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It’s all about the numbers

In a town like Sleepy Eye, everyone is a farmer. If you’re not farming or working for one of the ag businesses, you’re probably only a generation removed from a farm. Since we’re all farmers, I get asked a lot how it’s going during harvest.

I had this line about soybeans. “Before harvest, I hoped for fifty bushels per acre. Then I heard people were getting seventy. We got sixty and I was depressed.”

My tongue-in-cheek observation fits the stereotype of farmers never being completely happy. Happiness is like alcohol; you don’t want to get too intoxicated.

At the end of the growing season, we farmers put a lot of weight on the yield. It is the “final score.” A year of buying inputs, working the fields, planting, and harvesting comes down to a number that indicates success or lack of. It’s the ultimate reduction. All that money, effort, and time boiled down to a single number.

Of course, bushels are just an intermediary step on the way to the real pursuit: dollars. There might be some money from government programs. But mostly, this many bushels times this price equals this many dollars. Dollars pay for all those expenses, and hopefully there’s extra to live on. It doesn’t always work out that way.

All this talk of bushels and dollars is in numbers. There are numbers galore in this business. There are big numbers like cost of production and return on investment. Then, there are little numbers, like the price of a gallon of diesel fuel and a bag of seed.

I was thinking about numbers as I drove my combine up and down the rows with the monitor in the cab flickering three numbers on a screen: yield, moisture, and acres. Numbers are in my head a lot. That’s probably true for you, too. Big numbers like the cost of health care, little ones like the price of a dozen eggs.

Growing things is dependent on nature. The soil, the sun, the rain: they do the creating. The farmer just puts things in place and tries not to mess it up. Growing crops is an organic process that is a billion times more complex than numbers on a monitor or a spreadsheet.

Scientists understand a lot about how a plant takes up nutrients from the soil and harvests energy from the sun to grow beans or kernels of corn. But there is in the end a layer of complexity beneath that we can’t comprehend. Here’s where the Creator has a part.

I’ve done this for 40 years, but I can’t begin to explain the work of billions of micro-organisms that live below the surface of my fields recycling minerals in the soil and making them available to roots. Above the surface, the sun and photosynthesis are the basis of all life. That seems a kind of miracle when I think about it. Which I usually don’t. I take it for granted like so much in creation.

When I talk to another farmer, we often refer to the joy of working in nature. “What a beautiful sunrise this morning.” Then we end up talking in numbers: population, yield, price.

Numbers are a human construct. Nature doesn’t label things like we do. A flock of geese flying into an autumn sunset aren’t numbered. A cool northwest wind doesn’t know it’s blowing at twenty miles per hour with gusts up to thirty.

I can imagine an early human figuring out that 10 fingers could be used to keep track of the pelts in the cave. Then he could communicate to another member of the tribe I can trade you these many pelts for these many hunks of meat. Numbers make things manageable to our limited minds. It gives structure to a vast universe.

I’m a baseball fan and, boy, are there numbers in baseball. Fans my age grew up with a reverential appreciation of 714 and 60. Barry Bonds blew up those numbers. We came to find out that was adulterated. I still resent that. I am not alone. Despite astronomical numbers, Bonds is not in the Hall of Fame.

Denny McLain’s 31 wins. Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak. I loved Lou Brock when he stole 118 bases in 1974, not so much Ricky Henderson when he stole 130 in 1982. Ricky had a too-large ego, but at least he did it without pharmaceutical aids.

Now when I watch a ballgame, there are numbers that make my head spin, pun intended. Spin rate, exit velocity, launch angle, oh my. When I go to a game with a fan who is hipper than me, I find myself nodding while they talk about some player’s VORP. (That’s Value Over Replacement Player for the uninitiated.)

Our bodies are like my fields in that immeasurable natural actions go on under the surface. Each of us has thirty trillion cells, all doing essential work. We measure our health in numbers. I’m aware of my pounds (too many) and my inches (not enough up and down, too many sideways).

I track my blood pressure. That’s two numbers that move up and down depending on how well I take care of myself. I had a blood test done, and that came back as four pages of numbers. I have a red cell distribution width of 14%. That’s in the acceptable range. I think it’s like having a spin rate of 2,000 rpm.

Our economy is made of numbers. Does that candy bar look good? That will be $1.25. That T-shirt you like, $20. A new car, $40,000. Our work is assigned a number value. A teenager working at Subway is worth $15 dollars for an hour of labor. A factory worker doing a simple job might make $25, while a shift leader responsible for a crew makes $60 for that hour.

A CEO of one of America’s top companies makes $16.7 million for a year, a big number with a bunch of zeroes. Is he worth 334 times what the guy welding on the line makes? I don’t think so; that’s another topic.

In the Old Testament, the Book of Numbers is between Isaiah and Malachi. It takes its name from a census, or “numbering” of the people of Israel after their journey in the desert. From seven days of creation to the Ten Commandments to forty days and forty nights, scripture is filled with numbers.

I’ll close with these. One God in three persons, two pieces of wood, one empty tomb. Those numbers are the best yield ever.

— Randy Krzmarzick farms on the home place west of Sleepy Eye, where he lives with his wife, Pam.

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