MARSHALL - When John Allen retired after 39 years teaching language arts at Marshall Middle School, he returned to what he knew best growing up.
Allen left his family's farm north of Franklin more than 40 years ago to go to college. During his years at the University of Minnesota in Morris he worked weekends, fall harvests, and drove a pea combine for Green Giant in the early 1970s.
After Allen accepted the retirement incentive offered by Marshall Public Schools last May he couldn't stay idle, and volunteered twice a week in his wife Julie's first-grade class at Park Side Elementary School.
Photo by Steve Browne
Retired Marshall Middle School teacher John Allen now works with his brother-in-law bringing in the harvest.
"I'd never taught any lower than sixth grade," Allen said. "It's quite an experience, those kids just worship you."
Then word got around Allen was at loose ends. Allen's brother-in-law Mike Sullivan and his three sons own and lease a total of 6,000 acres near Redwood Falls.
"When my brother-in-law heard I was retiring he told me, 'I've got a tractor with your name on it for fall harvest.' I thought he was kidding, but this time of year they're really busy," Allen said.
Now Allen is again driving a tractor, but it's not quite like it was 40 years ago.
"We didn't have tractors with cabs," Allen said. "Now we've got air conditioning, CD players and a radio to communicate with everybody on the crew. The machines are so much stronger and can do so much more. It's a little bouncy at times, but overall, pretty darn comfortable."
According to Allen, better lights on tractors and combines which make it possible to work well after dark and the GPS steering systems have changed how people work, enabling them to work longer hours without as much fatigue.
"Another change is lunch," Allen said. "It used to be everybody would stop and get off the tractors and eat together. Now you have lunch in the cab and keep going."
Farm practices have changed as well, as farmers have learned more about caring for the soil.
"Look there," Allen said, "farmers used to plow the corn stalks as deep as they could so nothing but dirt showed on top. Now we try for an even mix to prevent erosion."
Technology changed the rhythms of harvest, but this year also has a different rhythm, Allen said. Because of the long dry spell that followed rain and hail, the corn yields are lower, but the moisture content is low enough the corn doesn't need drying. And because the air is so dry the harvest doesn't have to wait until the sun burns off the morning dew.
As for what the future holds after his return to farming, Allen said it will probably be purely seasonal for him, working the spring planting and the fall harvest. But he'll definitely stay with it now.
"There is such a link to nature," Allen said. "When you see the moon come up over the fields, it's wonderful."
So, for the rest of harvest, Allen's wife will have to do without her husband's help in her classroom and the dinner he'd been fixing her every evening. It doesn't seem to bother her though.
"I think it's awesome," Julie Allen said. "He's having a great time. He loved teaching but he's thoroughly enjoying farming."