Along the edge of U.S. Highway 18 between Pine Ridge and Martin in southwestern South Dakota stands a sign that reads “Bennett County Soil Conservation District.’’
I shouldn’t say a sign stands there today. I haven’t traveled that road for a number of years. Back in the day, though, back when I was a full-time news reporter – first for the Associated Press in Pierre and later for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls – I knew every mile of that road from Wyoming to the Iowa border. Down in the southwestern part of the state, the road winds through pasture land, big tracts of wheat and the occasional stand of trees. The horizon is so far in the distance in every direction it shimmers like a mirage in a desert. It’s a fierce country, and absolutely stunning.
The sign I mentioned stood just where Highway 18 crossed into Bennett County, a ways before Batesland, near the intersection of a north-south highway that led to Gordon, Nebraska and parts south and west. I never really paid much attention to the sign until one afternoon when I finished a reporting assignment and drove home in an absolutely blinding dust storm. People who’ve never been in one of those brown blizzards probably wouldn’t believe how crazy it can get when the winter has been open and a north wind is carrying half of the topsoil in the whole county into Nebraska. I never actually stopped driving, but I had my lights on, I made sure not to overdrive conditions and I wondered at the wisdom of continuing.
Well, just as I reached the Bennett County line, the wind lifted for a moment, the blowing dust settled for a few seconds and the sign appeared: “Soil Conservation District,’’ I thought to myself. “I wonder how that’s working out for everybody today?’’
I chuckled to myself and remembered a story my first AP boss told me about an air-pollution debate he had covered in the North Dakota Legislature in the late 1960s. After a couple of passionate speeches about the need to stop polluting the air, an opponent of the bill stood and said something like, “What are you worrying about? All it takes is one good northwest wind and all that pollution will be in South Dakota.’’ A good line, I guess, but probably not helpful to the serious debate.
I grew up on a dry land farm in the middle of South Dakota, just on the west side of the Missouri River. It’s been a long while since I drove a John Deere 720 diesel pulling a cultivator or drag or plow, but I still remember how well-acquainted a farm kid became with the land while doing any of those tasks. A guy brought home a whole lot of good topsoil in the cuffs of his jeans and on the back of his neck after a day in the field during a stiff breeze.
We had one field over west that wasn’t so very wide north to south but that stretched more than half a mile east to west. I ran a drag over that piece of land one afternoon when the sun blazed and the breeze, out of the west, blew at exactly the speed of the John Deere. Things were fine going into the breeze, although the sun on the back of my neck got to feeling like fire. With the wind? Oh, man. I pop-popped along in my own cloud of dust. Valuable topsoil settled on my lips, around my eyelids and in my nostrils and ears. As I sat on the back step pushing off my boots at the end of the day, my mom walked past with a basket of dry clothes from the line. “Make sure to wash good before supper,’’ she said. “You have a couple of pounds of dirt in your ears alone.’’
To someone who grew up in a big city, who never worked the land, that story probably makes farming sound awful. I never thought of it that way. At the time, it was just what happened when a certain job had to be done on a certain day, no matter how the wind was blowing. Might as well howl at the moon, for all the good it would do.
As I think back, it’s much more romantic. The whole thing about farming and ranching is being connected with the soil, the land. It’s a living, but more than that, it’s a life.
Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Chamberlain, S.D.