The poetry of farming and conversing with the past

"Dad would scoff at the suggestion that he was a poet. It is nearly impossible to see that pulling a breached calf, castrating hogs and pitching manure from a bullpen could be poetic."

The subtle beauty of farming has inspired many poets, though not all farmers see the poetry in the utility of their work, Mychal Wilmes says. Erin Ehnle Brown / Grand Vale Creative LLC

The fertile fields and pastures of North Dakota and Minnesota have birthed farmer-poets who speak of their unbreakable bond with the soil, livestock and nature.

Farmers are to an extent dreamers, visionaries whose ultimate purpose is to pass their land and livestock on to next generation.

Dad would scoff at the suggestion that he was a poet. It is nearly impossible to see that pulling a breached calf, castrating hogs and pitching manure from a bullpen could be poetic.

Dad was a provider and not a poet. There was so little time for anything else. Driving dairy steers from the depleted pasture to the lot where they would be slowly fattened on ground corn and silage, waiting for freshened cows to boost the milk check, and anticipating when hogs fed ear corn reached market weight buoyed his spirit.

The aroma of silage fermenting in the uncapped stave silo hung in the air on still October nights when a billion stars glistened in a quarter-moon sky. During these times thoughts of heaven came easy. Grandmas and Grandpas were among the stars along with a daughter who died far too young. Angels and saints who earned their eternal rewards.


Dad, with his wife always at his side, raised 12 children on a few acres, 20 cows, a small hog herd, and laying hens. His sons worked hard, although their wayward ways earned belt-whipping threats. His daughters brought home beaus for inspection. If they did not balk at horseradish on ham, they passed muster.

Polkas popularized by Whoopie John Wilfahrt, the Six Fat Dutchman, Frankie Yankovic, and lesser lights played past midnight on wedding nights. As every dairy producer knows, Holsteins produce more listening to polka than Rock n’ Roll and Country Western (except for classics from Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves).

There certainly would be other weddings, and for that matter, other harvests.

Despite aches and pains, Dad was sure of that and so was his youngest son. It was a shock then when the last September came. Picking up the pieces was not easy.

His 20-something son struggled with that, recalling more often than he wanted our final conversation, which was more argument than talk. Ah, but there would be time come tomorrow to straighten things out.

I am close to his last age and feel his aches and pains.

The other night when the sky was lit by a billion stars and angels danced in the heavens, I conversed with him once again. It seems obvious these many years later that it was miraculous that he and she clothed and fed all of us. He should have been told that many years before. However, a young man lacks the wisdom to state the obvious.

We talk a little longer about massive combines and dairy operations milking 1,000 cows. Mother joins the conversion to ask about how the garden turned out. The onions are dry in the basement, tomatoes have been canned along with peaches. It is good for the soul when hands work in the dirt.


Audrey Kletscher Helbing, a native of Vesta in southwest Minnesota, is a skilled poet who wrote “The Farmer’s Song.’’

“Out of rote he follows the path from house to barn, steel-toed boots beating a rhythm upon the earth, into his land which claims his soul.

He reaches for the paint-chipped handle, his grease-stained fingers connecting with the metal-like hammer to nail in the movements of his day.

Farming defines the lyrics of his life written upon his hands that have measured yields, directed tractors, pitched manure, stroked calves, performed seasons of backbreaking labor.

Inside the shed, as he latches wrench to bolt, he ponders the final verses of his years, the songs he’ll sing when age frays his memory, grips his hands in a hallelujah chorus.’’

To read more of Mychal Wilmes' Farm Boy Memories, click here.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.

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