Spring of 1981 saw a huge expansion in the Groszkruger farming enterprise. It started as a patch of spinach in Newport Beach. It was pretty miserable. Near zero organic matter doesn’t foster high yields without daily water and fertilizer.
My precious Dawn and I moved to Grandpa’s farm with our baby, Hans. Grandpa and his brother had purchased the farm in 1920 and rented it out on a 50/50 share basis all those years.
The tenant had emphysema so badly he couldn’t carry a bag of seed from the pickup to the planter. In contrast to his sweet wife, he was the biggest grouch I’ve ever known. As in my days teaching organic gardening in Oakland, I learned as I went from scientific literature and acquaintances. Looking back, that was a blessing, as I’ve found tradition is the enemy of innovation and a terrible guide for profit.
In order to avoid some inheritance tax for my mom, I was declared “farm manager” despite my ignorance. That should be a poignant lesson in how qualified government is in business affairs. I evicted the tenant and he and his grown sons hated me for it, even though his terrible health got in the way of his work. He moved to town and when we crossed paths he turned away as I passed by.
I was pretty apprehensive when I attended his retirement auction. I hardly knew anyone. But when I went into the garage to get my bidding number there was Morrie, the neighbor down the road. His smile shone out from under his “beak” and set my mind at ease.
Later, in the rush of soybean harvest Morrie took the time to show me how to use a cutting torch to burn a bad bearing off of a combine shaft without catching my face on fire. That’s the kind of neighbor he was. He went with me to West Union for a sale to buy that combine. Another wise friend, Allyn, had advised me that the combine was an important purchase to avoid waiting for a custom operator when fall weather threatened the crops.
West Union was 80 miles away. On March 1st of ’82, another neighbor, Kenny, rode with us in our ’63 Chevy pickup to get the combine. We had a trailer made out of a fertilizer buggy for the 13′ bean head. The three row cornhead was barely wider than the combine so I drove home with it on the machine. Much of the highway had walls of snow on both sides and a line of cars followed like a funeral procession until I found a place to pull over.
Iowa’s grid of backroads is deceiving. I thought I could go a mile north and parallel the highway. Creeks and rivers interrupted the simplicity of that plan and I didn’t bring a map. I turned into a farmyard and asked directions. The lady said, “You look like a guy, but oh well.” I still managed to stay off the highway and get home.
A few years later I discovered a more powerful diesel version of that combine at a sale only 20 miles away with a new battery. On the way home I found out why it had a new battery. I needed the lights as I got close to home and they were out as I pulled into the yard. Other than lots of rat dung and chewed wires, the belts, chains, and bearings were good.
It didn’t seem like so long ago we traded for a great hydrostatic six-row 6600 John Deere for $15,000. The hydro allowed Dawn to vary the speed infinitely to match the variations in crop conditions. When it blew black smoke, she could slow down a little. Keeping it full was efficient. Four years ago we sold it, ready for the field, for $1,500.
Our kids were telling stories with us about those early days on the farm and Karl suggested I write this. There’s more, much more, that might pop up from time to time to give us a break from the serious present day. Although I dismiss tradition here, history still needs to play an important role.
I’m writing this on Veteran’s Day. It troubles me that the name was changed from Armistice Day, a day celebrating peace, to one honoring the victims of government failure to preserve it. History needs to play a bigger role in our choices.