Bigger Farms, Bigger Headaches


Even though many of us take a dim view of monster farms, this year we should all be praising the people fool enough to operate them. In the impossible spring planting season of seemingly constant rain through most of the cornbelt, the crops did get planted (some a second time) and now in late June things don’t look too bad even though late. To get that done required an extraordinary effort, the likes of which will, I think, be lost once this generation of big power farmers has past. The men and women who put out the corn and soybeans this spring are VERY skillful with their high technology, but also have that kind of dedication to the job that was instilled in them by their more traditional fathers and grandfathers. I have a hunch that many of the younger generations do not share the come-hell-or-high water dedication of their parents and grandparents. Nor do the younger farmers know the intricacies of growing corn and soybeans like their parents do. When the older generation dies off, a lot of 10,000 acre farms are going to be broken up (or swallowed by huge factory farms) simply because there will not be enough old school farmers with new school experience to run them. And the huge factory operations, like the state farms of Russia, won’t be able to do the job.

That aside, some of the colossal headaches that colossal farming can bring on when nature does not cooperate are amazing and sometimes almost amusing. No one could have predicted, for instance, that birds would burn up a considerable number of big tractors this spring. Do I have your attention? I did not personally see any of the burning tractors or the bird nests in them that caused the fires, but I have heard of at least seven cases just in this area.According to word of mouth, one tractor model, the International Magnum, seems to have nesting sites particularly attractive to the birds. I can hardly wait to learn more about this strange phenomenon. Whenever I hear of another incidence, I ask what species of bird is involved, but you know farmers. Their sophisticated knowledge does not go much beyond their crops, machinery and playing the government and the grain market. For many of them all birds are simply birds and all bugs are simply bugs and we’d be better off to get shut of them all.

We all see those huge rigs rumbling across the fields and do not suspect just how often they break down or would break down without genius farmers and mechanics hovering over them. Like my mother used to say about washing machines, she didn’t want any of the new ones with all those rinse and wash cycles. “All that fancy new stuff just means more things to break,” she maintained.

It is still true. So you have a monster 60 row planter, let us say, and suppose you can plant 800 acres a day with a couple of them. To cope with such awesomely complicated sizes, these planters are now controlled by sophisticated computers. As we all know, computers tend not to work, especially when after ten days of rainy weather you can finally get into the fields. The thing that infuriated the farmer telling me about his computer woes is that his planter could plant just fine without computerization, but like his mechanic said, “when it does work, sure makes things nicer.”

A new genre of farm folktales is making the rounds where the tall corn grows about farmers who misjudge the power of their new machinery. This spring these stories focused mainly on giant rigs getting buried in mud. In one case a farmer, in a hurry to beat yet more rain, tried to plant through a wet hole and when his tractor started sinking, he made a bad decision. He’d just bull right on through to drier land ahead. He had power to burn, literally. When he finally could go no farther, the tractor was half below ground and a wall of mud at least six feet tall was rolling up in front of the planter. It took three 150 hp plus tractors, two backhoes and a bulldozer to finally free the rig. In the process three pull chains, each with 55,000 pound pulling capacity, snapped in one awesome surge of assembled horsepower. The country road alongside the field looked like a superhighway as the local population drove by to enjoy the show.

Another farmer accidently drove his huge tractor and disk into a pond when he misjudged the bit of delay that can occur between turning the steering wheel on one of these battleship-sized tractors and its response. Not actually being a battleship, the tractor sank partly out of sight. The farmer managed to swim to safety, but then, realizing that the tractor was still running, he swam back out and turned off the motor. That’s what I mean by “come hell or high water dedication.” It took a couple of giant cranes to raise the monster from the deep.

My favorite story about modern farm machinery concerns a tractor operator who got into trouble with the law and lost his driver’s license. No problem. When he was out in the field during harvest and ran out of cigarettes and soft drinks, he just drove his big self-propelled combine into town to get some more. Didn’t need a driver’s license for that.


Ha, your robot doodles… Yours seem to come straight from Oz, mine would probably look like little critters too small to notice! But chronologically mine came after yours, so the credit is yours.
I answered your comment in your own blog, didn’t want to hack Gene’s thread.

Your mom sounds like my mom. She was watching a friend on a farm in Iowa yesterday using his bobcat and said, boy one of those things would be handy, but then I’d have to keep it running somehow. The law of machines is that they break so if you have them on a farm you have to be a mechanic too.

