Iowa Harvest

The last photograph I snapped of my father driving the family combine as the sun sets over our soybean field in Iowa.

Wanda - This and That

For several weeks now, I’ve been venturing out in the rural areas to watch chile being harvested by local farm laborers. As an old farm girl, I never tire of watching crops being harvested.

In Minnesota I always was fascinated by the timber harvest. In Wisconsin, the fall was the perfect time to watch cranberries harvested from the cranberry bogs. In North Carolina, one of my employees took me to her family’s tobacco and cotton plantation to watch the harvesting process.

Farming and/or ranching is hard work, no matter where one resides. I guess that is why I used to take vacation in October to visit my parents back on the family farm in Iowa. Not only did I get to see the corn harvested, I never knew when I'd have to fill in to drive the grain truck to the local elevator or river terminal.

Those were long days. We were up at the crack of dawn and worked past dusk to make certain the corn was harvested in a timely manner.

However, my mother was quite adamant about the work hours. She didn't want any farm work done in the late evening hours. That's when people got hurt, or things would go wrong.

"The work will be there tomorrow … in the daylight," she'd say. I believe the main reason was, she wanted my father to be able to see his children and enjoy an evening meal with all of us together at the supper table. It's at the supper table, my father would talk about that year's harvest and how many bushels per acre our neighbors were getting from their corn crops.

If my father wasn't a farmer, I truly believe he would have been a mathematician. Why?

He could calculate numbers faster than anyone I knew. He challenged his children in mathematics, too. One of my favorite fall memories was calculating how many bushels of corn per acre the farm would be producing. Before he'd start picking corn, my father would bring four ears of corn from different parts of our farm. He'd present each of my siblings and me with an ear of corn to calculate.

You're probably thinking, how in the heck do you do that? Well, let me explain.

Besides being an excellent mathematician, my father was a student of agriculture. He was a prolific reader and read about this method in a magazine called The Wallace Farmer. The journalist was none other than Henry Wallace, who founded the Hi-Bred Corn Company and later became secretary of agriculture under President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1940. Henry's father also served as secretary of agriculture from 1921 to 1924 under Woodrow Wilson. The family's name was synonymous with Iowa agriculture.

It was in the Wallace Farmer magazine my father learned the corn calculating formula.

Here's how it worked: Multiply the average number of rows per ear by kernels per row by the number of ears in a thousandth of an acre and divide by 90 to estimate yield in bushels per acre.

For example: 16 rows x 40 kernels x 32 ears = 21,504 kernels in a thousandth of an acre / 90 = 240 bushels per acre.

As kids, we loved the challenge. We'd try to see who could calculate the fastest. Later, when the corn was harvested, we waited to learn who calculated the closest to the actual bushels per acre received.

Since 1955, Dad kept a logbook and recorded how many bushels per acre harvested on different sections of our farm. The logbook expanded over the years to include bushels per acre of oats and soybeans. An alfalfa harvest was noted by the number of cuttings and how many hay bales that were produced.

My father died in November of 2009 after we had completed the harvest on our family farm. One of his final questions to my brother was: How many bushels of corn per acre did we get?

In our family, math was taken seriously. However, before my father became ill, he was thoroughly upset because his grandson wasn't taking his mathematics courses seriously. He told his grandpa he didn't know why he had to take math in high school. He just wanted to be a farmer. Math wasn't going to help him later in life.

Let's just say, my nephew got a life lesson on why math was important for farmers. I'm hopeful that maybe, just maybe he took his grandpa's advice seriously