Farmers can talk of little else but farming, so when my neighbor delivered a load of organic hay, that is what we discussed. At one lull in the conversation, he pushed his hat up higher on his sunburned forehead and spoke deliberately.
"I've been thinking about how much things have changed in just ten years."
"Such as?" I asked.
"Well. I guess the biggest thing is the corn. We just never had corn like this. I remember farmers getting 65, 70 bushel an acre, an' people thought they were doing just fine."
"65? 70?" I was incredulous.
"Yep. Now a body near ‘bout ‘spects 150. If a fellow were getting 70 now, he'd figure it wasn't even worth his time."
He chewed on a Roma tomato. I contemplated the young man. Even though he was not much older than me, it seemed I had missed out on a completely different era of farming.
"Tell me," I queried, haltingly. "When you were a kid, could you actually walk between the corn rows?"
As a seven year-old city kid, one of my most precious dreams was to run between the corn rows of an endless green field exactly like all the farm kids did in the books I read. But by the time I was able to run through a corn field, it was a painful experience. The rows were so close together that the leaves of the corn plants not only touched, they overlapped. The leaves would slap my face, leaving nasty cuts on my face and hands that filled with pollen and sweat and stung like the dickens when I showered.
"Oh sure," he said, "of course."
"What's the normal planting space now? What was it back then?"
He grinned at me.
"Well you know what the row space was originally? 42 inches, because that was the width of your average draft horse," he laughed. "Then they figured out how to line corn. They used a cable to square a field off, an’ they figured out how to plant corn in a grid shape. That way, you can cultivate not only up and down the rows, but across. Get a lot more weeds that way."
"But what is the row space now? Hardly anybody cultivates anymore. Who do you know around here that still cultivates?"
"Now, just wait. So then tractors come along and they went down to 38 inch rows, since you didn't have to fit a horse. But you can still walk through 38 inches. Now the standard size is 30 inch rows."
"But I hear about guys planting 20 and 18 inch rows. They have that corn packed in like sardines."
He was twisting a blade of grass in his hands. He pulled on it now and it snapped in two.
"Standard is 30. You really got to be set up for 20 inch, 18 inch corn, if that's what you’re gonna be doing. People do it, guys who are really pushing it. But you can't cultivate at all with 20 inch rows. You're completely dependent on chemicals to manage weeds."
"But who around here still cultivates?"
"Nobody, really. Well, the organic ones.”
We were silent for a bit. I was seeing the acres of green corn across America and imagining the pounds of chemicals necessary to create such a landscape.
"What else is different? Any other major change that comes to mind?"
"Well, cow life span. Ten years ago, it seemed to me it was normal around here to get five lactations. Now we get two. Also, a cow could give about 60 pounds of milk a day and that was considered okay. Now she should give at least 80.”
"If a cow is worn out after two lactations, then she is only living for about four years. It takes her about two years to grow up, so the farmer really only has her for two years as a milking cow. That's a crazy replacement rate. How can you make any money doing that?"
"It's a tough row to hoe, alright. I was in Detroit last fall. I saw so much empty land in the middle of the city. A fellow gets crazy ideas when he sees that. Why can't somebody farm it? Every deserted lot should have a garden in it. Those people could grow so much food they don’t know it. Lots of that land is better quality than what you and I are farming."
"How is your land doing?" I asked. Organic farmers inquire about the land in the same manner that other people inquire about your family’s health.
"I haven't done any soil tests yet or none of that, but I know it’s doing better. But I'm grazing our old cow pasture, which was basically a dirt lot. We called it a pasture though. Didn’t really have the right to."
"What did you seed it with?"
"Some clover. I speculated that'd grow just about anywhere."
I nodded approval.
"That's real good. Clover heals the soil."
"It does? What does it do?" For a second that old skeptical mocking look came into his face. What are these crazy organic people going to tell me now?
"It fixes nitrogen," I said, quietly.
"Oh? Well ain't that something."
Photos by Andrea Holm