FOOD & FUEL FILE
When you’re young and farm born, May isn’t so much a month as a carnival; a pleasant stretch that’s no longer spring, but not quite summer, a time heavy with little other than possibilities.
On the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth, May was a corner-turner, the swing month of both the farm and my family’s year. The eventual success of almost anything that mattered to us – from October corn yields to October baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals – was usually measured by that month’s yardstick.
Back then, a good May would bring a timely rain, but no mud, a couple of Bob Gibson-pitched shutouts, a no-work Sunday or two, and a meal of fried ham, wilted garden lettuce and potato pancakes.
Almost 50 years later that would still be a good May.
I remember that the farm gained tempo as the month gained days. May began with corn planting and that began with my father saddling the farm’s biggest tractor, an Oliver 1850, with plumbed-together, shop-built sprayer tanks. The homely pair carried milky atrazine for corn and egg-colored treflan for beans in a pre-plant attack on the farm’s impressive weed population.
The big rig – well, relatively so: the field cultivator wasn’t as wide as today’s bass boats are long and the 1850 packed only half as much horsepower – preceded hired man Jackie piloting a steady, slow Oliver 770 and a six-row, ground-driven Oliver planter.
The planter’s pace, no more than 4 mph, suited steady, slow Jackie. The permanently tanned, usually swearing man possessed the unique talent of looking busy – even sweating – while using 90 minutes to do 60 minutes of work. (His younger brother, Orlie, however, didn’t own the same gift.)
Planting also featured my two older brothers and me scrapping over who would join Dad and Jackie in the field, assist herdsman Howard with the evening milking or help Mom in the garden.
The first two jobs paid 50-cents an hour, the latter nothing; the former two were exhilarating; the latter awful.
Brothers Rich and Dave often rotated between barn and field; I rotated between hilling potatoes and hoeing peas.
But late May always brought enough farm work to free me from vegetable purgatory. There was corn to rotary hoe, beans to finish planting, cows to milk and 80 or so acres of lush, emerald green alfalfa to cut, crimp, rake, bale, haul and stack.
The work gave Rich, Dave and me two great gifts: we spent all day with the farm’s rough cut men and we each pocketed a slick $6 or so for work we probably would have done for free.
The only drawback to hay heaven was that it often meant Memorial Day was also Alfalfa Day. More times than not, just as A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti began their screaming drives around the big oval of the Indianapolis 500, my brothers and I were slowly, slowly circling a big hayfield with slow, slow Jackie.
For a decade beginning in 1965, the last week of May usually delivered a grade school, high school or college graduation ceremony for one of my siblings or me.
A quick count suggests I attended at least 10 (and maybe 12) of these events yet I can’t recall one ceremony, one speaker or one post-diploma party.
I do, however, remember that on my high school graduation day we seniors practiced the ceremony in the morning, then played the traditional senior-faculty softball game. I have no idea of who won, but I know I was home, rotary hoeing corn, by 2 pm.
Dull boy? Probably, but I remember it being such a fine May day that I wanted just be on the farm and in the field.
Most May days, I still do.
The Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 70 newspapers in North America. Contact Alan Guebert at www.farmandfoodfile.com.
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