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How I Failed at Farming--Again

These Parts--I thought I was ready to go back to the land, but the land had other ideas.

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Just before the Illinois corn and soybean harvest begins, it's customary to tell farm-injury stories. These grim encounters between man and mechanical parts are usually recounted while the poker-faced storyteller is engaged in the very activity that led a neighbor to lose a knuckle, his face, or a testicle. "Caught his shirt sleeve in the grain auger," the farmer might say, loading grain into an auger. "Ripped off all his clothes and broke about every bone in his body before it spit him out. Lay there for hours before anyone came by."

An auger is a screwlike mechanism that conveys grain from ground level to the top of the tall silver silos that break the flatness of the prairie landscape. Augers are noisy, dangerous, and unforgiving. Many a shipment of grain includes a finger. In fact, farmers seem to lose more digits than anyone besides butchers.

Farm-injury stories may be one more reason less than 2 percent of the American workforce farms. But these stories have an important message: pay attention. And when you think things are going well, pay extra attention. According to the midwestern farmer's philosophy, bad is bad and good will probably turn bad if you don't watch out. My brother-in-law summed it up one afternoon while changing one of the massive tires on his John Deere combine: "John Jordan had one of these tires fall on top of him. Suffocated him to death. Slowly. He was having a good day. Too good."

Three years ago, after 27 years of living out west, I moved to rural Illinois so my wife could be near her family. When we first arrived I liked to point out that 20 years earlier I'd come back east to work on a farm, a dairy in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I was employed as an "assistant dairy herdsman," an impressive title, though all it meant was that I toiled like an indentured servant seven days a week, 12 hours a day, without regular coffee breaks. During daylight hours I milked 60 cows twice and helped with the unending fieldwork. Nighttime was devoted to locating strays in nearby forests and chasing them back to their pasture. I usually spent my remaining time on my back, studying the insides of my eyelids. For compensation, I was given a drafty farmhouse, $600 a month, and an unlimited supply of high-fat milk and red meat.

This was during my failed back-to-the-land period. My predairy fantasy was a pastoral ideal, a Wendell Berry essay--farming with draft horses, growing weed- and insect-free patches of organic carrots, peaches, and tomatoes, working in harmony with like-minded people who never had any trouble reaching consensus, watching black Labrador retrievers with red kerchiefs around their necks frolic in meadows. Someone else would cook large meals and bake loaves of brown bread. I would have ample time to write poetry and learn to play the dulcimer and take two-hour afternoon naps in handmade Guatemalan hammocks.

Instead I found myself spending hours squatting beside a manure-covered cow and squeezing her teats while she tried to kick me in the head. And getting slapped in the face with her urine-soaked tail. Dairy cows are extremely stubborn. They're also bony in the hips, so hitting them is a bad idea. I also quickly learned never to stand directly behind a cow, in case she coughed. Cows' bowel movements are looser than creamed corn.

Heavy-machinery breakdowns are common on farms, and I, like many city kids--I grew up in Chicago--had no mechanical skills. Whenever the tractor I was driving malfunctioned, all I could do was stand around and fetch wrenches for my boss. My status slipped further when I valiantly refused to spray herbicide on the corn--I was reading Rachel Carson's Silent Spring at the time--or participate in coyote hunts, which were popular among the farmhands. It didn't help when I remarked that I thought the artificial-insemination guy, a friend of my boss, seemed to be enjoying his work with the herd a little too much.

After nine months I'd developed a serious case of silage cough, everything I owned stank of Holsteins, and my cholesterol level had soared. My employer and I reached an agreement. I would leave in two weeks--sooner if I wanted--and could look for another job, preferably a nonagricultural one in another state. And he would let me. I thought it was a great arrangement.

I didn't tell my brother-in-law that I'd been a dismal failure in my former agrarian life, but I suspect he could see how green I was. Farmers can gauge mechanical competence the way animals can sense fear. They see it in the way you use a throttle, pop a clutch, or pull out a choke. They can take one look at your hands and tell if you've ever disassembled a carburetor or torn apart an axle. My hands were soft and pink; the only calluses were from playing my guitar and pushing a computer mouse.

My brother-in-law put me to work mowing acres of lawn and walking endless fields, cutting down weeds with scythes that could just as easily slice through an ankle or shin. Shatter cane was sprouting in the seed corn, and contagious water hemp had jumped from a drainage ditch into a soybean field. This was hot, humid, itchy work, and for a week afterward my hands and arms were covered with welts and rashes. I didn't dare complain because, as any farmer will tell you, things could be worse. After all, I still had my thumbs and testicles.

I did make a few minor errors. I got the riding mower stuck on a flat piece of ground. I ran over a tree stump at the exact moment my brother-in-law was cautioning me about having the blade too low. I missed slicing through electrical lines and toppling rosebushes by the thinnest of margins.

But I was family, so at harvest time I was given a promotion: I was to haul soybeans from the field. My brother-in-law would drive the combine, and after he'd filled two grain wagons, I'd hook them up behind a tractor, drive half a mile to the silos, rev up the dreaded auger, dump my loads, and watch the pale beans rise up into the silver bins. Most Illinois farm kids can perform the same task effortlessly by the time they're in the sixth grade.

Before my brother-in-law turned me loose he told me a story. "A guy climbed up into a bin to smooth out the pile. A beautiful day, just like today. He was just about done, and the harvest was going great. Bean prices were going up too. That should've warned him. Anyhow, he got too close to the center of the bean pile and was caught in a whirlpool. Beans just swallowed him up. Drowned in his own bounty. He was still holding on to his shovel when they found him. He was about your age. Kinda looked like you too. Well, we'd better get to work."

I failed on my first attempt to negotiate all the throttles and brakes and on-off switches and line up the wagons next to the auger. The next three tries were no better, but finally I maneuvered the wagons into position. Not bad for my first time out, I thought. But I didn't dare celebrate. I dumped my second load and headed back to the field.

"How'd things go?" my brother-in-law asked over the walkie-talkie.

"Oh, so-so. About middling," I answered.

"Good," he replied.

When I reached the field I unhooked the two empty wagons and attached the two full ones that were waiting for me. Driving back to the auger, I noticed a radio in the tractor cab. I should have ignored it, but I flipped the switch and turned the volume up high. Terry Gross was interviewing political consultant David Gergen about his new memoir, and there I was, bringing in the crop in America's heartland.

I lined up the wagons on the first try. This was getting easy. I pulled on my dirty work gloves, feeling very authentic. I was in control of large machinery manufactured by union laborers. I was farming.

I unloaded the first wagon, careful to keep my sleeves rolled up and to stand clear of the spinning auger. Attached to the lower end of the auger was a basketlike contraption that caught the beans as they fell from the wagon, and in my haste to get back to Terry Gross, I neglected to raise the basket out of the way before moving the second wagon into place. As the tractor rolled forward, I heard the unmistakable sound of crumpling aluminum. Looking back at what I'd done, I felt as if I'd lost a testicle.

As if on cue, my brother-in-law's voice crackled on the walkie-talkie. "How's it going?"

"Not good," I answered.

"Great," he replied.

"No, you don't understand."

"Copy that again?"

Later in the machine shed my brother-in-law delivered his lecture, his words punctuated by the sound of a sledgehammer pounding metal. "Didn't I tell you--just when you think things are going well is when you should be paying the closest attention?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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