Spring Planting in a Year of Cosmic Challenges

This year’s planting season has Midwest farmers adding fins and snorkels to their daily attire. The Big Wet has flooded towns, fields, and transportation systems–and the spring planting schedule is way behind the average–especially for cotton, corn, and soybeans. It has been decades since Iowa and other grain-heavy states have been this far behind, and experts say delayed planting can lead to increased chances for crop diseases. Other crops are affected, and it’s not just wet weather to blame. Dry conditions are hurting wheat farmers in Canada, and to go along with climate factors, farmers are dealing with trade, tariffs, and government programs.

Grain farmers have faced challenging growing seasons before–the dust bowl years of the 1930s helped make the Great Depression a national and international disaster. Innovative machines, modified seeds, and a variety of chemicals have changed the equation since then, but weather still rules all. One way or another, the seeds need to get planted.

Now in his 90s, Dad is no longer hopping on tractors, but he still lives on the land, and he farmed through the Ag Tech Renaissance–a time when planters moved from two-row to sixteen and twenty-four row. “We’ve had it relatively easy,” he said. “Your grandpa planted with horses. Half-mile rows on warm days got pretty tough. He had one horse that would revolt at the end of every round, lie down for a while, and finally get back up and start plodding along again.”

“Back then, they would stretch planter wire the length of the field, follow it along and ‘button’ in a seed every forty inches, and at the end, they’d move the wires and start again.  It could be dangerous as well as tedious. Lighting strikes on the wires could kill a horse, mule, or man.” 

“One man in bib overalls with a good team of horses could plant 20 acres of corn a day back in the 1920s. The original 40-inch rows for cornfields were set that way to accommodate the width of a horse’s ass.” I assume Dad meant the animal, not the farmer.

Dad told me that some old timers would say, “Plant when the oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears.” This year, the idiom is more along the lines of “plant when you can get your swamp buggy into the field.” Whether they’re facing floods, droughts, or economic turmoil, farmers will work hard to get a crop in. That’s what they do.

by dan gogerty (flood photo from newsdeeply.com and horse photo from libraryofcongress.com)

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