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Life on the Land
Sweat, toil all in a day's work
by John Camp
June 30, 1985
A scorching sun, south wind, the sweet smell of fresh-cut alfalfa mixed with gravel dust thrown up by passing cars and the scent of diesel fuel; down on the farm, south of Worthington, staring dry-mouth and aching through the shimmering heat waves toward the gleaming white grain elevators of the town the town with its beckoning bar, the cold beers, and the air conditioning that stands a mile farther south on the Iowa line.
Wherever farm people get together, the farm crisis dominates serious talk. But talk is not the real material of the spring and early summer on a farm. Talk may dominate a prairie winter, when the planting loans are in doubt. With the crops in the ground, the spring and summer are for work.
"Man can't save himself," said the hard-sweating Calvinist who stopped at the Benson farm to throw hay. "Work can't be redemptive in itself, but it's an honor. It's not given to everyone to have the honor of good work."
Hay is the first crop in the barn. The initial cutting comes around the first week of June.
"Hay is the crop where you get your heart broken most often," David Benson said as he stood on the edge of the farmyard, nibbling at the bottom of his reddish-blond mustache and squinting over an alfalfa field south and east of the house. Benson's face was caked with dust, with heavier lines in the crow's-feet around his eyes.
"After you cut it, you need at least two or three days of good hot weather to dry it out, and the dryer you can get it on the ground, the better off you are. This time of year, though, you get these evening thunderstorms. You get a good day to swath, get it down, and then watch the clouds building up and the rain coming in. It can break your heart."
While a day or two of rain won't completely ruin fresh-cut hay, sometimes the rains last longer than that. Benson recalled a time a few years ago when he and his family were eager to take a vacation trip, but had to get the hay in first.
"We cut it early because we wanted to get away. We even baled it a little green. So we got out of here just as everybody else was swathing.
"When we left, everybody had hay down and drying. When we came back, like a couple of weeks later, it was still out there in the fields. A rainy spell hit, and they couldn't get it in. A lot of people lost the whole first crop it was worthless by the time the rain stopped. It was laying out there looking like sludge."
This year Benson began swathing early in the first week of June, chugging remorselessly through the alfalfa field while purple martins darted around the swather, gobbling the insects set into flight by the passing machine.
A 20-mile-an-hour wind and a blistering sun dried the fresh-cut alfalfa as efficiently as if it had been shoveled into an oven and the aroma of the cooking hay spread softly across the landscape.
With the swathing done, the Bensons watched the sky anxiously, the puffy white clouds popping up in the west, born of the afternoon's rising humidity. Nothing came of them; the days stayed dry.
"This is good hay. This might be the best hay we've ever had on the first cutting. Usually the first cutting is kind of tall and stemmy and coarse, but this is very good hay," Benson said as he turned piles of hay with his foot during an exploratory trip through the main field.
The swathing is hot and tiring, but the baling is the real back-breaker. The baler is pulled by a David Brown 990 tractor, with Benson's wife Sally-Anne in the driver's seat. The hay rack hay wagon is towed behind the baler. The baler scoops off the long rows and carries the hay into a chute where it is packed by a hydraulic ram and tied into bales by a device too crazy to describe. As the ram packs more and more hay into the chute, newly tied bales are expelled from the rear of the baler, to be grabbed and stacked on the rack.
"You've got to stack the bales just this way," Benson told a helper, laying out a pattern along the back of the rack. "If you do it right, you can stack them six high and everything will stay on the rack."
He is sweating profusely now, swinging a hay hook in one hand, grabbing the baling twines with the other, stacking the bales into a head-high wall as they pop out of the machine every 30 seconds or so. The hay is abrasive, and nicks the forearms and lightly-clothed chests with dozens of tiny pin-prick cuts; sweat gets into the cuts and a characteristic hay rash develops.
"It's a good thing we moved that hay around in the barn this morning," Benson said as he piled the bales. "That's just the kind of warm-up you need when you're our age. When you're 16 and in good shape, it seems you can throw all day. You get older, you need something you can start slow with."
There are six Bensons on the farm now. Gus, 82, and Bertha, 75, own it and are semi-retired; their son David, 38, and his wife, Sally-Anne, 35, are both management and principal labor; David's and Sally-Anne's two children, Heather, 11, and Anton, 8, do the chores.
As in most farm families, everybody works.
With the school in recess for the summer, the two children are expected to do several hours' work each morning, and one or two more in the late afternoon.
They are still children; their work isn't heavy, but it is considered necessary both for its intrinsic instructional value as well as product.
The children's morning jobs may vary, anything from house or field work to such special jobs as sanding and lacquering a firewood box to trapping gophers in the oat field.
"David said he would give us a dollar each," Anton said confidently as he and his sister picked their way through the oats toward a stick that marked the gopher trap. "After we trap all these, we're going to go see if the neighbors need help with theirs."
