I’m reminded of the summers of my youth, spent mostly in soybean fields with a corn knife in my hand.
My, how things have changed? At the soybean management field day last week in Bancroft, I sat in on the weed management talk, and heard a lot about preventing spray drift and fighting herbicide-resistant weeds.
Herbicide-resistant weeds, did you say? Thirty years ago, there were only a few, very expensive herbicides available for use in soybeans. The only sure-fired way to beat the weeds in our soybean fields was to cut them out.
Our family has been raising soybeans about as long as anyone in our part of the world. And, when I was eight years old, I can recall walking all day in soybean fields with my parents, pulling weeds.
When I was ten years old, Dad armed me with a corn knife and gave the usual safety rules, which I strictly adhered to.
1) Watch your feet and hands when you are chopping.
2) Pull the weeds over, and chop at the base near the soil surface.
3) Never swing your corn knife around your head to swat sweat bees.
4) Never swing your corn knife at anyone walking in the rows next to you, even if they are annoying.
5) Never use your corn knife to fling little ears of volunteer corn anywhere near Dad’s head.
6) Never fling clods of dirt with your corn knife at anyone walking next you, especially if Dad is watching.
7) Never let Dad see you do anything that is against these rules.
Over the years, after walking about 300 acres of soybeans twice each summer with a crew of 10 or more friends and neighbors, we all became weed identification experts. Oddly, Dad wasn’t worried much about weeds like waterhemp that are problems today. Velvetleaf and cockleburs were the true enemies.
Thinking back, I remember our soybean fields being quite clean, and feeling tired, but proud when looking back over the parts of the field we had weeded by hand. That feeling went away when Dad would spot a healthy velvetleaf about a quarter mile back in the field that I had missed. “Go back and chop it,” he would order. And I did. I learned not to miss weeds while walking.
Dad didn’t believe in walking in the fields early in the morning. He hated getting his trousers and shirt soaked with dew. He would rather tough it out in the middle of the afternoon, even in 100-degree heat, than get wet boots in the morning. Besides, we had enough acres to cover, that we had to keep at it to finish before school and football practices started again.
The hired men and neighbors we walked with became quite close friends. We helped each other, took water and watermelon breaks together, and we learned about a strong work ethic, as we walked up to 15 miles a day, up and down row upon row of soybeans.
We didn’t need to lift weights all summer to stay in shape for football. I was in the best shape of my life, and in spite of those hot days in the soybean fields, or perhaps because of them, I chose to return to the farm to make my living for much of my adult life.
When I tell my kids about walking beans, they look at me like I used to look at my Dad when he talked about walking to school, uphill, both ways, in a blinding blizzard.
“Hand me the TV remote,” my daughter replies. “You’re just telling stories again.”
Yes, but my stories are true. And I hope that, like me walking beans, someday my children will have the opportunity to learn their own life lessons from farm work they might find mundane in their youth.
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