal point of the only argument I ever heard between my father and his beloved Uncle Honey, one of the farm’s hired hands and the county’s most notorious machinery killer.
Early one summer morning while I was milking with Dad, Honey entered the parlor to announce he was going to mow hay with the swather.
Calmly but firmly, my father told Honey no; the swather, like the combine, was off-limits to Honey’s short attention span and even shorter mechanical skills.
The usually quiet Honey, however, persisted; he was going to mow hay with either the new swather or old sickle mower, he repeated.
“No, you’re not,” my father said sternly.
“You absolutely are not going to use the swather and you’re not going to use the sickle mower because I’ll do it faster and better with the swather.”
Bet. “Ach,” Honey said with Old World disdain, “I bet I can do more with the sickle mower in a morning than you can with that contraption all day.”
“I’ll take that bet!” my father replied, rising to the challenge of both his management and machinery. Honey silently waved off his own bet with a firm flick of his hand at my father.
He then left, but he did not mow with either machine that day or ever again.
Looking back now, what I heard and saw that morning was an old man’s first, only and doomed-from-start fight over being replaced – displaced, really – in a world literally gearing up to move further faster.
Shortly thereafter, Uncle Honey retired.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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