Thomas Jefferson: Founding Father of Failed Farmers.

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TJ: just another yeoman farmer.

In celebration of July Fourth, let us remember Thomas Jefferson–founding father and author of the Declaration of Independence. By writing such a highfalutin document, however, Jefferson nearly outdid himself and overshadowed his greatest accomplishment, achieving the distinction as Virginia’s worst farmer.

Among neighboring farmers, the joke was Jefferson couldn’t even grow oats and thus merely fed his horses philosophy. This explained his horses’ poor condition. Jefferson’s friend Margaret Bayard Smith wrote, “He is a great agriculturalist and horticulturalist in theory, but practically, I imagine, he knows little of any cultivation, but that of flowers, of which he is extremely fond.”

The Danger of Mimicking a Master

Locals pretty much say the same about me. One farmer even called me “a great agricultural ignoramus.” Like Jefferson, I’m generally not good at growing anything but flowers or plants that end with the suffix -weed. At growing those two things, I excel.

Over the years, I’ve thought about writing important stuff like Jefferson. In fact, in college I started writing a serious epic poem in iambic pentameter called “My Grandma’s Pond,” but gave up when I couldn’t think of a good rhyme for the line, “Into the wind, I cast my plastic worm.”

If I wrote something as earth-shattering as the Declaration of Independence, I’d run the danger of people forgetting my bumper pigweed crop of 2016. Truth be told, I’d be sad if local farmers didn’t slap me on the back and ask, “How’s your pigweed looking this year?” 

When we bought the farmstead from my wife’s poppaw, I should have realized that Lowry was up to something. Right after we signed the closing documents, he leapt in the air and kicked his heels together. Little did I know at that point, Lowry had just offloaded his pigweed problem on me, his grandson-in-law. Pigweed had the farm besieged, and I soon found myself fighting an endless war to beat it back. In 2016, I grew such a great stand of pigweed you could barely spot a soybean. The feat won me the unofficial title as the county’s worst farmer.

Last year, however, I nearly goofed and grew a good crop of soybeans. If it wasn’t for a late summer drought, I would have had to scramble to keep my title as our county’s worst farmer. Recently, I’ve gotten a lot of competition from upstarts. One family rented a livestock trailer from the local farm supply. They forgot to secure the trailer’s door and let two cows roam a busy intersection.

Breakthroughs in Agricultural Theory

Pigweed: also known as the Devil Incarnate

Since buying the farm, I have, like Jefferson, studied up on agricultural theory and devised some promising methods for combating pigweed. For conventional farmers who are okay using agricultural chemicals, I recommend getting your hands on a barrel napalm. Since I’m nearly certain pigweed seeds can’t survive temperatures over 1000°F, I believe firebombing a field would be an effective way to eradicate pigweed.

For organic farmers, options are more-limited, but I believe procuring a small nuclear device (plutonium being all-natural) would suffice. According to my calculations, a small nuclear blast would release enough radiation to eradicate pigweed for several square miles. However, this method also runs the risk of causing pigweed to mutate and morph into a super-villain. Such a development could make farming in the future more difficult, even for the best farmers.

Anyway, enough nonsense. Happy July Fourth!

(FWIW, the internet believes Thomas Jefferson was an INFJ. You can read more about the INFJ propensity for farming failures in my post Farming Personality Types.)

Inheritable Farming Traits

I wonder if anyone ever studied the SPF value of grease and barn grime. Early in the summer, sometimes I look down at my arms and think that I’ve finally gotten my seasonal farmer’s tan, only to have the grimy patina wash off in the shower. But after a day drilling soybeans, I’ve gotten it this year; from the bottom of my shirtsleeves down, the brown color isn’t washing off.

home grown

My wife tells me I need to wear sunscreen. I try to, but most of the time I forget. I know one day I’m going to regret not wearing any, but secretly I’m kind of proud of my farmer’s tan. I may not be good at growing crops, but I can grow a first-rate farmer’s tan, and that counts for something.  I’ve got an even and well-distributed tan on all exposed surfaces (A farmer riding around and around on a cabless tractor is the human equivalent of a chicken turning on a rotisserie).  

