What you can't see from the road

Even if the crops or the cattle look good from the road, looks can be deceiving. And it might just be a good reminder not to spend too much time thinking about your neighbor's fields.

No matter how good things look from the road, the reality might be more complicated, Jenny Schlecht says. Erin Ehnle Brown / Grand Vale Creative LLC

"Those fields actually look really good," my 9-year-old said from the backseat.

My response was an eloquent "eh," but in reality, she wasn't wrong. The fields of soybeans we were passing looked, from the road, lush and green, and while you can make out the straight rows, you can't see the ground beneath the canopies.

Though we haven't raised soybeans since she's been old enough to be aware of things around her, Reanna is enough of a farm kid to know that those fields look better than some closer to our house, where in the high spots the leaves are yellowing and you see more soil than you do plant.

The drought is on everyone's mind, it seems, right down to the soon-to-be fourth grader in my car. It's all we talk about, and none of us seem to be able to stop analyzing the pastures and the fields we pass, both our own and others.

But sometimes, we forget what we can't see from the road.


In this case, I'm pretty sure if we had gotten out of the car and got closer, the pods hanging on those soybean plants likely were smaller than usual and may actually have been at least partially hollow. (I'm no soybean expert; that's what we're hearing from agronomists and farmers in our reporting.) They may look good, but they're badly in need of the rain we really haven't had since June.

When I drive east, I find myself grumbling, at least a little, that people that direction have the audacity to complain about the drought. The corn in many places along the interstate stands strong and tall, tassels and cobs on every stalk.

Around our area, the corn may be tall in the low spots — though shorter than a normal year — but is stunted on the hills. Some didn't tassel. There are quite a lot of cobs, but they may be a third the size of normal or maybe even smaller.

So, I start to think: That's what the drought looks like.

But then, I drive a little northwest of our place, and even in the low spots the corn barely made it past knee high and it's all the wrong color of green and the few tassels stick out like sore thumbs. So, I think, our fields look pretty darn good.

The truth is, you can't really see from the road what's going on at any farm or any house or any yard. Maybe those tall, strong-looking corn stalks are only going to yield half of what they should. You can't tell at 75 mph and 200 yards away.

And, to extend that a bit, you can't tell whether that "new" tractor the neighbors have is really new or has a dented fender and 4,000 hours on it. You can't tell whether that field should have had twice as many bales. Just because you can see that the neighbors' trucks are loaded down with grain doesn't mean they aren't still struggling to make ends meet. Just because the kids playing outside at that farm look like they're getting along better than yours ever will doesn't mean they aren't screaming at each other, just out of your earshot.

We can't tell from a distance what someone's fields will yield or whether that will make a difference in their lives. We can't see inside their lives and know for certain what's happening.


May this present drought be a reminder to be a little kinder, a little less judgmental, a little more humble. We can't see the struggles others might be having from the road, any more than they can see ours.

To read more of Jenny Schlecht's The Sorting Pen columns, click here.

Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at or 701-595-0425.

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at or 701-595-0425.
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