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Life on the Land

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Life on the Land

Delayed harvest puts farmers at razor's edge

It was Monday noon, the 14th of October, Columbus Day — a day of high clouds, cool winds, and fractured sunshine.
Blackbirds gathered on roadside power lines, flocking for the arduous trip south. Skunks traffic-flattened on the road wore their long, opulent winter fur. And on the rich prairie farmland around Worthington, Minn., it was a day of waiting.
David Benson, 38, drove an aging Volvo northwest along a tar road toward the KRSW radio tower. The road ran through an ocean of soybeans and corn, over flat prairie creeks, past small herds of black-and-white Holsteins grazing their still-green pastures.
Benson did a running commentary on the grain fields — on their cleanliness, soil types, productivity. He pointed out patches of weeds whose seeds had been planted in otherwise clean fields by flowing water. He was intent in his judgments: Benson operates a small farm near Bigelow, Minn., nine miles south of Worthington. He grows beans and corn as cash crops, and hay for 39 head of beef cattle, six work horses, a pony, 14 sheep, and an aging milk cow named Bluma.
On this day, almost nothing was moving in the fields — in his fields, or any other. The beans were dark brown and full, the corn a light, bright tan, with heavy ears hanging down from the stalks. Here and there, on the edges of the cornfields, brilliant yellow kernels flashed from split-open husks.
"Everything is, ohhh, man, everything is beautiful, and that's what could break your heart," Benson said. Crow's-feet deepened at the corners of his eyes as he peered at the sun-dappled landscape. "You look out there, and you could cry. You can feel the mood of the whole county: it's getting lower every day. Lower and darker. If we get some snow, ohhh, man, that would do it. That would kill us.
This year's harvest in southwestern Minnesota could be substantial if the farmers could get at the crops. So far, they hadn't been able to. Fall work was more than a month behind.
"For all practical purposes, the harvest hasn't started yet," said Gene Lutteke, manager of the grain elevator at Bigelow.

Harvest a month late

"A few years back, I did a spot of work for a man who was having a little trouble with cancer," said another man, who came out of a country Standard station to pump gas. "I remember we were all done, cleaned up, and I put the last of the machinery away on the 17th of October. This year, he hasn't even been out in the field yet.
The problem was water. Too much water. The soybeans have never had a chance to dry out, and the very process of picking them would destroy them. They are so soft they can be eaten like fresh peas.
The corn is tougher, closer to picking, but still too wet.
"I can pick a bit of it, maybe, in the next couple of days, if we don't get any more rain," Benson said. "I can pick it and grind it and feed it right away. I just can't crib it. But the corn isn't worth much this year anyway, and a snowstorm or two won't wipe it out. It's the beans that could break your heart."
The night before, Benson stood on the edge of a 60-acre soybean field, and counted his metaphorical chickens.
"We'll get, ohh, gosh, at least 30 bushels to the acre, and maybe a little more. They look great, don't they? Even if the price stays right where it is, that's $150 an acre, that's almost $9,000 sitting right there. If we get a snowstorm or a sleet storm, it'll pull them right down and we won't get a thing. And it's getting so late in the year, we could get snow. We could get some sleet. Boy, it would break your heart.
In one short spell of drier weather, Benson managed to cut some hay, but the rains returned before he could bale it. With much more rain, it would be gone. Sludge, he calls it.
"I love that last cutting of hay because all the swallows turn out, diving around the tractor. They eat all the bugs they can find before they head south," Benson said. "It's like working in a field full of big butterflies. It's absolutely delightful. This year I was out there by myself — the swallows'd all gone south before I had a chance to do the final cutting. I really missed seeing them.
The weather has been the main topic in the Worthington area since the second week of August.

Farm work only part of it

"I've never seen anything like this fall: in all my years, nothing like this," said Gus Benson, 83, David's father. "It seems like it rained every day — it didn't, but it never got dry, that's for sure."
And this Columbus Day was yet another day when no field work could be done. It was clear enough, and a fine drying wind was blowing. But it had rained again only two days before, further saturating the soggy countryside.
The condition of the fields was no excuse for idleness, however. Like more and more small-farmer families, the Benson family puts together an annual income with a pastiche of part-time jobs and farming.
One of Benson's part-time jobs involves work as a repairman for local radio stations, climbing the towers that soar hundreds of feet over the patchwork prairie.
It's a job that his wife, Sally-Anne, doesn't like, won't talk about, and doesn't want to hear about. When David gets a climbing job, her normally cheerful face turns grim, and it hangs in the background of her mind until he's back on the ground.
Both reactions — David's willingness to climb, and Sally-Anne's unhappiness with the work — run in the family. David's father, Gus, never had much fear of heights, either. When Gus was young, he did a good deal of farm windmill repair, and his wife, David's mother, Bertha, didn't want to hear about that, either.
"There's our tower over there," David said, pointing through the Volvo's mud-spattered windshield.
The tower is on a low hill near Chandler, Minn., surrounded by cornfields. From a distance, it looks like a short piece of red-and-white thread dangling from the clouds.
"We have to fix a beacon," Benson explained. "Some kids climbed up there one night and broke it. It's going to cost somebody, ohh, better than $1,000 for a new light and the work. The insurance company, I guess."
He really isn't afraid of the open height?