My wife and I are bracing for our first child–June 30th is the scheduled date of arrival–and we’re hoping the baby has my skin complexion and ability to tan, my curly hair, my wife’s nose and generally, well, her whole face. We also hope the baby has ten fingers and ten toes, though we aren’t picky as to whom the digits take after. Admittedly, a lot of farmers around here are missing a finger, and I worry there might be a local genetic anomaly at play.

To be honest, I know very little about baby humans. And most of what I do know comes from my wife’s corrections. I know I shouldn’t use the term “scours,” especially in the presence of doctors and nurses, when referring to loose baby patties. I know I shouldn’t dip the umbilical cord in iodine–the doctor will handle that.

milk replacer

I know the correct term for store-bought baby milk is “formula,” not “milk replacer.” To be honest, I nearly fell over when I saw how expensive milk replacer was at the grocery store. For a much better price, I told my wife I could get a 50-pound bag of milk replacer at the farm supply. That’s when she said the correct term was “formula,” and that I couldn’t feed our baby Purina milk replacer.

Then, when we got to the baby bottle section of the aisle, my wife did that weird thing where she reads my mind. “No,” she said, before I could say a word, “you can’t use the calf bottles in the barn to feed our baby either.”

“But they hold a lot more than those bottles,” I said. “Using those dinky little things, we’d have to feed our baby more than twice a day.”

She just glared at me, like she does when I make a good point. Now that I think of it, I hope our baby has my ability to make good points.

Bottle3

How to Communicate with Loggers

Farmers and loggers have long been rivals. As a government soil conservationist, I’ve been trained for effective communication with both groups. With loggers, I communicate in plain speech, with simple questions like, “Hey, buddy, you been sleeping on the job?” Sometimes they don’t understand, just glare and shake their head.

Despite limited comprehension, loggers always strike me as some of the most thoughtful and cerebral storytellers around. There’s often a lot of math in their stories, particularly concerning the angle of a leaning tree, the tree’s rate of descent once severed, and the top speed of a soil conservationist in steel-toe boots. Occasionally, they also get philosophical with quips like, “If a tree falls on a government employee’s truck and no one’s around to hear the horn, does the truck make a sound?”

Loggers love nature and tell lots of stories about snakes, hornets’ nests, and cornered wildcats. One logger told me about the time he put a large and beautiful specimen of copperhead in the county forest ranger’s truck. He never saw the forest ranger in the forest again, but he did run into him once at a bar, where the forest ranger picked up his tab, but hardly said a word otherwise. This shouldn’t reinforce the old stereotype that loggers are heavy drinkers; usually loggers just stumble upon liquor stills in the woods and feel duty-bound to dispose of the liquid contraband.

My grandfather was a logger, and I remember building forts out of logging debris, the smell of pine sap on my hands, and the sound of the skidder rumbling while I played blissfully in the woods nearby. Sadly, when I wax poetic about our common experiences, loggers always hurry back to work sharpening their chainsaws. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a logger to dull a chain on a nail or piece of barb-wire embedded in a tree. Nails show up so commonly on logging sites that on several occasions I’ve left a logging site only to soon thereafter hear a loud clunking noise and to find a nail in a tire’s sidewall. Being a government truck, it takes an act of congress to change the tire, and sometimes I’m forced to walk back to the logging site where the loggers welcome me with open arms, though sometimes the closed-fisted slaps on the back are rather rough for my liking. Still, boys will be boys, and it feels good to be included by loggers; not everyone is as kind to government employees. 

government employee deterrent.

Farmer Personality Types

It’s been raining a lot here, and the primary reason I dislike rain is because it’s wet. I hate being wet. It has something to do with the childhood trauma of my mom insisting I get clean. Getting clean was a huge waste of time because I’d just get dirty again the next day. Sometimes I tricked my mom by letting the shower run; meanwhile, I’d sit beside the shower and read a comic book until the mirror fogged up, which indicated an adequate amount of time had passed. Then I’d sprinkle a few drops of water on my head and presto–all clean!

When tomatoes took over the porch.

