I sat down gratefully. My cap absorbed the sweat on my forehead and I could feel the moisture between my shoulder blades as I leaned back against the backrest on my three-legged stool.
It wasn’t quite as easy to put up as advertised, but I was happy with the blind I had recently purchased. Now all I had to do was wait for the whitetail to follow the trail I selected and walk into bow range.
As I sat there and the evening coolness settled in, I remembered the times from prior years hunting this area. Lac La Parle and the Bigstone Refuge are noted for their waterfowl and whitetail deer populations. My mind brought me to the memory of my first visit to this magical place.
A friend from work was married to Cookie, a woman that grew up on a farm not far from where I now rested. Through conversation, I was invited for a waterfowl hunt as a guest of her brother, Mike. We arranged for my dad and me to meet her husband, Steve, and Mike, for a morning hunt.
I drove from Prior Lake to Starbuck and picked up my dad at about 4am. We then drove to Bellingham where we were to meet Steve and Mike. The morning was thick with fog and I gained immediate credibility by pulling into the driveway exactly on schedule.
We were in Mike’s fathers’ yard and after introductions, drove to Mike’s place about a quarter-mile north. Upon pulling up to his house we were greeted by his wife, Patty, and had our first encounter with the selfless hospitality that endures to this day.
Patty appeared with mugs of coffee for dad and me, delivered to the hood of the car while Mike outlined the upcoming hunt. What an experience! Mike had the back of his pickup loaded with bags of decoys; we were outfitted with a full thermos of hot coffee and told we would be hunting a slough east of their house. We piled into his truck, and off we went with a wave and “good luck” from Patty.
After a short drive, we stopped and unloaded a bag of decoys. Mike threw them over his shoulder and dad and I followed him to a finger of dry land surrounded by cattails and open water pools. After positioning us, and setting the decoys, he slogged his way back to the truck to hunt a different area with the promise to return mid-morning to see how we did.
It wasn’t long before we got some shooting as the birds moved from one slough to another, offering consistent challenges to our skill. Dad and I marveled at the kindness shown by our host family at our first meeting.
Sure enough . . . mid morning arrived and along with it came our host, and to our surprise he returned with a fresh thermos — and sandwiches. We were overwhelmed.
That overwhelming feeling revisits me every time I enter their driveway, even though nearly thirty years have passed since that first meeting.
TRYING MY HAND AT FARM LIFE - 2008
I arrived later than intended, not because the three-hour drive took longer than expected, but because my last minute organizing wasn’t very well organized. I was pulling into the driveway in western Minnesota at the farm first visited all those years ago by Dad and me. The farm that has played host to my son, my son-in-law, and several of my friends for more than two and a half decades of hunting.
Strangely, Mike and Patty were at the dining room table when I clomped across the deck, baggage in tow, toward the mudroom door. After all these years of imposing on their hospitality this was the first time I caught them at the table when I passed the windows.
It was a Monday, clear and warm for November, and I was there to help Mike with fieldwork unfinished because of weather, health impediments, and his boys tending to their own family responsibilities. After a quick howdy and dropping my things in my adopted bedroom we were off to see what damage I could do.
Never been in a tractor, and I say ‘in’ with utmost respect. Modern tractors have a cab, heat and air conditioning, power steering, AM/FM radio, and the better ones even sport a spring loaded, shock-absorbing seat and GPS navigation.
It was decided I was to help Lee, Mike’s oldest son, by raking the chopped corn stalks into windrows so he could follow with the bailer. A quick tutorial on operating the tractor, Ford New Holland, the first new tractor Mike had ever owned, and I was deemed ready. I found it a little daunting at first, but within an hour, I was comfortable with the controls and doing a passable job. However, about an hour and a half later, Lee, who was making round bales from the windrows, flagged me down and declared the field too wet to continue so I followed him back to the yard, parking the rig to one side.
This was my first participation in the actual act of farming and I found it exhilarating.
Why was it so satisfying to my soul?
I thought of Dad and his strong connection to the land regardless of where he lived, and his true love for farming, although, his time on the farm was over before the reached his adult years. How many times had I heard him acknowledge his love for the smell of freshly spread manure even though the closest he came to field work during my lifetime was when he mowed the hollow adjacent to our house, and raked and burned leaves during the cool October evenings.
I wonder; is there is a predisposition in our lives so powerful and so veiled that it goes unrecognized while driving our actions in an inflexible direction? Is it circumstance that places us in a situation that has the potential of changing our lives forever?
These thoughts are a little over the top so I’ll just describe my observations during my five days helping a dear friend, with the assumption that all farmers share a commonality that is defined by my Western Minnesota Host.
* * *
· Farmers eat well.
This is probably the most obvious of truths and is backed by many years of visits to farming relatives. They have to eat well to support their bodies during the long days, and there seems to be no limit to food selection. The worst thing imaginable is running out of food during the dinner hour.
· Farmers work hard, farmers’ wives work harder.