The problem with pocket gophers is that they leave behind mounds of dirt, six or eight inches high, up to two feet in diameter, as they tunnel. Besides destroying large amounts of the crop, the mounds harden in the sunlight, and can damage farm machinery at the harvest.
A gopher tends to work in one direction, leaving behind a series of increasingly fresher mounds. By following the trail of mounds, the trapper will soon arrive at the freshest. He looks for an indentation on the side of the mound, which is the dirt-blocked mouth of the newest tunnel.
Carefully digging out the tunnel with his hands, the trapper may set any of several kinds of traps in the tunnel itself, with a holding chain leading to the outside, where it is firmly staked into the ground.
The open hole is then covered with a piece of wood, a shingle, or newspapers, the edges carefully sealed with dirt to prevent any light leakage. If it's all done right, the gopher will walk right into the trap.
"We got one," Anton said breathlessly as he dug around the hole with a spade. It was their first.
"Pull it out, pull it out," urged Heather. "Is it dead?"
"No, no, it's not dead," said Anton, "it's moving."
The fuzzy, dirt-brown, nearly blind gopher squirmed feebly in the trap. "We've got to kill it."
Nobody wanted to kill it. The children's eyes eventually fell on a friend who said, finally, "OK. Give me the shovel." The gopher died with a quick thrust of the shovel's edge against the back of its neck.
"Poor thing," said Heather.
"Let's show Dad," said Anton. The gopher was placed on the lid of an oil can and taken home for the reward.
"Poor thing," Heather said again, on the way back to the farm house.
The children's evenings are less dramatic, carrying water and feed to the animals, collecting eggs from the chicken house.
The worst of their spring jobs, hands down, is walking the corn, and later, walking the beans. They start in mid- to late June, and carry into July. It's a job for the entire family and any friends and relatives who want to volunteer. It's a tough one.
A tough row
"Walking (the corn) isn't done much any more," said Sally-Anne. Sally-Anne is also known as Sago, an acronym of her maiden name, Sally-Anne Greeley.
"You can get rid of most of the weeds with chemical herbicides, but we don't want to get into that. We used some when we first came back, when the thistles had just about taken over, but when we got them down (to a tolerable level), we just started walking them."
The principal piece of farm machinery involved in walking the corn and the beans, of course is a sharp hoe. The idea is to walk along a row of knee-high corn and root out all the waterweed and the creeping jenny and the nightshade and especially the Canadian thistle.
The posture is head-down; on a sunny day, the derivation of the term "redneck" becomes painfully clear. As row fades into row, with hits on the water bottle at the end of each round, an ache grows just beneath the shoulder blade and in the back just above the pelvis. And the thistle seems to grow thicker as the hours wear on, and the hands become tender and ripe with burning scarlet sore spots.
"You can sacrifice a corn to get a thistle," Sally-Anne said, "but try not to do it too often."
"Oops," said one of the walkers.
"A fine obituary for a corn plant," said another. "Oops."
"The thistles are growing right up against the corn, I can't believe it."
"Pull that creeping jenny. If you let it go, it can climb right up a corn plant and choke it."
"Tell us about that Rodney Dangerfield movie you saw on Home Box Office...."
"How many rounds do we have left?"
"You know, walking the beans isn't all that bad," Sally-Anne said late one afternoon, as she sat at her dining-room table drinking tea. "At this time of year, David's in the field so much that I hardly get to see him, and then he's so tired and dirty he just wants to wash up, eat, and go to bed... when you're walking the beans, you can go along together, and talk about things."
She smiled and the lines around her eyes crinkled. "The only problem is that you usually run out of talking before you run out of beans."
Anton twits his father: "Why don't we get one of those big tractors and a tank and just spray them down with Lasso (herbicide)," he asks, fully aware of his father's antagonism for solutions built on lethal chemistry and brute horsepower.
Walking the corn, and the beans, has the status of a Midwestern myth; the Bensons possess a record by Iowa/Minnesota folksinger Greg Brown, a man whose reputation is swelling through the cornbelt countryside, mostly because of songs like "Walking the Beans."
It's a mile-long row, and that's a lot of room to grow,
For the nightshade and the thistle and that miserable so-and-so. Two miles around, more like 10 I think
I would just put all four up, but I gotta have a drink. Bandana on my head and a hoe in my hand,
People are afraid of hell and now I understand, I can picture some devil from that land below,
And he's pushing pigweed up from under in the row."
"I think he's walked beans," said Sally-Anne
His shoulders straining under the dark-blue cowboy shirt, the Rev. Ronald Lammers swung fresh bales off the battered hay rack and threw them onto a ladder-like elevator, which carried them up to the loft in Gus Benson's barn; a good quarter-hour's work for a man of Calvinist convictions, and a pleasure to see the undoubted sinners higher in the barn sweating to keep up with him.