Perhaps my favorite reason to farm is the tan. Grease, oil, dirt, manure, and all-around general barn grime have a way of clinging nicely to farmers and giving our skin a natural patina. Back when I used to plant a half-acre of tomatoes each summer, my skin would be tinted green when I came in from picking. My wife would banish me to the shower, and the runoff would actually glow with chlorophyll, which was pretty neat. Seeing how dirty I can get shower runoff is now the only good reason I know of to plant a half-acre of tomatoes to pick myself. 

Truth be told, I hate being wet almost as much as I hate being cold. And if I’m wet and cold, I might as well be hot, which I abhor. You might think that someone who hates rain and temperatures hot and cold would be a pretty bad farmer, and you’d be right. But rest assured I’m a bad farmer not because of atmospheric predilections, but solely because of my personality. 

Recently I took the Myers-Briggs personality test, and the results confirmed my suspicions after ten years of trying to farm. It had a list of careers to avoid for my personality type, and “farmer” was at the top. If only I would have taken the test ten years ago, I would have saved myself a lot of misery (I’m thinking, just off the top of my head–the barbed fencing staple in my foot, an embarrassing wrestling match with a pig, and my personal record of twenty-three bee stings in one day.) 

According to the test, I’m an INFJ, or what’s known on the internet as a Creative Nurturer. According to said internet, INFJ is the rarest personality type (we’re not benefiting from the whole survival of the fittest thing) at a mere 2% of the general population. My research indicates few scientific surveys have been done of personality types at the sale barn, but my own anecdotal observations suggest very few Creative Nurturers leave the sale barn alive. Case in point, once I tripped and nearly fell off the catwalk and plummeted into the bovines below. Furthermore, I only know of one other possible INFJ in agriculture around here, and he works at a beet farm as a cult leader. If he walked into the sale barn, he’d probably be stoned to death.

So to sum up, the point here, of course, is I farm not because I’m genetically predisposed to be good at it, but because I don’t like taking showers. Being dirty makes me content, at least when I’m not hot, cold, or wet. 

What Myers-Briggs personality type are you? Is it a good fit for farming? Do you hate certain atmospheric conditions?

How to Fix Stuff on a Farm

Fixing stuff on the farm

It has come to my attention that one of the main responsibilities of farming is putting things back together, sometimes known colloquially as fixing stuff, which leads to the other main responsibility of farming–finding stuff to fix stuff. 

Finding stuff is a satisfying pastime, best enjoyed in the company of others. There’s no greater pleasure than shouting across a scrapyard, “Hey, I think I found something!” Over the years, my wife’s poppaw Lowry and I have spent many pleasant hours wandering the local scrapyard in search of the perfect piece of scrap. The chance to work in outdoor environs like a well-organized junk heap with birds chirping, heavy machinery roaring, and jagged metal gleaming is what draws many people to farming.

What also draws people to farming is a love of the land, and there’s nothing like landing a quarter-inch wrench from the disaster area that is my tool shed. Sometimes I forget to lock my tool shed, and I’m pretty sure that’s when my wife sneaks in there to play with my wrenches and forgets to put them back in their correct place, which is why she often finds my pocket wrench in the washing machine. 

Once you find the tools and materials needed to put something back in working order, then you just need to remember how you took the thing apart. Truth be told, it’s very simple to fix things, so to give the repair a sporting chance at failure, it’s best to reference only mental notes from taking the thing apart. Writing down the order in which the thing was disassembled is considered cheating–unless, that is, the written notes are promptly lost, in which case they become fair game for the process of fixing stuff by way of finding stuff. 

The final step after reassembly is to apply duct tape, JB Weld, or bailing twine. Then you can either call your neighbor to brag about your ingenuity and successful farm repair or, more likely, ask to borrow his equipment since your thing still isn’t working. 

A Glimpse into a Farmer’s Soul

There is nothing more intimate than climbing in another man’s work truck. It’s a glimpse into his soul. If only George W. Bush, instead of gazing into Putin’s eyes, would have gotten into Vladimir’s work truck, he would have known Putin was a dirty, no-good dictator, who couldn’t be trusted. As it is, we invaded Iraq instead of Russia, and consequently the current leader of the free world thinks injecting bleach is a good idea. Not that I haven’t thought the same once or twice, but that’s when I was really depressed because cattle prices plummeted, which, to be fair, occurred during the Obama administration. 

