Delayed but not deterred!
As April begins, it appears we are going to get a late start to spring fieldwork. This is not shaping up to be a catastrophic year, except in the Red River valley of the north, but farmers get nervous at any sign of delay in planting or harvesting operations. Since fall, the cropland of America's midsection has seen it all: from drought to flood with ice and snow mixed in. In other words, it has been a normal year.
The salvation in all of this is the spirit of the farmer. No matter what nature sets up, he or she will find a way to plant a crop within the narrowest window of opportunity. The size of tillage and planting tools would be viewed as extreme if it weren't for the track record of planting millions of acres in a single day of sunshine and warmth. The corn planters of the Midwest now span up to 120 feet! That makes one capable of covering 90 to 100 acres per hour. It seems ridiculous to create anything this large but that was said about the first 12-row planter (30 feet wide) when it emerged. The only restriction now is that the planter has to be smaller than the field. Managing it is done with satellite precision and computer software, even to the point that it won't plant over land it has already covered.
But the machine is really secondary to the farmer. The determination to succeed in getting the crop in the ground borders on obsession. "You just have to stay out of his way until the crop is in," has been stated to me many times by relatives and friends of determined growers. For some, the desire to plant is an economic force but, for many, it is fulfillment of soul and spirit. It is a call of the season, with an even deeper cultural basis. Honor, dignity and self-worth are all wrapped up in the dropping of the seed.
In the 1980s, I traveled to the Soviet Union as an agricultural reporter and had the chance to see the vast fields of the interior regions. The farms were controlled by the state and each village had a single purpose--to produce food. Yet their spirit was not in their work. The government land was tilled, planted and harvested as the seven hour workday unfolded. Yet the same people came back to their small plots and worked until dark to tend that which they personally possessed. It was clear to me, as a capitalist, what they were doing but, to themselves and their government, the reality of human inclination was lost. Their slogan was: "We pretend to work and you pretend to pay us." Yields on the farms were low, losses were high and land stood unproductive--something that does not happen here except in the worst of circumstances.
It amazes me that in an era of greater insulation from loss through crop insurance, government disaster programs and even food aid, the farmer is as determined to succeed as his great grandfather who lived in a pioneer society with only himself to depend upon. The culture fosters this but those who prevail, in an industry with an ever shrinking number of commercial operators, seem to be selected for their do or die mentality. Once we see fields set idle and witness landowners collecting payments without shame or remorse, we will know farmers have become wards of the state and only pretend to work to receive their subsidy. It doesn't appear to me that will be initiated by the farmer, so it will have to be instituted by the government.
Free enterprise has to remain free. Freedom to fail has to be the greater part of capitalistic behavior. Hope for the future is a human trait that has to be cultivated. Our agricultural system is not satisfied to just survive but sees its strength in being able to prevail, even in adverse conditions.
So, as you prepare for this annual dance with Mother Nature, remember that generations past and future are counting on you. Our most important defense against hunger, economic uncertainty, political strife and government instability is the seed you plant in season.
Editor's Note: This is Ken Root's 35th year as an agricultural reporter. He grew up on a small farm in central Oklahoma and started his career as a vocational agriculture teacher. He worked in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri as a broadcaster and was the original host of AgriTalk. He has also been the executive director of the National AgriChemical Retailers Association in Washington, D.C. and the National Association of Farm Broadcasters in Kansas City. Ken is now the lead farm broadcaster at WHO and WMT Radio based in Des Moines, Iowa. He has been a columnist for HPJ and Midwest Ag Journal for eight years.