Krzmarzick: Close to nature in a tractor seat

I grow crops, corn and soybeans like most farmers around here. I prepare the ground in the spring, plant seeds, nurture plants through the summer, and harvest in the fall. I try to walk my fields often, digging in the soil, looking closely at plants. In these moments I am not much different than a couple thousand years of farmers before me. I’ve always thought of it as gardening on a large scale.

Truth be told, most of my time in the fields is spent about four feet in the air, behind an engine. That would be on a tractor seat. While I like to think of myself as a “gardener,” I am in reality more of a “machine operator.” That is farming in this era. My goal is to keep those plants down there on the ground healthy and productive, but the large majority of my time is on a tractor well above them.

Farmers work in and with nature. But nature can feel distant when you get off the combine to kneel and check the ground behind you. The engine is roaring, propelling multiple chains and belts to turn, driving dozens of bearings and shafts. Plants growing in soil are an amazingly complex natural system. But in that moment, the howling machine disguises that.

Farmers have used tools since the first farmer used a stick to dig in the dirt. These tractors and implements are my tools. They are big expensive tools that demand a lot of investment and resources. Having the right size and quality (not too big and expensive, not too little and cheap) and having them work when you need them is a key to success for a farmer.

Tools are an extension of us. Regardless whether it is a $15 shovel or a $250,000 tractor with field cultivator, it is extending the work of our hands. They are the intermediary between farmer and farmed. It’s important to not let yourself be too separated from the soil. Farmers know they need to get off that machine from time to time to see that the work is done correctly.

When I am not driving one of our tractors, I am likely to be working on machinery. I am not so skilled as to tear apart an engine, but I do a lot of maintenance and simple repairs. I learned early on that not paying loving and doting attention to the machines in my life was a formula for trouble.

You get to know these metal creatures intimately. You have a “relationship” with them and know their quirks and idiosyncrasies. It’s not too different from a marriage in that you learn it is best not to ignore small warning signs. If your wife gives you a certain look, you better find out what’s wrong. In the same way, if your tractor sounds different or there is a bit of oil somewhere, it’s not likely to get better on its own.

In the spring and fall, I begin work days full of grease and oil, along with a skinned knuckle or two. It’s not glamorous work and I look like a slob. Too often, there’s a bump on my head acquired crawling in, under, and around whatever I’m working on.

The fuel to run the machines is a significant number in our budget. There is diesel fuel and gasoline. In addition, electricity goes to run the motors on the augers and myriad power tools we have. All of that power comes from outside energy sources. Most of it comes from below the ground (oil, coal). Gradually some is shifting to renewable sources that come from above the ground (biofuels, solar, wind).

Only a few generations ago all the power to produce crops came from organic sources. “Organic” in this case means the farmer himself and animals. That is how my father farmed as a young man. You can still see farming with horses here and there: some of the Amish, antique farm shows, and a few scattered farmers on the periphery of the Midwest.

A few of these remain from the back-to-the-land movement of the Sixties. That was made up of well-intentioned, mostly citified young people who wanted to farm. They had one thing in common; they all read Wendell Berry’s books. I discovered those, too, in college.

Berry is a poet and writer from Kentucky. He grew up on a small tobacco farm in the Depression. His parents wanted their children to get an education, and Wendell went to school at a time not many kids did. As a young man he taught writing and literature at Stanford and New York University. Then there came the opportunity to come back home to farm and write.

His book “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture” should still be required reading by ag students. Even though I am a purveyor and mostly a proponent of modern agriculture, the analysis and criticism of how we got here in “The Unsettling of America” deserve attention.

Wendell wrote eloquently in several essays about farming with draft horses. It seemed quite idyllic and pastoral: the smell of freshly turned earth, the sound of birds in nearby trees, the clomping of the majestic horses. That always stuck in my mind, although I suspect Wendell made enough money writing that a profit from the farm was secondary.

The first spring after I came home to farm with my dad Sylvester we were working on the planter. I asked him about farming with horses. I remember he made faces as he described the difficult physical work and the not always cooperative animals. It seemed like Wendell Berry’s experience was different than his.

Then I offered that I had thought about getting a couple horses and using them to put in a small field, maybe oats or wheat. We still had a single gang disc back in the grove that could be restored to duty. He looked at me and said something like, “What, are you nuts!?” There may have been a stronger word or two mixed in.

Some decades later, I never did replace any of the mechanical horsepower with horses. I can’t hear the birds sing, but I do have a tractor radio.