But enough politics, back to work trucks. I love a king cab, the filthier the better. It’s always revealing to see what’s left of the stimulants another man needed to stay awake and well-nourished on the farm: Mountain Dew bottles, crushed Red Bull cans, orange nab crumbs, honey bun wrappers. My truck is littered with M&M wrappers and Diet Coke bottles. My wife’s poppaw Lowry is eighty-four, and whenever he rides with me, he says I need to stop drinking that “dope.” Dope is what old timers here in the foothills call Coke. Unfortunately, many farmers have graduated to more hardcore substances. Sun Drop is a major problem now. Shelby, NC, is kidney stone capital of the world. 

But last year, I got into a farmer’s work truck and noticed something unusual. Instead of your normal farming essentials, like a tin of Skoal and a dip bottle, this farmer, James DeWalt, had a copy of Plato’s Republic sitting on the dash. I did a double take. “Why do you have Plato?” I asked.  

“To read,” he said, “the new combine has GPS-guided steering. You just gotta do the first round to set up the field boundary, and then the combine takes over and drives itself.”

“So you read Plato while combining?”

“Yeah, I’m trying to catch up on the classics now that I have all this leisure time riding around the field. I read Aristotle during corn harvest. ”

To be honest, I was really impressed. Who woulda thought Jim DeWalt was a man of such refined reading tastes? But that’s what a work truck can reveal. Personally, I always thought technology was making humans dumber. Take me, for example: I only know three phone numbers by heart–one is my own cell phone, one is the number to my childhood house (now inhabited by complete strangers), and one is 911. It’s sad that I don’t even know my wife’s number. She’s just speed dial number one. Thankfully, I don’t text much, so I can still write in complete sentences, but the calculator app has also destroyed  my ability to do longform division. 

working on combine

But if new technology can increase my reading time, I’m all for it because old technology has not. Several years ago, I spent $400 on on an old combine, an Allis Chalmers All Crop Harvester, but it breaks down every fourth round so I have little leisure time to enjoy anything while harvesting grain. But when I realized that for $400,000 I could have bought a combine that drove itself and allowed me to read the masters, I was smitten with envy. At least, I was until I read the following article in our local paper.

Come to find out, Jim fell asleep while reading Plato’s allegory of the cave and auto-steering malfunctioned. But despite making headlines, he had a good attitude about the mishap. He said if John Deere ever creates a combine that does laundry, he’ll be the first to buy.

How to Achieve Pet Status on a Hobby Farm

Raising bottle dairy steers is not for the faint of heart. As purchasable animals, they rival only goldfish in price and ability to keel over. I’ve seen healthy day-old Jersey calves sell for less than five dollars at the sale barn. I’ve never seen a day-old Jersey bring more than fifty dollars, which is top of the market and still a reasonable value, considering some goldfish can sell for hundreds of dollars per piece. I guess koi is good eating, probably best fried with hushpuppies.

three bottle calves in a barn stall.

Dairy breeds, however, produce a bony carcass, so most of the bigtime cattlemen don’t want anything to do with a Holstein steer, and they wouldn’t be caught dead with a puny Jersey steer on their farm. “There is more meat on a big deer,” they might say. These days cattlemen just want big beefy angus cows. This may seem rather discriminatory, but it works out in favor of some dairy steers. Many are destined for hobby farms where they live a life of leisure and get a lot of entertainment out of watching people play veterinarian. I think it’s a well-known fact among dairy steers that the way to achieve pet status on a hobby farm is to get as close to death as possible without dying and then let the farmer nurse them back to health.

We’ve raised a lot of bottle calves over the years. The ones we remember the most are the ones we nearly lost and somehow doctored back to the living. Oftentimes, they’re a little stunted afterwards, which works to their advantage cause they last longer on the farm. My philosophy with raising dairy steers is most of the work is upfront, so even if it takes longer to feed them out, it’s still worth it to recoup the time spent bottle-feeding and doctoring. We grow our own grain and run it through the old hammermill, so we don’t really have a shortage of feed.

Eventually, whenever we take the calves to the sale barn, the handlers always comment on how tame the steers are. “They’re just big pets,” I respond.

Then I walk the catwalk one last time. Though the paycheck is nice, I still hate to see them go.

a group of our steers on moving day.