The last time a farmer invited me to hop up on his tractor with him, I was five years old. We lived out in the country, five miles north of Hinckley, Illinois. And Les Miller farmed the ninety-acres next to our house. When hearing him out there, I’d run over, slip into the field, and start waving at him as he’d come around my way. Les would stop, climb off the tractor, hoist me up, and let me sit on his lap for a couple rounds. Sometimes we’d plow, sometimes we’d disk. I looked back at those impact implements… at what they were doing to the field… and think how much it would hurt if I fell off and got caught up in one of them… which made me hang on to Farmer Les all the tighter.
Les's daughter Kathy and I were in kindergarten together. Their whole family went to the church where my dad was pastor, an open country church, with our parsonage on one side of the church and the cemetery on the other.
I went back there a few years ago. Les and his wife are buried in the cemetery. Their son Bobby happened to be there that day and we talked. He and I walked among the graves, seeing the names of dozens of people I remembered from my childhood. My dad was pastor there until the weekend John Kennedy was assassinated, when I was in the fourth grade, when he got assigned to a new church down in Dalton City, Illinois. Farmer Les was one of my favorites back in the day.
A few weeks ago, Farmer Tom (Hitzhusen), in the church I now pastor, asked me if I wanted to come out to his property and ride the tractor with him. After assuring me that I wouldn’t have to sit on his lap, I agreed. He said I might like to see how farming technology has changed over the last 60 years. He would give me a call when it was time to plant corn, and I could come out and ride along.
And so he called me this past Thursday. My first impression was that I wasn’t hanging out with Farmer Les anymore. Instead, I was about to spend 90 minutes in an air-conditioned cab with Professor Hitzhusen. The jump seat where I sat wasn’t nearly as comfortable as Farmer Les’s lap, but at least I didn’t worry about falling overboard and getting chewed up by the eight row planter we were pulling behind us.
Professor Hitzhusen spent the first half of our time together updating me on the technological changes that have occurred in the six decades since I last rode with Farmer Les. He explained health and safety features in the modern tractor. He explained how the GPS worked, how the tractor automatically drove itself in a straighter line than he ever could manually. He explained the computer maps of the field we were in, how they plotted the nature and quality of the soil every few square feet. As the eight row planter traverses the field, the computer remembers whether seed has already been planted in that spot and refuses to give it more. The computer sends a signal to plant more seeds in better soil (to maximize production in the best places) and fewer seeds in soil that doesn’t produce as well. Professor Hitzhusen fascinated me with comments about conservation, farm economics, and the latest research into disease and pest control. He mentioned things about hydraulics, electronics, computer science, pneumatics… but not enough information to trust me with fixing his equipment, however, should that be necessary.
Then… about half way through our ride, Professor Hitzhusen suddenly morphed into Farmer Tom, talking about the same stuff Farmer Les knew about more than half a century ago, the stuff farmers have known for centuries. He talked about the amazing nature of the corn plant, of the mysteries of the supernatural being who created corn, of rural community, of family, of memories and wisdom passed on to him from his father and grandfather. He talked about the sacrifices his wife Margaret makes, along with other farm wives and families, in order to form a strong team for the planting and harvesting seasons. He talked of the farmer’s divine calling: to feed the growing population on earth despite there being less and less arable land each year. He talked of leaving the land in quality condition for future generations. He talked of mental health issues among farmers and the high suicide rate. He talked about humility: the joy of bending and shaping one’s life around the seasons and the weather.
Farmer Tom was giving Preacher Mike a hundred sermon illustrations… and I didn’t even have a notebook with me to write them down. Plus, I’m wanting to retire in six more weeks: Why’s this guy giving me more to talk about when I’m trying to quit preaching!
The corn seed is planted two inches deep. It begins to dissolve, as all life must, and move toward the light. Corn knows to grow toward the light, a life lesson for humans. When the plant is roughly a foot tall, it biologically calculates its maximum potential: how many rows of kernels it can produce (always an even number) and length of the ear. As it develops, a single strand of silk attaches itself to each kernel and stretches its way out of the husk into open air. Each strand is pollinated by dust from the tassel atop the corn stalk, and that kernel is stimulated to grow. Without the gift of the silk strand, that kernel will not develop. One kernel planted in the ground will produce an average of 600 kernels for the farmer.
Once each plant has computed its maximum potential, it must then survive disease, weather, and pest. Each challenge causes the plant to cut back a little, in order that some kernels may survive for the next generation. In other words, the plant sacrifices its own individual potential for the next generation. The next time you peel back the husk on an ear of sweet corn, and you see some kernels missing on the end, know plant did this to itself in order to maximize the chances of life for the kernels remaining.
I was blessed to hear a farmer talk about corn. Our lives have grown so consumeristic that the only question most people ask, when they see corn, is “Where’s the butter?” My hat is off to Farmer Tom and Farmer Les, on their tractors, in their fields, who taught me not only a world of answers, but reminded me of the better questions we might ponder, questions that feed our souls as well as our bodies.