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Heart and Grain: When oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears

By John Wepking, Meadowlark Organics and Bickford Organics 

Last year, after we harvested our wheat, we planted a diverse cover crop mix designed for forage and biomass production. It was a rainy summer, and we were getting close to the date when seeding this mix wouldn’t be as effective since the days were getting shorter. I was on my last field, after just refilling the grain drill with seed, and as I passed through a grass waterway, my right grain drill tire (a very specialized tire, of course!) was completely punctured by a 20-year-old hay rake that was lying hidden in the grass. Rains were imminent, and I was stuck. Walking back to the farm would have taken me 30 minutes. I called Paul, who was working in the shop.

Farming on my own, this would have been a complete disaster. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten the field planted before the rain, and it would have cost me significant money to have the tire repaired by the local implement dealer. However I farm with a mentor, who is also my boss, and together we brought over blocking and a bottle jack, lifted one end of the drill, got the wheel off, drove it back to the shop, repaired it on the spot, and within an hour I was back out seeding.

Paul cleaning seed oats with our Clipper 27 seed cleaner (we’ve since added a proper hopper to control the flow of grain into the machine).

Each time there’s a flat tire, or a hydraulic line springs a leak, or an electrical circuit needs changing, I learn a little bit more and I grow as a farmer and as a person.

For my parents’ generation of farmers, repairing a punctured tire or slaughtering and butchering a steer was a fairly common skill, and like most acquired skills, this knowledge was passed down to them from their parents. When there are so few young farmers, what happens to all this knowledge?

The number of farmers in this country has been dropping ominously for decades, to the point where now only approximately 1% of Americans are farmers. We lose so much as a culture when so few are providing food for so many, and the implications for our knowledge base is staggering. As fewer and fewer people take up farming as a career, I really fear that our self-reliance—our resilience as a people—is quickly eroding.

Growing up, I had many interests, and this always kept me from being the best at any one thing. I played a number of sports, read a lot, and played multiple musical instruments. There was always a part of me that was jealous of the kids who were singularly motivated to excel at one thing, whether it was baseball, guitar, or the tuba. They were the ones who got the accolades, who were rewarded for their diligence. I could never pick just one thing.

Finding a career posed the same challenges; it was difficult to find one specialized, rewarding field. I was a good student, so none of my mentors encouraged me to do anything other than go to college and work toward a doctorate or go to law school. That was success. Not one of my mentors looked at me and saw that what I should be doing was working with my hands. And I certainly didn’t know it at the time either.

Thankfully, through finding cooking and then returning to my family’s farming heritage, I am cultivating a wide range of specialized skills, and my personal passions are satisfied, for the most part, with the work that I do.

Our son Henry inspecting the rye.

Farmers, in many ways, are the ultimate renaissance people. Increasingly, our society demands we become specialists and hire other people to do the things we no longer know how to do. For all of us who like to dabble in many different things and can’t decide on a singular passion, perhaps a career such as farming, which allows people to embrace their own multitude of passions, is worth serious consideration, no matter your background, education level, or access to capital. As a farmer, you gradually become proficient at many things: carpentry, biology, electrical theory, economics, business, finance, animal husbandry, dendrology, mechanics, soil science, gardening, machine operating, and butchery, among many others.

The problem with all this is that although I spent my youth on and around farms, I spent my teenage years in the suburbs, and I missed out on the opportunity to really learn the trades that are so crucial to being a capable farmer. My father is an engineer, but he grew up farming, drilling wells with his father, and working as a welder and in machine shops. Paul, my boss, has been farming his whole life and is eager to teach, even as he is often flummoxed by my lack of mechanical skill. Between the two of them, I am doing my best to make up for lost time and absorb as much knowledge as I can.

There are many, many great books about the more theoretical aspects of farming: grazing, soil biology, cover crops, no-till, growing milling grains, etc. Reading everything you can get your hands on is essential, but after the winter has surrendered to the sun’s warmth and all the work you’ve done in your head turns to action, you have to be ready for adversity. Despite my enthusiasm and my books, without my father and Paul I’d be absolutely up a creek.

“Plant corn when oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears.” I learned that phrase from my father, who learned it from Carson Wepking, his dad. On our organic farm, we don’t get the corn in quite that early, but I’m always watching the buds on the oak trees as a benchmark, to see when my grandfather would have started to plant years before.

Not all farm wisdom stands the test of time as technology evolves and practices change, but it is wisdom just the same, acquired and made gospel by generations of experience. And even if it is not strictly followed, it is worth preserving.



About this series: The National Young Farmers Coalition and King Arthur Flour present Heart and Grain, a new blog and film series profiling three pioneering young grain farmers. While all farmers face challenges, the high start-up costs associated with grain farming can make it an especially difficult field to enter for new and young farmers. Learn more about the series here.

About our series sponsor: Farmers are at the heart of baking. That’s why King Arthur Flour proudly supports the National Young Farmers Coalition and its mission of empowering the next generation of grain growers. As America’s appetite for sustainable food increases, King Arthur Flour is dedicated to helping farms grow with demand and strengthening people’s connection to real food.
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