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What it takes to be a farmer

I tell people I didn’t become a farmer because I wasn’t very good at it. That’s not quite true.

I didn’t become a farmer because I couldn’t have stood up to the uncertainties and gambles of farming. I’d have been afraid to make a move, every single day. That makes me sound like a wimp, though, so I just say I wasn’t good at farming. Actually, I was pretty good at the working stuff.

I could mow alfalfa from the time the morning dew began to shake itself off the purple flowers until the setting sun cast long, low, dust-speckled rays across the land. I could stack hay from get up to hit the sack. And I could scoop wheat or oats or cracked corn with anybody. Well, not my dad. He was Lyman County’s version of John Henry, the steel-driving man.

I wasn’t perfect. I left ragged patches of uncut alfalfa in the field corners. I built hay stacks that were more than a bubble off vertical. And I could lose my concentration shoveling grain and smack the side of the truck box with a big old scoop full of cracked corn. When the corn rattled against the edge of the feed bunk instead of into it, my dad would pause, shake his head and say, “That kid.’’ He didn’t have to say it very loud.

My dad never missed with a scoop of grain, not ever. I’d have put him up against anybody in the county for emptying a truckload of grain. I’d have put him up against anybody in the county at just about any farm chore. He never lifted a weight in his life. He wouldn’t have understood this business of going to a gym to work out. And yet, he had a back like a side of beef, shoulders that resembled a small mountain range and forearms the size of my thighs.

I never tire of telling the story of the time I struggled with a stubborn, rusty nut on the cultivator. I worked the wrench like mad. Dad walked over, eased me aside and twisted the thing off with his fingers. It must have been a fluke. I must have fought with the nut so long that it was just about to break loose. I told myself that for a long time, but I never quite believed it. What I know is, my dad took a nut that I couldn’t budge with a box-end wrench and twisted it free with his bare hand. That’s a guy who was cut out for farming, or just about anything else. I wasn’t that kind of guy.

What I’m saying is, I was competent but not excellent at the chores involved in being a farmer. I think I was as good, maybe a little better, than most people who would have just walked in off the township road. And for $5 a day, I was a bargain in the work force. OK, that $5 a day included room, board and help with college tuition. The room wasn’t much, but the meals my mom made were tremendous. The tuition aid helped me earn a journalism degree and a career with no heavy lifting.

The reason I wasn’t cut out to be a farmer, as I said, was: I couldn’t have put up with the uncertainty of the business. I couldn’t have gambled everything year after year to plant crops and raise cattle and feed chickens, with absolutely no guarantee that I wouldn’t lose it all. If I would have lost it all, I couldn’t have taken a deep breath, visited the banker and started over again, “another day older and deeper in debt,’’ as Tennessee Ernie Ford sang of coal miners in his classic “16 Tons.’’ I wasn’t cut out for that kind of gambling.

I used to play poker with a few of the other guys in the college dorm. We played with matchsticks. When we won, we won matchsticks. When we lost, we lost matchsticks. I’d sit there with a couple of jacks, watch the pile of matchsticks build in the middle of the desktop and fold. “Too rich for me,’’ I’d say. You think farming would have been a proper calling for a guy afraid to lose a couple of matchsticks? And in those days, matches were free in little bowls at most cafes and taverns.

I cherish my memories of farm days. I admire the men and women who stick with the business. I just didn’t have it in me.

 Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Chamberlain, S.D.

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Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Chamberlain, S.D.

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