by Marcus Newton,
Originally published in the October 17, 1998, issue of the Weld County Past Times
While driving through the country the other afternoon, I saw a farmer on a tractor plowing up some corn ground, and that got me to mullin’ about how farmers have worked the land through the centuries.
When I was very young, in the 1950s, there were still a few farmers – Mr. Vonalt and Mr. Gettman among them – around Mead, Weld County, Colorado, who carried on their farming with horses. I always liked to watch this man-equine labor. There was something beautiful in the glistening muscles of those big bays as they pulled a plow or a clicking mower or a binder. And I liked to hear the clinking of the harness and the hollering of the farmer as he worked the horses.
But farm horses passed into the sunset, leading with them much of the beauty and simplicity of subsistence living, diverse crops and big-family operations. It was the tractor that would forever change the face of the farm.
My first experience tractor came when I was about 12 years old and was hired by Mr. Dean Seewald to cultivate some corn on a farm north of Mead. Mr. Seewald’s directions were, as those of most farmers, cursory: Start the tractor like this, pull this to raise and lower the cultivator, drive in this gear and at this speed.
With nary another word, Mr. Seewald and his pickup became a cloud of dust, barreling away in the direction of town.
Now, being an astute young Meadian, I was clear on the concept of crop cultivation: Cut out the weeds, leave the crop, drive fast enough to toss the soil up to the base of the plants.
With these instructions in mind, I nervously mounted and started the little Ford tractor and headed for the inches-high corn … and immediately ran into a problem. The front end of that puny little tractor kept sliding, first to one side and then to the other, into the ditches between the rows. And, each time it happened, my ancestor Isaac Newton’s law came into play: When the front slides, there is an equal and opposite reaction from the rear – the cultivator creeps over and cuts out a line of corn.
I diligently concentrated on driving, trying so hard to keep that little tractor on the straight and narrow. But it was all for naught.
So, after fightin’ it for a couple of hours, I parked that little machine at the end of the field and set off home, thereby kissing off my first tractor-driving job. If this was farmin’, I thought, I didn’t dig it. Mr. Seewald saw me a few days later and the Mead Pool Hall and slipped me a $20 bill; he didn’t say a word about my zig-zags in his field or walkin’ off the job. I appreciated his generosity and his silence about my tearing up his corn crop.
My next tangle with a tractor came one summer when I worked for a farmer near Highland Lake. He’d plowed up some wet barley ground and the result was a real lumpy field.
My job was to drive his old pink Farmall, with roller attached, and smooth it all out. Well, with me hanging on for dear life, that Farmall rocked and rolled and reared and roared through that field for a day and a half. And as the machine crawled up and back, sunrise to sunset, the tractor saddle beat me unmercifully. When the job was done, I had, for a time, a sore butt and a sore back and walked like an 80-year-old sodbuster.
A tractor also figured into family lore. Ave, my 3-years-older brother, was hired to mil cows for a dairyman twice a day, in very early morning and late each evening. Between milkings, he was doing tractor work on a drylands farm north of Mead. He was a mite tired one afternoon as he tractored, what with the warmth and roar of the machine, and fell asleep at the wheel. Waking with a start, he found himself working a field on a neighboring farm … across a county road from where he was supposed to be. I don’t remember what the boss said to Dave, but it undoubtedly involved some advice to get a bit more sleep.
My last experience on a tractor came bout 15 years ago when my father-in-law, Frank Barnes, allowed me to plow a small hayfield on his farm in southwest Weld County. The tractor I drove was a gigantic John Deere. I climbed a ladder to reach the glassed-in cockpit and feasted my urban-dwelling eyes on some new-rural amenities: air conditioning, padded throne, automatic transmission and, best of all, a radio that had enough power to knock you to the north end of the south forty.
So I’m plowing along in the hayfield, northeast to southwest, to and for, in the crisp fall afternoon.
There is, best of all, the incomparable aroma of new-plowed earth, an aroma that has swelled the hearts and buckled the knees of farmers for centuries.
And there are the gulls, flying, flapping and fighting, hovering and hopping behind and before and above the roaring machine.
And there is the sunset, the slanting rays of which streak through the dust and dark clouds that hang above the Rockies.
And there is radio, singing out the strains of a Mozart symphony … an evensong for the soul.
And there am I, seated on my tractor throne, a part of it all: The soil and the sights and the sounds.
Now this, I think to myself, this is farmin’.