Thomas Jefferson: Founding Father of Failed Farmers.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Jefferson.jpg
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.

Swarm Catching vs. Coronavirus Catching

Sometimes life, like swarm season, comes at you fast. I caught my first swarm of the year on March 23rd. I got the swarm call right before a department head conference call concerning our county’s response to the coronavirus. As the head of our local Soil and Water Conservation District, a county department of two, I’m required to attend these meetings. To be honest, it’s not my favorite job responsibility, and I feel a little out of place with the county higher-ups who wear neckties and shiny shoes. For instance, once having spent too long providing technical assistance (official government term for chatting) at a dairy farm, I made it to the county department head meeting just in the nick of time, right before the county manager gave some important update, the details of which I currently don’t remember. Mostly, I remember the sight of the Register of Deeds and Library Director sniffing inquisitively, and the smell of cow manure wafting from my boot. But I digress.

On March 23rd, about ten minutes before a county department head teleconference (in lieu of a physical meeting because of coronavirus), Lowry, my wife’s poppaw and my next-door neighbor, called me and said one of my hives had swarmed–“a biggun in the crotch of an apple tree.” Admittedly, my swarm control previsions had been little to none this spring. The bees had been on the back burner, as my wife and I are expecting a baby, our first after nine years of marriage. According to my wife, I now have other priorities than beekeeping, like insulating walls of our old farmhouse to make sure our offspring has comfortable environs outside the womb. At the rate I’m going, I figure our child will be thirty-four by the time I finish this task.

img_0329
a never-ending project

Before Lowry’s call, I hadn’t thought much about the possibility of catching a swarm this early. Seemingly, all my brain could focus on was the possibility of catching coronavirus. But after Lowry’s excited dispatch, worries of catching coronavirus suddenly evaporated. The great philosopher Patrick McManus had his own theory for this phenomenon, a theory which he called the “worry-box” and summed up as follows: 

“I have this theory that people possess a certain capacity for worry, no more, no less. It’s as though a person has a little psychic box that he feels compelled to keep filled with worries. When one worry disappears from the box, he immediately replaces it with another worry, so the box is always full. He is never short of worries. If a new crop of worries comes in, the person sorts through the box for lesser worries and kicks them out, until he has enough room for the new worries. The lesser worries just lie around on the floor, until there’s room in the box for them again, and then they’re put back in.” (From The Good Samaritan Strikes Again)

Swarm catching had suddenly returned to prominence as the main worry in my worry box, displacing coronavirus-catching for the time being.

Of course, everybody who keeps bees knows that swarm calls always come at the worst time possible. For instance, there’s an old story that circulates about a beekeeper who got a swarm call an hour before his only daughter’s wedding. After weighing his options, the father made the only rational decision a beekeeper in his situation could. Since he didn’t have time to run home for his beekeeping stuff, he borrowed his daughter’s wedding veil.

Like that father, I solved my swarm dilemma with similar aplomb. I stuck in my earbuds, dialed into the teleconference on my cell phone, and hightailed it home to recapture my AWOL bees. I suppose many of us have recently learned the advantages of teleconferences–you can attend meetings in pajamas (or while swarm catching), plus the smell of manure doesn’t waft through the phone.

In any event, I’m happy to report that I did catch that swarm, a “biggun” as Lowry would say, and that for a while, even though I was dialed into a coronavirus teleconference, my mind was on something completely unrelated to COVID-19.

img_0092
My swarm of bees marching into box. I should have got a bigger box

Book Review: Rust: The Longest War.

At the library, I saw this book on an endcap, calling to me like a rusty tractor implement in the weeds. I couldn’t believe it: someone actually wrote a book, a whole full-length book, about rust–and a legit publisher, like Simon and Schuster, actually published it. I’m glad they did because Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman was an interesting read, though, full disclosure, I’ve invested a lot in rusty farm equipment over the years so I might be a little biased.