Paid sight-seeing trip

"Not really. You're working on the inside of the tower," he said, with his tongue in his cheek. "If you fell, it wouldn't be the height that killed you. It'd be hitting all those support bars on the way down. You'd kill yourself falling 15 feet in there, so 700 feet won't make any difference."
The work is at the 280-foot level.
"Those kids had to be nuts to climb up there at night," a friend said staring at the base of the tower and peering straight up the slender steel structure. A prairie wind rustled through the surrounding corn field and hummed across the tower's support cables. "You're a little weird yourself, David."
"It makes a change," he said. "And it's beautiful up there — boy, you can see for miles. You can see over to Blue Mound, over to the ridge where South Dakota starts. You can see down to Worthington...."
Benson works with rudimentary equipment: blocks taken from barn hoists, a kid's pack full of tools worn backward on the chest. He wears an insulated jumpsuit as protection against the wind, and replaces his farmer-standard billed cap with a woolen watch cap.
"It can get cold," he said, just before he started up the tower. It took 20 minutes to climb the 280 feet to the broken light, and four hours to complete the repairs. Benson gets $25 an hour for the job.
"It's a handy kind of work to do, if you're a farmer and don't mind working up high," he said when he got down. "You can earn a quick $100 cash money for three or four hours' work. It comes in handy."
As soon as he was back on the ground, he called Sally-Anne to let her know.

Jobs here and there help

To an outsider, grain farm work appears to be sporadic. There's plowing, planting, cultivating, and harvesting, each in a separate compartment of weeks. It looks different to a farmer. To a farmer, there's never enough time for the work to get done.
"It's hard to make a living with straight farming, especially with prices like they are now," Benson said. "But if you're going to farm, you can't have a regular job, even part-time, because you need such big blocks of time off. So you get a lot of little jobs."
To keep the Benson farm going, Sally-Anne (whose nickname is Sago) teaches half-days at a Worthington Montessori school, while David fixes cars in the farm shop, climbs radio towers, and trades work on various kinds of agricultural and construction equipment — he has a strong reputation as a diesel mechanic and specialist in Volvos and Volkswagen Rabbits.
They also keep costs down by producing and preparing most of their own food. And David, of course, keeps the family cars running.
"There's always something to do. Sometimes I think, you know, after the kids are grown, Sago and I ought to take a long sabbatical somewhere," Benson said late on a rainy Saturday night in the farm's shop.
Sago's old car was on its last legs, so David had driven to the Twin Cities where he located a diesel Volkswagen Rabbit with a good body and interior, and a blown engine. He happened to have another Rabbit with a cracked block, that he'd bought for parts, and now he was making one machine from the two.

The money's not all gravy

"In our best year, I guess we pulled in, gross, about $26,000, including Sago's money. But then, when you're running a farm, you have expenses, just like you do in any business. So the $26,000 wasn't all for groceries. We get away a little cheaper than most guys because we can substitute labor where most of them use chemicals — cheap labor is one of the advantages of an extended family. And I think our equipment is sized better for the farm than most people's....
"But you get very tired when you get into the cities and you hear people say, 'Aw, the good farmers are making it,' or 'It's the farmer's own fault,' and you know how hard you work, and you aren't making anything....
"I'm not going to say that some farmers didn't get greedy when things were looking good and got in over their heads buying land. But that's not all of it. Look at soybean prices. That one field we were in. If I get those beans off, and sell them right now, we'll get maybe $9,000 or a little less. If I could sell them for the average price we got last year, they'd go for $12,500. Same crop. Same expenses, or even a little higher — and we get 25 or 30 percent less, off a price that wasn't that good to begin with. It gets real tough."
Benson's case is stated on a half-page of blue-and-white charts in the Worthington Daily Globe's Saturday "Farm Report."
The charts include bar graphs, which are particularly interesting for one striking aspect — the graphs for current corn and soybean prices don't have any bars on them. That's because the prices have fallen below the bottom level of the graph.
Instead of rescaling the graphs, the newspaper, to call attention to the problems of farmers, simply prints the current price of the crops where the bars should be. On Friday, Oct. 11, corn stood at $2.15 a bushel at Worthington; last year's average was $2.90. Soybeans stood at $4.67, Worthington's bid. Last year's average was $6.90. That's down 30 percent.
As Benson works under a trouble light to fit the replacement head on the newer Rabbit, he talks both economics and social history: the problems of making a living while preserving the land, the false assumptions of economy-of-scale theories, the uses of labor as a replacement for foreign oil, the philosophical reasons for maintaining national agricultural population.