Midmorning, the sun glowing evilly through a haze of humidity. The farm buildings farther south shimmer above the fields of corn, oats, and alfalfa, patches of broken color against the haze.
A short round of haying has already been completed this morning, Lammers driving into the farmyard as the tractor and hay rack rolled in from the other direction, just in time to be recruited to throw bales. As a Christian Reformed minister, Lammers presides over a white clapboard church at Bigelow, a church whose shrinking congregation reflects the emptying of the great Minnesota prairie farmlands.
"When I started, eight years ago, there were 22 families (in the congregation), and now we're down to 14. The way it's supposed to work, you have a turnover. The older people die as the younger people marry and have children. Now the younger people marry and move away. They just vanish from the landscape," Lammers said later, when the hay was safely in the barn. With the sun and the heat and the heavy lifting, the breaks are frequent: the workers need the time to put water back in their bodies.
And it's cool at the picnic table under the trees in Gus Benson's back yard. Bertha Benson's garden is doing fine, just there beside the picnic table, lettuce and beets and tomatoes growing cheerfully in the good black dirt. Most of them look cheerful, anyway, aside from one or two that were trampled the night before when a horse got loose and paid the garden an impromptu visit. Evidence of the visit remains in a soil-enriching pile at one corner of the vegetable plot.
Lammers is a soft-spoken, serious, graying man. At 41, he is a thesis away from a master's degree in the Old Testament from the respected Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich. He pushed his black plastic glasses back up his nose with an index finger and said quietly that our national farm debate doesn't seem to consider the morality of the new situation.
"One thing that's never talked about is justice. We have all these arguments between the left and the right about who's got the better idea to get the economic pumps working, but nobody talks about justice. The final worth of a nation isn't determined by how much money its people make, but whether they are just. People who dedicate themselves to injustice," said the Calvinist, "will inevitably perish. Those who strive for justice will endure."
Their mutual interest in the farm issue is part of the cement in the relationship between the Calvinist minister and the Bensons. None of the Bensons belong to Lammers' congregation Bertha takes the children to Indian Lake Baptist Church, and David describes himself and Sally-Anne as "Sort of Quaking Unitarians. I have an interest in the Quakers and we've met with the Unitarians."
The minister and the farmers met in the most prosaic of ways. A car owned by a church deacon broke down in Lammers' yard, and the deacon called David Benson to fix it.
"I found out what a good mechanic I had in my own backyard, so to speak, and we started trading labor. I'd do some work on the farm and he'd work on my car, and that's how we got to be friends. We talk about everything; we talk about what's happening with the farms. It's something that worries us both," Lammers said.
"I'd seen him around for years, but never said anything to him. Then once we said a few things, we found out what an interesting guy he was, and we never stopped talking," said David.
They talk, but their approach to politics and life seems radically different, although it shares a deep sincerity.
David Benson talks of a relative, human morality, a complex mix of manners and tradition and economic pressures. Ronald Lammers approaches the problem through the revealed word of God.
Benson is profoundly concerned with the disappearance of the small farm and the rise of giant agribusiness enterprises, issues so complex he sometimes finds it difficult to express the dangers of the phenomenon and the urgency of a resolution. Lammers uses David Benson's language in a general discussion of the topic, but has no trouble finding fluent expression of the troubles.
Because, he said, it has all been discussed before, and with the greatest of eloquence.
"Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth," said Lammers. "That's Isaiah 5. He was talking about the Near East, but he was talking about this place, too. We're changing from a farm culture to a plantation culture, and the people working them will soon be peons. That's injustice. And squeezing people off ancestral lands, that's not only injustice, that's the stuff from which revolutions are made."
As Lammers ponders the problem of the farm, the younger Bensons disappear around the big red barn, headed for the corn field with hoes over their shoulders.
Value of work
"There are parts of the world where five acres will support a family. What does it mean when you live out here, in the richest earth God ever made, and 1,000 acres might not support a family, no matter how hard they work?" Lammers asked. "Work has always been an honor, work is an honor. But what does it mean when people can't work hard enough to live? When they just can't do it? You know, in (biblical) Israel, the people failed to husband the land. That was what Isaiah was talking about. Eventually the whole land was blown away with the wind. If we don't listen to Isaiah, it could happen here."
Work may not be enough. But the Bensons work:
Sally-Anne Benson chopping Canadian thistles in the hot sun, her face glowing fiery red with heat, despite the woven straw hat; David Benson rolling the cultivator down the endless rows of new beans, five hours with barely a stop, the hot wind blowing the dust and grit into his eyes and ears and teeth; Heather Benson, laying out the table, putting together a quick dinner because her parents are late in from the field, and she knows they'll be tired almost to sickness; Anton Benson, pulling a full round of evening chores while his parents work on in the long lingering twilight of the summer solstice.
Working on the Benson farm, just off Nobles County Road 4, nine miles south of Worthington, a mile north of the Iowa line, out on the prairie in Minnesota.
27 February 2020
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