A rainbow appeared in the west shortly after dawn broke. Lightning had danced in the south before sunrise, raising hope that a soaking rain might help corn and soybeans as August nears its end.
This month has not been particularly kind to farmers, businesses and town residents in parts of Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. They were hit hard by a derecho, a killer hurricane-like wind storm that blew with 100 miles-per-hour force and flattened crops, outbuildings and knocked out power for thousands of people.
President Donald Trump immediately responded with an Iowa disaster declaration that promises help, but what has been lost cannot be replaced.
I grew up on a farm on the edge of the Minnesota River Valley near Le Sueur, which was once home to Green Giant, a pioneering pea and sweetcorn canning company. The firm was financially important to farmers who contracted to grow crops for the company and for youth who earned extra money as seasonal workers in Green Giant’s plant.
My brother-in-law raised sweetcorn on several acres of peat ground located on the southern edge of his farm. Peat, for those unfamiliar with its quirks, produced good crops but caused headaches should harvesttime turn wet. Tractors that spun once or twice found themselves axel-deep stuck. A peat ground fire — be it caused by lightning or from sparks from a hot engine — could smolder for years before it had consumed itself.
We looked forward when the peat-ground sweetcorn was ready to harvest because it brought the neighborhood together to pick, husk, blanch, cut and freeze corn. The process marked the unofficial end of summer vacation for us, who for the most part welcomed the return of school days — at least for the first couple weeks before we fell back into a boring routine.
The sweetcorn — along with chicken frozen in milk cartons — nearly filled our gigantic and old freezer, which meant space would need to be found for the hogs and beef that would be butchered in the dead of winter.
When I reached employment age, Mother encouraged me to work Green Giant’s corn pack. Twelve-hour shifts in a wet and noisy plant tested both endurance and patience, which was only partially offset by the pay. For those reasons, I happily accepted friend Paul’s offer to make real money by baling winter wheat straw that Green Giant had no use for after raising grain. We would receive 20 cents per bale in return for supplying the baler, gasoline wagons, twine, and labor. We would earn plenty because we expected to harvest 1,000 bales.
We had — as youth tend to do — not accounted for expenses. The largest item was twine, which had shot up in price that year because of unexpected shortages. Market watchers warned that antifreeze would be hard to get, and its cost soared along with the price of gasoline.
History, to an extent, is repeating itself in 2020. Canning lids and jars are impossible to find just as the tomatoes are ready; yeast is difficult to find, as are shingles and siding. The supply chain, one expert says, is breaking down under the stress of coronavirus upheaval.
Profit proved not to be the ultimate reward for baling the straw. The grand total was 1,200 bales, with loaded hay racks that made it safely to the barn. We split the check and didn’t bother tallying the expenses.
“We should do it again next year,’’ Paul said as we celebrated with root beer purchased from the Le Sueur drive-in. We did not and never well. A few years ago, Paul collapsed and died near his pickup. His memory returns each August when I see a windrow of straw ready to be baled.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.