Sunday, November 24, 2013

Last Man

Dec 1994

In every farming community, he is known by name and reputation. He fills a social purpose enshrined in history as far back as farming goes. Almost single-handedly he ensures the self esteem of his fellow farmers by providing a standard of measurement that makes all others seem super- competent. Like the Village Idiot of much older and unenlightened days, the Last Man is a public figure that everyone can look down upon with genial affection, and in the process, feel better about himself.

I have studied these anti-heroes during my life on the farm. Far from being the lowest of the low (or slowest of the slow), they seem to possess many of the character attributes I admire. They have a strong sense of values, and are totally unfazed by the opinions of their critics. One Last Man in my area routinely left his combine in the field on golden October afternoons, when any right-thinking farmer was tearing up and down the fields, to go to a college ballgame to see his son march in the band. He was unapologetic and unconcerned about public reaction. You see, he too had never seen the supposed trophy that awaited that First Man Done. When he took his grain to the elevator, they only asked, "How much?” – never "How fast?".

The much-maligned trend to cash rent has brought a new sense of realism to the annual Farm Race. If there is no landlord to impress, the sense of urgency can yield to a sense of propriety. Not causing compaction, good germination, lower harvesting losses, and other often neglected aspects of farming become more important. Perhaps it's a sign of middle age (the best of all possible ages), but I am less and less anxious about "when", and more and more concerned about "what" is produced.

The legendary Last Man in our immediate area has retired. His replacement, an admirable and energetic young farmer, has speeded up the operation by leaps and bounds. A certain nervousness now pervades the area, as farmers jockey for position on the speed chart. I think I am ready, after years of training. Fulfilling this social function in our community will take the pressure off a lot of driven people. Knowing that no matter how slowly your season is going, somebody's is going slower soothes nervous egos.

I've been working on the role already. Last year, during harvest, the header drive belt broke. It was about 3 pm. I parked the combine in the field just across from my house and called the dealer for the part, which he had. The dealer, however, is 55 minutes away, even with Jan driving, and he has a drop box nearby in town that parts are delivered to every evening. We were going to a cross-country meet that afternoon at 5, so we decided to wait and let them bring the part, since after replacing the belt we wouldn't have any time to work. The weather being warm, I jumped into my trunks and hit the pool, which is clearly visible from the road. 

Over the next 30 minutes, three neighbors drove combines by on their frenzied way to fields, and observed (they tend to look very closely in case Jan is around the pool in a swimsuit) with astonishment a) our combine sitting idle and intact in field ready to harvest, b) Jan and I floating in the pool and c) the presence of adult beverages. Within hours, this apparently lackadaisical approach to farming was well known around the community. For me to contradict the story was, of course, futile. I figured I might as well enjoy the role. Since this one incident provided so much enjoyment to so many, I now am working ways to farm our 1200 acres without ever being seen to work at all. That ought to drive them nuts.

Interestingly enough, according to agricultural statisticians, harvest is taking less and less time each year. By my calculations, if the trend continues, in 2078 it will be down to one day. Think of the conversations then:
"Old Bob was really slow again this year"
"Yeah - he didn't get done until 10 o'clock the day after harvest!!" or "Boy! Am I exhausted! We worked clear through lunch hour this year!"

The only nagging thought is that if I'm wondering at times what to do with my time, what are those guys who finish early doing? As we get faster and faster, soon the question why we're saving so much time looms before us. Finishing early to do - what? If idle hands are the Devil's playground, we're talking about a veritable Disneyland here. Let's take this competition to a higher and better plane. The minuscule risk of an arguable crop loss is a small price to pay for savoring the best times of the year and the best work in the world, let alone the good that it will do for farm families. Maybe the last really will be first. 

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