Weeds: The Mud Days of April


Hopefully by the time you read this, we will be well through the Mud Days on our farm. The Mud Days fall in that period between frozen ground and when the Earth firms up. This year’s tardy spring and late sloppy snow means an extended season of mush.

Our yard becomes something akin to a swamp during the Mud Days. This comes as I want to be moving equipment around and prepping things for fieldwork. Chores that I put off when the weather outside was frightful are demanding attention. The Mud Days are among my least favorite days on the farm. I understand it’s a necessary part of getting from here to there on the calendar. It’s one of those in-between seasons; call it “sprinter.”

Of course, mud is simply the marriage of soil and water. We need soil. We need water. They are essential to our existence. Soil, rain, sun, seed are all ingredients in the dance that is farming or gardening. Mud has its place. But if you must walk across it or work on it, simple tasks become difficult ones.

Crossing the yard means struggling for control of one’s shoes, each step suctioning a shoe to the slop. Driving creates tire tracks deep enough to become an unintended part of the landscaping. A few times we have hired various Heiderschiedts to bring in yard-gravel and spread it around. (Around here, the Heiderscheidts are the people to call for anything that involves dirt.) That helps for a while, but after a while the prairie sloughs seek to reclaim their primordial home.

This is one of those times I am envious of my townie friends: sidewalks, streets, paved driveways, firm places to step. Their lawn might be spongy, but it’s not like living in the center of 200 acres of muck.

There is a certain age when children must get outside for the sake of their or their parent’s sanity. I remember during the Mud Days finding Abby casually walking around with one bare foot. Chasing the dog on the edge of the field, a boot was sucked into the ooze of black, wet soil and stayed there.

When we had horses a few years ago or cattle when I was younger, it was a challenge keeping animals clean and dry. A thousand-pound animal sinks in a long way before finding bottom in a muddy yard. Getting around can be a formidable task for them. My dad was always happy to get a little more of the cow yard cemented out as finances allowed.

Looking back on 40 years of farming, mud has been a constant adversary. It’s one thing to step carefully across the yard trying not to wreck your church shoes. It’s another to attempt to do fieldwork in mud.

This part of the northern corn belt has these amazing Glencoe, Cannisteo, and Webster soil types descended from prairie sloughs. These are among the most productive soils on the planet. Corn and soybeans love these soils. They are defined as “fine-loamy.” “Fine-loamy” is another word for “mud” when they are wet.

There is a portion of every growing season when we get too much rain. Most of Earth’s farmers worry about not enough rain; a lot of times I worry about too much. That’s an odd luxury if you look at the broad history of agriculture where drought is the betrayer of so many crops.

We have patchwork tiling on our farms, a little here, a little there. Ours are not the pattern-tiled fields that are becoming common, where every drop of water is accounted for and assigned its proper place. I have wet spots. I’ve known some of these for years; areas that are always ready to swallow my tractor like Abby’s boot. Sometimes I am surprised by a new spot, often an innocuous sidehill where some underground spring has sprung.

Too-short springs and too-short falls don’t help matters. There is a rule of thumb that agronomists use. If you can roll soil in your hands and it sticks together, stay out of the field. By that measure, there are years I wouldn’t plant till August. I have spent many days out in fields that were 95 per cent fit. But, oh, that other five per cent.

I have had every piece of equipment we own stuck at one time or another. These are not fun memories. The usual procedure is to use the next-biggest tractor to pull the stuck one out. There have been couple times when there was nothing bigger. That is when we call one of the afore-mentioned Heiderscheidts to bring out a stronger machine. If the Heiderscheidts ever got stuck, I’m not sure who I’d call next. The Army Corps of Engineers? NASA?

Like I said earlier, I know we must go through the Mud Days to arrive at glorious spring. There is a line from a depressing poem by Henry Longfellow called The Rainy Day that goes, “Into each life some rain must fall.” To borrow from Henry, into each life some mud must ooze.

The word “mud” is one of those words that describes by its sound: “mud,” “thud,” “dud” plop out of your mouth, onto the table. Mud can be a good metaphor, too. We talk about muddying the waters. Those are times we don’t quite get things right, when we make things messier than they need to be. Maybe we’re just sloppy; maybe we’re completely stuck like my tractor and need somebody to pull us out.

Mud makes an appearance in the New Testament. It is one of those wonderfully vivid moments when we can see Jesus in our mind. In John 9, Jesus meets a blind man. His disciples ask whose sin caused the man’s misfortune. Jesus says no one’s sin caused it and that his blindness is to show the glory of God. Then He says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

“When He had said these things, He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the mud. And He said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’ So he went and washed, and came back seeing.”

The Mud Days will pass. Spring will come. All glory to God.