Roadside ditches are starting to cloak themselves in fall colors. A wild turkey leads its late-hatched brood to safety in the ditch and then to cover in a thirsty corn field. Soybeans, whose yields are in large part made in August, are also in desperate need of a three-day soaker. Weather forecasters say none is in the offing as the sky is dirtied by Western and Canadian wildfires.
Concerns about crops and COVID are writ large. Of microscopic importance is what’s happening outside our own front door. A few corn stalks planted by squirrels have grown past knee high in the jungle that is the flower garden. The corn has been left as a token to a farming past. The milkweed grown to benefit Monarch butterflies has gone to seed and are easily toppled by a southern wind.
The tomato crop, which was so promising in July, has been hard hit by end rot — a problem that had previously been unknown. People who know much more than me explained that end rot is self-inflicted problem. It is caused when the plants are watered too frequently. It’s best to saturate the soil just once a week.
Even the best of intentions can lead to bad results. Dad learned that years before when we hauled chicken manure out to a field that later would be planted to soybeans.
By early July, the rows were infested in button weeds and cockleburs, with the former blamed on the poultry manure. My brother and I were tasked with weeding, which meant moving along each row on hands and knees because there was little sense in standing only to kneel again.
We estimated 1,000 button weeds per row, which, if rewarded with a penny a stalk, would have amounted to a king’s ransom. No pay — other than three meals a day, a bed, and a ride to church — was forthcoming. A next-door neighbor boy was much more financially rewarded.
His Dad paid him to drive the baler tractor and to fetch cows from the pasture. He refused to milk the cows because it was beneath his highfalutin dignity. I was dumbfounded at his right of refusal. I was tempted, but not sufficiently brave, to try it with father, given his response might be akin to a thunderstorm.
Unlike my brothers, I liked milking cows with the Surge pockets that were many years older than I was. The barn radio, when Dad helped, was often tuned to a Twins game. When he was not around, the dial was turned to WDGY, an AM rock-n-roll station out of the Twin Cities. The station cut power at sunset, which meant the dial went to WCCO-AM, which at the time carried the best farm and national news and sports programming.
Maynard Speece offered farm news and teamed with Charlie Boone and Roger Erickson for laughs; Howard Viken was softer spoken and more serious; Steve Cannon and his characters Ma Linger, Backlash Larue and Morgan Mundane were fun.
The youngest of 12 children, I served a dual purpose — a barn and field worker but also my mother’s helping hand. All my sisters were married, and household upkeep was hers alone. Dad said my help was expected to be given without complaint, even if it involved home-sewn braided rugs on the close line, dusting, picking berries and ground cherries, and chasing chickens from the garden.
A wiser boy might have learned a great deal about horticulture if he had paid attention. Instead, it was the most boring tasks imaginable. Someday, she insisted, I might appreciate it so much more.
I did not believe it then, but I do now. Mother was the most hard-working person I have ever known. The demands of weekly clothes washing, bread baking, fruit picking, weeding, and sewing were never ending. All the while, she worked overtime to teach her children right from wrong, and patiently listened to my complaints.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.