Apparently, rust is considered bad by most people who don’t enjoy working on broke-down farm machinery or getting tetanus shots. Also, from reading this book, I learned that most people don’t like rust-flavored drinks, which is why the formulas for aluminum can coatings are guarded like state secrets–that, and most can coatings contain BPA (a factoid that can companies want to keep under wraps). BPA is that pesky chemical that is probably doing bad things to my body right now because I drink entirely too many Diet Cokes straight from the can.

Anyway, this book has lots of rust-related stories. The author actually infiltrated Ball’s Can School (the company that makes Ball canning jars also makes most of the aluminum cans for drink companies, who woulda thunk?) in which drink industry people, most of whom are mustachioed, get together and learn about the complexities of aluminum cans.

The author also tells the story of the eccentric guy who created stainless steel and details a group of brave Department of Defense employees who saved taxpayers a lot of money by promoting rust prevention over rust repair. The author calls this group the “Rusketeers.” Kudos to Jonathan Waldman for thinking of rusketeers and writing a good read on rust.

“On a quiet night, you can hear a Ford rust.”

From Rust: the Longest War

My rusty Ford 4610.

Winter Guests

Decal-Ladybugs

Every winter, all the local ladybugs pack up their belongings and come visit for an extended stay. I’m not sure how they got our address, but word is out, “Ladybugs Welcome.” They act like they own the place. Yesterday, for instance, while I was in the shower, one flew in and slid down the tub wall. It bathed upside down in the bottom of the tub, waving its six little legs like it was having a good ole time trying not to drown. I rescued the hapless bug and gave it a stern lecture on the dangers of tub drains before releasing it back into the wilds of our house. For some reason, we’re okay with ladybugs crawling around. Once, a brave roach filed a discriminatory complaint, but after a ruling from my wife, the complaint was quashed and the complainer, squashed.

If roaches ever evolve into cute little bugs, we’re all in trouble. I mean, when was the last time you squashed a ladybug? Ladybugs are cunning that way. They wear pretty polka dots, eat garden aphids, and bring good luck–all deliberative moves meant to curry favor with humans. They’ve been so successful in their branding campaign that they convinced the Germans to design a car in their image.

Now they’re invading human abodes with no fear of reprisal. Currently, eight ladybugs are doing laps around the frame of our kitchen window. I’d let them out, but they’d just find a way right back in. They’ll leave in the spring without saying goodbye or thank you. In that regard, they’re distinctly unladylike.

Ladybug impression
This is my I-phone’s attempt to take a close up at one of the ladybugs crawling on the counter. Claude Monet would be proud.

Polecat-prone Areas

Looming threats are everywhere–earthquakes in California, tornadoes in the Midwest, floods down east. Even Shelby, City of Pleasant Living, is prone to its own form of natural disaster. Several years ago, I witnessed firsthand the horrible aftermath of one such tragedy–people coughing and gagging, eyes watering, and the horrified look in the owner’s eyes as he pointed to the exit. 

“Get out! Get out! No skunk clothes!” he said, rather unkindly. You know it’s bad when dry cleaners refuse that much business, my wife’s entire wardrobe, for fear of contaminating clothes of other customers. The epicenter for the stink bomb was our house, which registered a 9.6 on the rollover gagging scale. It was a night attack, right after a lightning bolt scared a skunk taking shelter in our crawlspace. We woke up coughing, lungs burning, dazed and confused.

skunk

 

By Hank Ketcham. From Sept. 22nd, 1978, Wisconsin State Journal

“Is the house on fire?” my wife said.

“No, that ain’t smoke,” I said. “That’s skunk.”

Throughout the next six months, we endured a lot of side-eye and upturned noses while out in public, but, with faith, we made it through our calamity and the smell eventually dissipated.

Over the years, we’ve had many more trials with skunks, and I’m pretty sure skunks are good candidates for world domination. As far as I can tell, they have no natural predators, save cars. So, if you live in polecat-prone areas, like Shelby, be careful out there–you never know when one might raise its tail.