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TERRY WOSTER: Counting crops

As a farm kid from the old days, I've never quite gotten used to the idea that sunflowers can be a crop. Wheat is a crop. Oats, rye, barley are crops. Corn is a crop, and so is milo. Alfalfa, even. That's a crop of a sort. You cut it, stack it an...

Terry Woster

As a farm kid from the old days, I’ve never quite gotten used to the idea that sunflowers can be a crop.

Wheat is a crop. Oats, rye, barley are crops. Corn is a crop, and so is milo. Alfalfa, even. That’s a crop of a sort. You cut it, stack it and feed it to cattle. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call cattle a crop. Those are the commodities we nurtured on the Woster Brothers farm, where I learned the business of being employed in the agricultural sector.

We tried calling flax a crop one year. I can’t recall what in the world got into my dad and my uncle to make them think we should raise flax. We did pretty well, I suppose, if doing well means having the grain actually grow. But when we tried to put the slippery little seeds into our aging grain trucks, we discovered the boxes leaked. They leaked a lot. The trail of seeds I left behind the truck as I drove the load from the field would have made Hansel and Gretel proud. The Woster brothers decided they weren’t flax farmers and returned to what they knew best.

We tried calling pigs a crop, too, for a year or two. Again, I’m not sure why my dad and uncle thought we’d make great pig farmers. We didn’t have the pens for it, and we didn’t have the know-how. We had pigs running over half of the neighborhood. For some years after our noble experiment, an old boar continued to roam the area, foraging here and there, showing up in the tree belt or across the pasture or down behind the dam bank. It took a bit longer than with the flax, but eventually the Woster brothers decided they weren’t pig farmers and returned to what they knew best.

(Sonny James recorded an old Ned Miller tune once that fit the situation. The title? “Do What You Do, Do Well.’’)

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What set me thinking about sunflowers most recently was the sight of a field of the biggest, tallest, yellowest flowers in creation off to the west of the highway as we drove home from Fort Thompson last Sunday. Had it been a field of wheat, I’d have considered it the makings of a bumper crop. Sunflowers? Boy, I have to tell you, I struggled to see the crop there. I saw the beauty of the scene, the subject of a wonderful still life, a Greg Latza photo, but an actual cash crop?

In my day, you see, sunflowers were things that infested our corn. They were a lot like cocklebur, only usually there were fewer of them and it didn’t take so much work to chop them out of the furrows as it did cocklebur. I still recall spending considerable time chopping the cocklebur, sunflowers and half a dozen other species of what we considered weeds from the edges of the corn fields.

(I was never sure if that was important work or just something to keep one of the kids busy for a few hours until another actual chore came up in the rotation. As I’ve said many times, as a farm hand, I didn’t ponder why I was doing what I was doing. Dad said do this, and I did it. When I finished, he’d say do that, and I’d do that.)

I sometimes ate sunflower seeds - the dried, salted kind you’d buy in a bag from the store. I didn’t bother to connect those tasty little seeds with the yellow flowers I chopped from the field. As I said, I wasn’t much into pondering or connecting. Besides, I much preferred buying a bottle of Pepsi and pouring a bag of salted peanuts into it.

In first or second grade, a couple of classmates and I spent one recess sneaking into a yard across from the school to pluck and taste some seeds from a big sunflower plant. The seeds were soft and unsalted. We were school boys, so of course we each had to eat a handful. We quickly agreed store-bought was better. So were peanuts in a Pepsi.

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