A house full of books

Although it embarrasses him when his friends call him a "Prairie Intellectual," that's precisely what he is. Sago, too. In the north bedroom of the old farmhouse, where they live with their children, Heather and Anton, there are 1,000 books or more. There are an even dozen works by Lewis Mumford, a half-dozen by Thorstein Veblen. There are books by Ayn Rand and Alan Watts, Barry Goldwater and Hunter S. Thompson, Upton Sinclair and Tom Wolfe.
They have The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer and The Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castenda; The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer and The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich. There are works by Nietzsche and Balzac and Chekhov and Whitman and Emerson and Kafka and Tolstoy and St. Thomas Aquinas, all in paperback glory. They also own a tattered copy of The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, and Benson said, "My God, don't write that down," when the book was mentioned.
On a rainy Saturday night, with auto grease covering his hands, a battered green-and-white billed hat perched on his reddish hair, the drizzle graying-out background noise, he mixed those writers in casual conversation as he fit together the rebuilt car. And he talked about Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.

Repairs go on back burner

A road company of the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis was to present a dramatized version of the Dickens novel Sunday night at the Memorial Auditorium in Worthington. He wants to go... but he'd like to work on the car, too.
"I have to admit I like Sunday nights in the shop," he said. "It's quiet. You can think about things. It's nice to see an engine go together — I really like that. I don't know. You think Sago would let me out of the Dickens thing?"
No. Sago won't. The following night, the whole family, except Gus, is scrubbed and seated in the balcony. David entered a mild protest — "Listen, Sag, I could get that car going for you." But she shook her head and he went along.
Afterward he said, "I'm glad I went, though I kind of wanted to work on the car." Kidded again about his Prairie Intellectual status (how he might have lost it if he hadn't attended the Guthrie production), he asked: "I wonder how much of being a Prairie Intellectual means doing what your wife tells you?"

Many hang on hopefully

And that, for the most part, has been the last summer and fall on the Benson farm. Rain, odd jobs, a growing tension over the harvest delays.
"People are in bad shape," Benson said. "The countryside is being depopulated. Too many people just can't make a living anymore. There are too many people who are supporting their farming habit by working other jobs, and they're saying to themselves, 'If we just quit farming, we'd have more money.'
"Now, if on top of it all we have a real crop disaster, if we get a snowstorm that beats down the beans before we can get them out — that'll finish a lot more people. There must be thousands of people sitting on a razor's edge, and that would be the end of them."
The growing nervousness about the harvest is allayed a bit by visits from family and friends: over the weekend, one of David's older sisters, Marilyn Beckstrom, a minister with the United Church of Christ, came down to Gus Benson's house for a visit. She brought a friend, Bob Shoemake, a Methodist minister, and Shoemake's parents, Earl and Vivian Shoemake of Paducah, Ky. Earl Shoemake is a Baptist minister.
Bob Shoemake, a longtime friend, came equipped with a pair of barber shears and scissors. He promised David a free haircut and a professional shave in return for an oil change. After dinner, accompanied by a good deal of hilarity, he kept his promise in Gus Benson's kitchen.
"Another advantage of an extended family," Benson said around a hot towel.
And later: "Your family keeps you going; everybody moans and groans, but nobody says that they want to do anything different."
Even later one night, he stood in the side yard of his house with his 9-year-old son, Anton, and picked out the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, the North Star, and Pleiades, and other constellations in a sky that looked like black velvet touched by sugar.
"Look at the Milky Way," he said, his face turned up, his fingers tracing the grains of stars across the sky. "You can't see anything like this in the city; you just can't do it. It looks like you could fall right into it."

What's the weather

Things turn quickly on the farm.
Benson climbed the radio tower last Monday, and the fields were soggy. But the day was dry, and so was Tuesday. So Tuesday, he sneaked out, picked the end rows of the corn fields, taking in a single wagonload of corn. It was still wet, but fine for grinding. And he turned over the hay he'd cut before the last rain... and Tuesday night he and Sago baled it, Sago on the tractor and David throwing the bales on the hay rack.
Wednesday was dry again. Humid, but no rain. Thursday was the same. Friday, two days ago, he picked the end rows of the bean fields.
"We got the field open, but the beans are still wet," Sago said by phone late Friday. "If the weather holds, we might get in Sunday. We hate to work Sunday, but if the weather holds...."
If the weather holds, the Bensons are out there this minute, bringing in the big cash crop. It'll be a good one.
If the weather holds.

— John Camp, October 30, 1985