Friday, April 27, 2012

Plant When the Oak Leaves Are the Size of Squirrels’ Ears


Note: Check this video to see how amazingly complicated the latest planters are. This farmer explains it in a clear, informative manner.

** This week I visited the family farm to witness the beginning of the annual transformation.  Brown, barren fields get injected with seeds, and the Midwest Green Revolution starts yet again.  My brother had the planter ready to roll, and like a modern day Tom Sawyer, he got me to pour hybrid corn seeds into the hoppers.  “Just don’t get any strings or tags in the hopper or it’ll plug,” he said. “At $250 dollars a bag, seeds are like gold.” 
As a kid, I ran the plow, disk, and cultivator, but I never did plant.  If I tried using the modern high tech equipment, the field would look like a random-abstract corn maze by July.  The machines now have precision settings with gps functions to make sure rows are straight, and many have sensors and light monitors to alert the farmer if seeds are not getting planted properly.  Farmers in air-conditioned cabs can watch computer screens and check the markets on their smart phones.
Before he hopped on his rig, my brother laid out a basic “planting for dummies” scenario so I could catch up.  “GMO hybrid seeds, crop insurance planting dates, herbicide resistant weeds, refuge seeds… “  I started to fade until he mentioned sex.  “The 45 acres we’re doing for the seed company call for other specifications.  The male and female seeds have to go in at different times, the heat units have to be measured, and the timing has to be just right.”  Sounded like a family planning operation, but I caught the main idea.  Corn growing is high tech and high planning.  You need to be part scientist and part administrator to get ‘er done now.
Dad still likes to help with the field work, and he remembers when it was simpler.  “Some of the old timers would say ‘Plant when the oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears,’ but now April planting is the norm.  It used to be that straight rows made for bragging rights, but now it’s a mark of the machines more than the man.”
Dad has farmed through the Ag Tech Renaissance, a time when planters have 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. Apparently lighting strikes on the wires could kill a horse, mule, or man.
I avoid the danger and the complicated work on the farm by helping with the garden—another spring ritual.  We battle rabbits and tomato blight, but it’s fertile Iowa soil, and if you push the seeds in, something will grow. Last year, one of our short bean rows did not sprout at all.  I tried to rationalize: bad seeds, ground squirrels, dreaded nematodes?  But it was obvious to the rest of the family. I’d had a brain freeze and covered an empty trench. Where was that computerized seed sensor when I needed it?  The growin’ is good in the Fields of Dreams, but you still gotta plant seeds if you want the transformation to occur.
by Dan Gogerty, photo from vachon, library of congress

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