I farmed almost sixty years. Just gave it up a few years ago. It changed a lot over that time. What the machines can do now we wouldn’t have dreamed of back when I started. We had just come through drought, years of drought. Tough years. A lot of people got out. I started farming right when the rain came back, when the war started and the prices came back. And I had good sense of what to take advantage of and what not. Some farmers, they were stubborn old guys. Didn’t like the new planters, the new combines. They survived, but they were always just getting by.
The machines that came in, you could cover four, five, six times the acreage my father had. Planters. Combines. My father used to tinker with the old tractor a little bit, when I was growing up. We didn’t have the machines like now that can pull themselves. Now the machines are as much the farm as the dirt you’re plowing. That’s the rhythm of the farm now, especially up here with the long winter. Working the soil from the late Spring to the early. And the rest of the year is working the machines so they’re ready to run the next year. That’s what I do a lot in the winter. Work out in the shed, taking apart all the fittings, the hoses, the shafts, the rotors, the cylinders. It’s amazing how it all fits together and works. So many moving parts and they all work together perfectly. The last ten years or so now they’ve got these computers in there, too. They help you regulate things even more finely — the speed, putting things in the soil just right. I always thought I could do the thinking around here. If I wasn’t going to be the brains behind the machine, why have it? But my son says it helps him with his yields. Can’t argue with that. He’s farming a thousand acres more than I ever did. I guess he knows something.
This is not for everyone though. Five kids, I thought more of them would stay and take it up. I gave them all the chance for an education and they run off. We have a little colony of Engels down in the Twin Cities, the three who didn’t want to stay. Only two of them even wanted to try it, and only one of them was ever gonna do it. Carl’s a good farmer, he’s done well. Mike was a different story, even though he’s stayed up here. I think he wanted to be a farmer more than anyone. He liked the idea, though, more than the work. Since he was a young kid, he was always out in the garden, working the dirt. He had that half of it down pretty good. We had the best garden anywhere around this country. Always grew more than we could can, too. Never had any trouble giving away tomatoes or beans or squash, even though everyone else was growing them too.
Mike knew the summer part of farming well. The growing part. Problem was, that isn’t really the work any more. You have to be master to the machines. You can’t let them master you. He wasn’t so handy with the machines, all the maintenance to do in the winter. Winter came and he’d beg off helping. Wanted to sit in the house and read. Always reading, that kid. I’d say, what you need to read is the manual to this combine. He could never seem to understand how all the parts worked together. You have to be able to understand the whole thing or else you never get your equipment adjusted right to do the job. And then you end up with a disaster of a harvest, y’know? You don’t get half out of a field what you should. Sometimes I think he could have been a farmer a hundred years ago, when my great great grandfather was farmer in Russia. Our family all came here from a town in Russia, down near the Black Sea. A lot of the German families around here did. We’ve been farmers a long time. I think Mike would have liked that life, at least in some ways. I’m not always sure he’d have liked how hard it was. You’ve got to roll with the changes. The work is different from what my father did. You have to learn the new things, figure out how it can help you.
But he’s done well, Mike. Teaches science in town. Still has that knack for planting. Doesn’t really have a yard, just a big garden. He brings us things from his garden in the summer, or jars in the winter. Still the best tomatoes and beans and corn you can get around here. Still excited about growing. He teaches that at the high school. That’s what he does well, is teach. Gets kids excited about farming. A lot of good farmers from around here have come from his class.
I was lucky to grow up with this. It’s a good life. Getting up and out of the house, lots of good open land every direction. You can see the sun wherever it’s coming up. I don’t sit in an office under an electric light like so many people. And I got to do that for sixty years.