The first out of bed in the morning these women take responsibility for getting the kids ready for school, making breakfast for the family, preparing and delivering lunch to the field during harvest season, running the kids to after-school commitments, stocking the house with groceries, preparing dinner and washing the dishes afterwards, keeping the house presentable, washing clothes, ironing select items, maintaining relationships with in-laws, assisting with chores. I’m sure there are fifty or sixty more items on the list, but there is no doubt as to a farmer wife’s work ethic. Some, like Patty, even work a full time job while doing their everyday work on the farm.
· Rare indeed, is a poor value system adopted by farm kids.
It seems that 99% of the farm kids I’ve met are polite, respectful, and welcome responsibility. My longtime best friend grew up on a farm.
· Farmers are smart, in part because of their ‘thinking time’ while doing fieldwork.
I suspect ‘thinking time’ is a relatively new phenomenon gained with the progression of new farming methods and advances in equipment. Hydraulics makes it pretty easy to plow to the selected depth and technology makes it easy to drag implements over huge tracts of land. Much of the work involves planning for land use and identifying acreage for application of the correct chemicals. Now days they plot an entire field identifying specific areas with a shortage of nutrients, and spread lime, fertilizer, or whatever may be needed to improve the soil in a very specific area? Today’s fieldwork is steering and working levers. This makes available large chunks of time to think.
· You will never find a PETA member amongst active farmers.
They simply don’t have time to worry about, or even consider, animal rights. We’re having fresh chicken, off with his head. A dead sheep, dig a hole and dump ‘er in.
· There is no such thing as an 8-hour workday for a farmer.
With charts, graphs, and in the case of livestock farmers, estrous cycles to worry about, there is never enough time in the day.
* * *
I stayed with them for a week, more or less earning my stripes.
I was sent into the hayloft to drop a few bales of straw for sheep bedding with the simple instruction, “Make sure it’s straw and not hay.”
“How will I know the difference?”
“You’ll know the difference. Straw is the light one . . . hay is gonna be heavier.”
Sure enough, there was a difference and I guess I picked the right ones. I darn near broke my neck trying to climb down. Lee wasn’t very careful when he loaded the bales into the loft (seemed to me they stayed where they dropped off the elevator), and there was loose stuff all over, likely from bales that broke apart. The result was a surface as slippery as an ice run. I got up a pretty good head of steam as I slid toward the ladder and I could picture Mike, mouth agape as I bounced on down. Fortunately, I stopped myself at the opening.
Another job I had at Lee’s place was to spread sheep manure. Not as bad as it sounds.
I backed the tractor, manure spreader behind, into the fenced pen where Lee used the front loader to fill er up. When he signaled me it was full, I drove across the road to the field he wanted treated and after driving to the proper place, activated the spreader. Crap flew and the spreader was empty in one pass. Then back to the pen for another load. I delivered five loads before the pen was cleared.
As the days passed Mike had me doing a little of everything: feed the sheep, deliver sheep to market, and watch the vet check the females for pregnancy (not a nice job for the vet). Lee even tutored me on hydrologists’ reports and how to determine which ground needed additional chemicals to bolster the harvest. Amazingly, entire fields were plotted showing specific pieces of each field and what nutrients should be added to each. As was patiently explained to me, it’s the land that needs to be cared for. It’s the land that produces and the farmers’ job is to protect that resource, no matter the cost.
With all the expense and thoughtful care given to the land, it's no wonder some farmers go ballistic when hunters trample their fields without permission.
That summer a bad storm had blown through the area uprooting trees and making even the main highways impassible. There was residue from that summer storm, even in November; broken trees piled in yards and broken buildings with twisted walls and flattened silos. Mike lost a portion of one of his hoop barns, earlier repaired when we were there as guests during our annual deer hunting/goose hunting/pheasant hunting extravaganza.
Although more than twenty five years have passed since I first tasted their hospitality my initial visit is as clear in my mind as my last, as are all my trips to this Disney Land for grownups.
The youthful rides and excitement were replaced with evenings on lawn chairs in front of the garage trading stories at the end of the day. Disney would never offer a chance to hunker down near the edge of a slew engaging in conversation while waiting for ducks to swing into the decoys, or lying on our backs on the cold ground of a picked field waiting for a flock of geese to come into gun range.
A theme park could never compare to sitting around the packed dinner table trading stories with the always-present conclave gathered there where dry humor crackles like electricity. The place where remarks, intended or not, bring giggles as from children and Mike and I are caught in spontaneous laughter, his entire body bouncing on his chair; Patty’s admonishments when the truth is stretched, “Well Mike’e, that’s not totally true” – or – “Mike’e, you’re terrible” following one of the marginally off color jokes uttered by our host.
They are my friends. To say I love them would be an understatement. They are the salt of the earth, as true as the North Star, and as open as the universe. As I drove back to the Twin Cities after this brief time with them, it was clear . . . they are my family.