Chimel, I complain a lot…
I can’t believe you “quick-read” the whole stream of conscious ramblings of my last two years! I don’t know if I should say thanks, or apologize, or be embarrassed. I hope you got a few grins out of it. It is kind of supposed to be funny!
I think you inspired me to draw robots, so thanks for that.

@Budd Thanks to your 4 days delay, I have been able to quick-read the full 2 years of your blog! As far as I can make it, these “interconnecting farms” don’t generate much revenue at all, or at least for your no-till business. But you have many pictures of tractors buried in mud that Gene could have used to illustrate his post… ^-^

Chimel I’d take a few of the weeding robots. Yes indeed…for these 90 degree 90+% humidity days! Oh and a few hay bale stacking ones too.

I am 4 days late with a reply and I’m not really saying anything new but.. Our area just experienced the loss of the old 100 to 500 acre farms of the past. The old fellow died and the new generation are more aggressive and have been to ag school. My brother and I farm 500 acres and do quite a bit of custom work. We have a 1970-80’s style production ag farm. Instead of having animals I trade feed for beef and pork. My brother’s wife has chickens. We have big gardens.
Our neighbor has a 350 cow dairy across the field. We grow silage for him, chop his grass pastures for silage for him. Sell him hay and grain. The other neighbors all sell him hay and straw and he takes their clover for silage, which we chop. We try to take as much of his manure as we can get.
This is a little bigger scale than what most small farm/sustainable people are now talking about but it is amazing how much revenue these interconnecting farms generate.
We have a couple over-a-thousand-acre “BTO” folks and they are always after your rented ground and cutting the price and then they do a fake bankruptcy and refinance and they have huge equipment and they seldom hire me to no-till or stack straw or help them farm except when it is completely to their advantage.
The traditional thinking farmers with under say 2,000 acres call me to plant or sometimes chop silage or take care of some odd crop they don’t have the equipment to mess with. I don’t mind them at all.
Over the years I’ve began to suspect it is mostly the farmer’s state of mind that makes them useful to the local economy. But, then again, I don’t know all that much…

Not meaning any disrespect, but you’re wrong, Budd:
We would have a better rural economy AND better health and bigger sense of community and we’d know where our food is sourced from and less oil imports because of more local transportation and it would spread to urban economy too and to worldwide economy for that matter, and we’d have less national debt, and so on! ^-^

I think we would have a better rural economy with more small to medium sized farms and fewer giant ones. But, that is just my opinion.

That article must be quite old, soil compacting and tractors drowned in the mud are things from the past, thanks to the atomic flying planters. And it’s now 400 acres an hour, not a day.

Hope such contraptions will never exist, but on the opposite scale, I am certain I will see nanorobots or rather minirobots in the fields during my lifetime. I am thinking specifically about tasks such as weeding or mulching in commercial organic farming, where you can’t use chemical herbicides and you’d rather not disturb and compact the soil after sowing or planting.
There will still be many manual jobs left in organic farming, but weeding is a painful and boring job if you’re alone in the field, and it requires skills that traditional mechanical devices cannot replicate, for instance if you want to weed within the rows too, not just between the rows.

This reminds me of a story I heard secondhand about a tractor getting stuck at a tractor pull. One of those Bigfoot pickups tried to pull it out and, predictably, got stuck. In the end, a team of horses pulled them all out.

I understand what you’re saying about gumption and ingenuity. I like to eat too. But I have to take exception with those terms applied to any farmer who is out there trying to plant in mud. The resulting soil compaction renders those fields useless. Maybe Ma Earth has been trying to swallow up some of these big tractors out of sheer annoyance.

I remember coming in with a load of hay back in the early days of my marriage. My spouse, who was naive to the ways of wet California red clay, blithely proposed we feed the stock in the near pen before we unloaded the rest. My protests fell on deaf ears… six hours later, after much winching, shoveling and a LOT of cussing, we finally got the truck onto solid ground again.

I’m with your mom on simple machines! Had a new fangled gas stove with all digital oven controls. One power hit from a lightening storm blew the computer on the dang thing. Computer costs more to replace than the stove. My new one has NO electronics, not even a clock and works great.

As to driving the tractor to the store, my hubbie tried that with the ATV and got a $200 driving without a license ticket. NOT a good idea!

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