Planting can be tough, but it's still special
You only get 30 to 40 cracks at planting season, Jonathan Knutson says. So, enjoy it, even in its difficulties.
I once knew a farmer who was always grumpy during spring planting — or, more accurately, even grumpier than during the rest of the year. With planting nearing or underway, he complained about the risk, the weather, the long hours, the expenses and what he perceived as "no appreciation" from nonfarmers. For years I attributed his attitude to stress before finally realizing that he was by nature a grumpy guy who liked to complain and that planting gave him more excuse to do it. He was told more than once by neighbors that if he was so unhappy farming, he should get out. He eventually did.
I think of that old grump this spring as extremely wet weather has stifled planting in the part of the upper Midwest I know best. Some fields will be planted weeks later than desired; some may not be planted at all. The head-scratching irony is that a year ago the same area was beset with horrible drought.
Farmers in the area are understandably stressed and frustrated. They're nervous, worried and apprehensive. But while they're not immune from complaining, there's not much of it. They know the downside of planting comes with a greater upside: another crop season that allows them to pursue their chosen career.
The overwhelming majority of ag producers would agree with that. Some do so in a way that verges on poetry. Through the years I heard nine or 10 farmers all say something very close to this: "Yeah, putting seed in the ground is risky. But you only get 30 or 40 cracks at this in your career. So planting is special. and I always try to appreciate it." Maybe they all came up with that on their own; the close similarity of their words, though, suggests to me that they heard them somewhere, possibly from a farm show speaker or college instructor. Whatever the origin, it's a great, upbeat sentiment.
For that matter, ranchers get only 30 or 40 cracks at calving/lambing season. So they're special, too. (Well, if you're calving out a big bunch of heifers, it's less special than it is especially difficult. If you're a rancher who actually enjoys calving out heifers, please drop me a line and explain why.)
Goes with the job
The risk of planting is viewed differently by farmers and nonfarmers. To many nonfarmers, there's hardly any risk: They're convinced that federal programs eliminate most, if not all, of the risk. As farmers correctly point out, however, there are many expenses that aren't covered by government protection programs. The programs help, yes, but not as much as nonfarmers assume — and also more than some farmers care to acknowledge.
The unfortunate reality is, difficult planting conditions are a frequent and inevitable (but not constant) aspect of farming. It's as if part of the job description reads, "Warning! Crop farmers often are subject to unfavorable weather conditions during planting, the growing season and harvest. Successful farmers will need to prepare themselves mentally, physically and emotionally for this. Don't enter farming unless you can handle the stress of uncooperative weather."
Putting seed in the ground — and hoping and working for the best possible result — is the essence of upper Midwest farming. Sure, occasional venting, especially during uncooperative weather, is allowed and understood. But too much complaining is a pretty good sign that you've lost sight of what farming is all about and that maybe it's time to consider getting out.
To all of you fighting difficult planting or calving/lambing conditions this spring, good luck. And try to enjoy the experience. After all, you'll get only 30 or 40 cracks at it.
Jonathan Knutson is a former Agweek reporter. He grew up on a farm and spent his career covering agriculture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.