Never Walk Behind Pepper

For those who’d like to donate to a worthy charity, may I suggest the MFTTF, the Misfit Farmer’s Tractor Tire Fund. All contributions go directly to my bank account, which has been depleted this summer by the disintegrating structural integrity of rubber on my farm. It’s got to the point that I now look at the Amish’s horse-drawn implements with envy, and I have a lifelong fear of horses. 

Of course, my wife dismisses equinophobia. Years ago, when we purchased her old family farmstead, she was actually excited that Ringo, a Missouri Foxtrotter, was thrown in for free and ridiculed my general life philosophy that “All horses should be feared, and free horses should be feared always.” 

Haunting me were childhood memories of my cousins’ lunatic steeds: Red, Pepper, and the pony (I forget the pony’s name, though its memories are largely the most traumatic). But I do remember the pony rearing and galloping full speed toward a barbed wire fence with my wailing cousin atop. She looked like a miniature Annie Oakley. At one point, her cowboy hat, attached by chinstraps, fully deployed like a parachute and was the only thing slowing the runaway pony. Soon thereafter, my cousin toppled off the side, and the pony skidded to halt in front of the fence, which at that point was the best possible outcome.

I’m not sure whatever happened to that pony—I lost touch with it after it nearly killed my cousin, but I suspect it was probably donated to another family who needed a good free pony.

Unlike the pony, Big Red and Pepper occasionally proved trustworthy enough for excursions outside their pasture. Though I have no particular horror stories of Pepper, the frequent warning “Never walk behind Pepper” still reverberates in my mind. So much so, the pepper shaker stays hidden in a cabinet, lest I walk past the kitchen table and flinch. 

Once, my family took Pepper and Big Red on a horseback-riding trip to Sugar Loaf Mountain. Sugar Loaf was really more mound than mountain, but being in the coastal plain where everything was flat, the abnormal increase in elevation achieved mountain status. I viewed much of the surrounding countryside while performing a full split atop Big Red who was intent on wandering wherever he pleased, his jockey experiencing too much paralysis to control the reins. To continue his journey unencumbered, Red eventually reared up and dropped me off on a pine tree. 

I’ve never been on a horse since, but at this point horse shoes seem a lot cheaper than tractor tires.  

How To Be A Virtuous Farmer

Nobody ever said an ill word against Hal Stone, at least initially. Hal was just a meager produce farmer trying to survive. Of course, the whole community knew he was slinging pea stone with his fertilizer spreader to mimic the damage of a hail storm. What really led to the downfall of Hal’s reputation in the farming community was his honesty. Once caught by the insurance adjuster, Hal spilled the beans on all the other farmers doing the same, at which point everybody realized Hal was the worst kind of farmer, an honest one. 

Though still considered a virtue in some professions, honesty was long ago abandoned by farmers as a vestige from nomadic days. Today being an honest farmer is about as useless as being an honest fisherman. Farming and fishing stories inherently need some stretching of the truth, or else they would just be factual reports about crops growing slowly and fish not biting (for some funny fishing stories and just plain funny stories, check out Earl the Miscreant’s blog. He writes some of the funniest around). 

Certainly, honesty isn’t conducive to proper agricultural exaggeration, which was once taught through rote memorization of tables. Take, for instance, a farmer who grew 120 bushels of corn per acre. He could simply remember his corn exaggeration table and safely inflate the number to 140 bushels per acre in casual conversation, with no worry of a double-take. The other participants in the conversation were likely also educated in exaggeration and knew to mentally deflate the number back to 120 bushels, with no need to openly acknowledge the embellishment. Indeed, everybody understood the etiquette of conservational exaggeration. 

Of course, farmers had to memorize many exaggeration tables–for farm size, head of cattle, rain gauge readings, tractor horsepower, truck towing capacity, hay bales put up, just to name a few. Occasionally careless errors occurred when a farmer mixed up tables and uttered something slightly embarrassing like, “I got a full inch of rain under the hood.”

Though honesty is no longer needed, other virtues are still required to farm, including patience, perseverance, resourcefulness, and a good work ethic. Though merely lacking in most of these, I’m completely deficient in the most important virtue, a big bank account, which means I’m a wretched farmer at best. Wendell Berry sums it up  nicely, “You have to be too rich to farm before you can afford to farm in my county.”

Don’t get wrong, I have tried to increase my moral capacity to farm by thoughtfully bribing the loan agent (I wanted a cab tractor). Unfortunately, when I saw the pile of watermelons and cantaloupes on the floor behind the loan agent’s desk, I knew immediately I miscalculated by relying on old agricultural bribe tables. Apparently, the going bribe rate has increased with inflation and is now substantially more than a brown bag of homegrown tomatoes. Needless to say, I’m still riding around morally depraved in ambient atmospheric conditions–no cab, no air condition, no canopy, not a single luxury. 

How to Destroy Things on a Farm

Under duress from my wife, who believes hiking through a hay field to reach the mailbox is an undue burden, I fixed the lawn mower again. It still has a perpetually flat tire that I have to pump up every time I cut grass and the oil hasn’t been changed in a few years, but it hasn’t self-destructed yet, which is a real shame. Don’t tell my wife this, but I’ve been hoping it explodes so I can get a new zero-turn. 

I’ve tried everything I know to hasten its final destruction, but it just won’t die. I set the cutting deck to putting-green height and mowed a rock pile. Tried watered-down gas mixed with floating debris, but the pistons just keep pumping. Washed it and left it drying by the road, hoping criminals would pass by and steal it, but none bit. Or if they did steal it, they brought it right back after hearing the engine run. 

Usually, I’m pretty proficient at destroying things, so much so my wife pleads with me to take better care of our belongings–as if I don’t take great care in repairing things I break. In fact, you can barely see the rubber cement I used to fix her platter. Plus, it wasn’t my fault the platter was so easily accessible. The way I see it, if the platter was off limits, it shouldn’t have been front and center in the china cabinet. Did she think the hot dogs were going to carry themselves to the grill?

Last week, it just so happened that I destroyed the bush hog. Really, a rock destroyed it. The rocks in these parts grow really fast, and you never know when a new one will hit a growth spurt and expand. It happens all the time, which is annoying because the rock/blade impact usually shears the shear bolt. You would think bush hog manufacturers would be smart enough to spot such an obvious engineering flaw as a shear bolt, shear bolts being so soft and easily severed. Engineers have little common sense, though. I easily remedied the problem by replacing the shear bolt with a grade-eight bolt made of impenetrable steel. Since that quick fix, I’ve yet to shear a bolt again. If it wasn’t for hitting that blasted rock last week, the bush hog would be running like a top. But repairs take time, and it just so happens that welding back together a shattered universal joint is much more difficult than replacing a shear bolt.

the ole universal joint welded back together–looks just like new.

Once you’ve destroyed something, to fix it, see my informative post: How to Fix Stuff on a Farm.

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.