Miss good old days of planting

Planting season has arrived in our neck of the woods and farmers are busier than Santa’s elves on Christmas Eve.

There’s something about the sight of an unplanted field that turns farmers into fanatics. Maybe it’s due to the scent of warming soil, but a more likely reason is the sound of a neighbor’s tractor pulling a planter. This makes farmers unreasonably anxious and one thought crowds out all others: “We should be planting too!”

My earliest recollection of the planting season is watching Dad pour bags of seed corn into our four-row planter. The smell of the neon-pink seed treatment mingling with the perfume of freshly worked soil implanted an indelible memory in my brain. These aromas still make me feel giddy about the dawn of a new growing season.

That was back when planting corn was an artform and a public spectacle, on par with the Olympics. It took a great deal of athleticism and skill to create arrow-straight corn rows while muscling the wheel of a non-power steering tractor. And then there was the issue of the check wire.

It was common when I was a kid for farmers to plant corn in a checkrow pattern. A long wire would be stretched from one end of the field to the other. Knots in the wire, which were spaced 40 inches apart, would pass through a trip mechanism on the side of the planter, causing seeds to be dropped at 40-inch intervals.

There was a great deal of debate regarding how many seeds should be dropped in each hill. Some argued that three seeds were plenty, while others maintained that four seeds were needed to attain full yield potential.

I think Grandpa Nelson’s argument for four seeds per hill was the most compelling. “One seed for the worm, one seed for the devil, one seed for the church, and one for me!” is how he explained it.

The check wire added an extra dimension to corn planting. You not only needed to keep your rows straight while driving down the field, but you also had to successfully manage the check wire situation to create precise cross rows. It was like playing chess on a grand scale.

As soon as the corn emerged anyone could see what sort of a job you did. A perfectly checked cornfield would have straight rows when viewed from both the headland and from the sides. There would also be harmonious orderliness when the rows were viewed diagonally.

A poorly checked field would have jarring jags in the cross rows. It was a sport to go for a Sunday drive and check out your neighbors’ checkrows. There would be much tut-tutting if blaring irregularities could be seen.

Severe crooks in the checkrows could be problematic for the farmer. This was because the zigzags would make cultivating difficult.

This was long before the advent of modern seed technology and failsafe herbicides. Weed control was accomplished entirely via mechanical means, usually with a cultivator mounted on the front of the same difficult-to-steer tractor that had been used to plant the field.

It was standard practice to cultivate corn at least three times. The first pass was made shortly after the tender little seedlings had emerged. It was an agonizingly slow process, as driving too fast would result in buried or uprooted seedlings and barren patches in the field. This was known as “iron blight.”

The checkrows made it possible for the second cultivation to be done at a right angle to the first pass. The corn was taller by then, so the operator could drive faster.

A third cultivation usually took place when the corn was tall enough to touch the tractor’s rear axles. Speed was needed to throw soil into the rows and smother any weeds that had escaped the first two passes.

The third cultivation was done at a right angle to the second. This meant that the tractor’s front wheels would summit a small hill every 40 inches. Imagine trying to wrestle with an unruly steering wheel while riding a mechanical bull.

A flawlessly cultivated cornfield would swell your chest with the thrill of victory. Inattention and a loose grip on the steering wheel could mean iron blight and the heartbreak of defeat.

GPS technology and computerized steering systems produce corn rows that are laser straight and modern herbicides provide uniform weed control. Hardly anyone cultivates their corn anymore and nobody uses checkrow planting.

Every field looks perfect and is perfectly boring. But I miss the days when you could drive past a neighbor’s cornfield and say, “Whoops! Looks like Ed had a loose wire!”

— Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at http://Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide.


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