18 October 2007

An Autumn Memory

I saw a flock of seagulls in an athletic field the other day. We’ve had a lot of rain this month. So the ground is pretty soggy. I suppose the soggy soil caused the worms to come to the surface, and the birds flew down to enjoy a feast.

It reminded me of autumn and harvest on the farm. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I grew up on a farm. I learned how to drive a tractor when I was pretty young. After my dad got confident in my ability to control the machine, I would help out in the fall by plowing fields after they had been harvested.

Basically, from September on, I would spend weekends and often evenings after school on the tractor. Dad grew mostly corn and soybeans. After the combine had cleared the crop, the open field consisted of stubble and discarded stalks and hulls. I’d come along with the plow and turn over the brown stubble, burying the organic matter and reintegrating it with the soil, exposing rich, black soil. Gradually, slowly, the tractor making repetitive trips across the field, it would transform from brown to black.

This photo is posted on Flickr by Sandy Su. It illustrates nicely what often would happen while I was plowing. Flocks of seagulls would circle the tractor and plow and land on the freshly turned soil to pick out worms, insects, or other tasty treats. I always used to wonder – we were miles away from the nearest lake. What were these seagulls doing so far away from a body of water?

There was just one problem. The stubble and crop residue actually protect the soil from wind erosion during the winter. If you had a good snow cover, the snow would hold the soil. But during a dry winter, you could literally see the dirt blow off the fields.

Years later, I think after I left the farm to go to college, my dad adopted new conservation tillage techniques. Instead of a moldboard plow, he switched to a chisel plow. Instead of turning the soil under, it would break up the soil and aerate it while leaving the crop residue in place to reduce erosion over the winter. Dad was an early adopter of the practice, at least in our neighborhood.

Many years later, when Dad retired, his renter plowed the fields using a moldboard. Trying not to be judgmental, I asked Dad what he thought. “Well,” he said, “it’s kind of a step backwards. But it sure is nice seeing a nice black field again. I always thought that a chisel plowed field looked kind of junky.”

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