When it breaks, it pours

Posted in Farming on Sunday, May 05, 2013

When it breaks, it pours

Like most smaller farmers, I “make do” with a lot of older equipment.  I hadn’t been farming on my own but a short time when I came to the realization that real, live, actual ‘farming’ meant that you were doing one of the following four things: 

  1. you are wearing something out OR waiting for something to break;
  2. you are fixing something that is already worn out OR broken;
  3. you are on the way to or from the parts store to get what you need to replace something that is worn out OR broken;
  4. you are staring at something, trying to figure how/why it broke/wore out, and asking the quintessential farming question, “How am I going to fix THAT without spending a boatload of money buying a whole NEW one?” 

If you are not engaged in one of those four activities, well, you just . . . well, you are not really farming. A lot of people think of farming as ‘growing things,’ but the actual growing happens naturally, all by itself. If it didn’t, farmers would not spend so much time and effort on weed control, but that is another topic.  

As a farmer, you do everything possible to provide the best opportunity for your crop to grow. It grows best with adequate nutrients (not excess), with adequate rain at the right time, without competition from other plants and without being sickened and weakened by disease or devoured by insects. Once grown, you bust your tail to get it harvested in as efficient a manner possible at just the right time so that you have the best quality product to sell.

When it comes to growing things, especially annual plants like my field crops, timing is everything. A few days delay in planting is that many days shorter in what might turn out to be a very short growing season.  It begins the day the seed is placed in the moist soil. For dryland (non-irrigated) farmers, it ends when the soil moisture runs out, or when the temperature stress exceeds the plant’s abilities to survive with the water available.  Sometimes that is the end of May, other times it is the end of July.

That is why we spend so much time between the busy field seasons getting ready. The last thing any farmer wants to do is to stop and fix something when the time and weather is right for putting seed in the ground or for harvesting the crop. That kind of work can be done in the dead of winter or between spring planting and harvest.   

That is also why, during those days of real, actual farming, we work as many hours as physically possible.  No matter what the weather forecast says, you never know how many more hours you have until it rains and field operations have to stop until it dries out again. You know it has been a long stretch of good weather when you find yourself thinking, “I wish it would rain so I can get some sleep.”

A lot of work accumulates in those intense days and hours out in the field. Sometimes you discover that things are more worn that you thought at the beginning of the season. As parts or systems struggle along, you hope they last long enough to finish that last field before you have to stop and repair them.  

One afternoon when I was seeding barley, I stopped to check and see how much seed was left, and noticed a crack starting to form in my drill hitch.  It’s one of those things that if it was a space shuttle, the weld would have been x-rayed last winter and the crack found before it was ever visible. But this is farming, and lives are not likely to depend on the integrity of my drill hitch...so no x-ray.  

I continued seeding, and by the time I was out of seed 20 minutes later, I had worked my way back around to the field edge where my truckload of seed was parked. By then I could tell from the tractor, things had gotten worse. Five hours worth of ‘worse.’  That is how long it took me to remove, weld and reinstall the broken piece and to remove, bend, weld, reinforce and reinstall the pieces that bent when the original part broke.  By that time, I was trying to find my tools by flashlight, and I was in my 7th consecutive day of 12+ hours. I had been ‘really farming’ for 14 straight hours, and my barley that should have all been in the ground by 5:30pm, still wasn’t seeded.  Thirteen more of those long days later, I had the last 2013 seed in the ground, the drills cleaned out, leftover seed returned and the tractors parked. 

By then that little hitch problem was pretty faded from memory, dulled by fatigue and obscured by the pending list of TTBD (things to be done) to recover from spring work and prepare for harvest and crops and weeds to watch grow. Yeah, the days are long, and it does get a little boring sometimes, but you never know when some new and unexpected challenge is going to pop up and completely change your plans.

So, what do farmers do when spring field work is over?  First on the list was to unbury my desk.  It took two days just to catch up the mostly farm, and some household paperwork, but that did not include any budget analysis – one of those necessary and useful chores that I always put off because it is so hard to be at the desk when you could be outside working in the sunshine.

After necessary paperwork filing, we left home. We actually took a couple of days off and made a long leisurely drive, drank some good craft beer and prioritized my list of pending farm work. Oh, yeah, and wrote this on the drive back home when I wasn’t ‘farming’ out the window.