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Gone with the wind, and other planting stories

Bow Creek Chronicles: Mishaps, rain delays, flat tires and tornadoes slow planting season, but the process is the same as in my grandfather’s day.

Curt Arens, Editor, Nebraska Farmer

May 29, 2024

7 Slides

I was watering our broiler chickens in their outside pen when I saw the cloud of dust to the southwest. At first, I thought it was my dad planting corn in a field about a half-mile away. Then I noticed the swirling motion of the dust. It was a tornado.

As I watched the tornado — the first funnel cloud I had seen in person — sweep across the field, all I could think about was if Dad would survive. My mother hurried my brother and I into the basement. She scurried around the farm to gather my grandparents, who had gone for a walk.

Branches were falling onto our driveway. Hail and high winds were roaring in the background. And Dad was out in that.

No cellphones. No way to communicate with him. We just had to wait for the storm to pass.

Storm passes

After a while, the roaring stopped. A few minutes later, we were relieved when Dad drove into the driveway. His face and arms were covered in dirt as he recounted his experiences.

He was caught in the tornado in the middle of the field. He jumped from the cab-less tractor and clung with both arms to the rear wheels. The winds swept dust into his face, eyes and mouth, but the tractor stayed on the ground, and Dad stayed with it until the storm had passed. When he drove the tractor to the edge of the field, he found his pickup still intact, but steel siding from the neighbor’s barn was scattered all around it. The truck was left untouched.

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That was a planting season I will never forget.

This year, farmers are talking about the drawn-out nature of planting, beginning in mid-April and commencing, in fits and starts, through Mother’s Day, graduation parties and Memorial Day services. Whenever the weather would allow, farmers gave up those celebrations to stay in the field and get the crop planted.

There were storms and tornadoes as well, just like when I was a kid. Yet, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Crop Progress Report on May 20, Nebraska farmers are right on time. Planting progress is behind the drought year of 2023, but only slightly behind the five-year average. With today’s technology and modern equipment, a lot of ground can get planted in a big hurry.

When Dad was planting on that day back in 1975, he was planting half-mile rows with an IHC Farmall 560 diesel pulling a four-row-wide IHC 400 Cyclo planter. While that planter was great technology for its time, it took a long time to cover a large acreage.

Grandpa’s day

I think back to the two-row corn planter that my grandfather used. And in more recent times, I am reminded of the scores of planting time articles I’ve written over the years about farmers modifying their planters to make them work better and more efficiently, and farmers who are planting into green cover crops or managing residue in a more efficient way to protect the soil.

Grandpa Arens, who farmed more than half of his life with horses, steam tractors and early gas tractors, would have been interested in all the new technology. He would have marveled at the machines today, and how little to no tillage is necessary to raise a bumper crop.

Planting time has changed over the decades, and yet it has remained the same. Personally, I always felt that planting was a practice where I actually got something done. Unlike tillage or other field operations that were necessary to prepare for the crop or protect it after it was planted, planting was the first of those operations and the most important. If you didn’t do a good job at planting time, you couldn’t expect to harvest a bumper crop on the other end of the season.

Technology helps us get the crop planted today, at least most of the time. But it also helps when we don’t have to deal with tornadoes out in the field where we are trying to get the crop planted, like that day I remember almost 50 years ago.

Click through this planting time slideshow for photos and links from previous planting stories we’ve published at Nebraska Farmer over the years.

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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