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Where the Wagons and the Buffalo Roam, Part I

Sometimes the best days on the farm are marked by stuff that doesn't happen. The really bad days are when some things do happen.

Let's say you have a wagon. You're going to fill your wagon with some kind of product. Maybe it's corn from the combine, maybe it's silage from the chopper, maybe it's round bales from the baler. Whatever you fill it with, the good days are when it gets from the site of production to the point of storage or sale without incident. The good days are when you stay connected to your wagon. The bad days are when you break that bond; you lose that connection. The really, really bad days are when gravity, inertia and a fair amount of slope get involved.

One of the best investments we've ever made was the purchase of a few Agri-Speed hitches almost 10 years ago. They allow us to hook and unhook wagons without getting on and off the tractor. We like to remind The Chairman that the addition of these hitches has probably meant the addition of 10 years to his farming career, minimum. Not everyone uses these hitches, though. I run around the countryside in the early fall with my self-propelled forage harvester. I chop a few loads of silage for a variety of farmers in order to get their fields opened up so they can use their own pull-type choppers and not run over any standing corn. This is almost always done using their wagons. Few of them are able to use my speed hitches to expedite the process. Because it's only two or three loads I chop, they don't want to take the time to put the hitch equipment on their wagons and tractors, or their equipment is not the right size to work with my hitches. I set up my chopper to be able to disconnect from my speed hitch and switch back to a regular hitch pin (from The Dark Ages) in a matter of seconds.

On one job last fall, the guy told me it would probably be a two-load deal. I'd take one wagon and go around the outside of the field for one load, then I'd switch to the other wagon and make one or two passes somewhere through the center to cut the field down to a manageable size for him to chop in a round-and-round fashion, since you can only go in one direction with a pull-type chopper.

The field was a long rectangle with a fence on three sides. It didn't take long to get down the first side of the field before I discovered that the stuff I was chopping was a variety designed for silage. It was considerably taller than a traditional grain variety. Guess what? Taller corn means more volume. More volume means less distance before the load is full. Try as I might to raise the corn head up as high as it would go, there was no way I was going to make it to my starting point for Load # 2. I was lucky to make it to the end of the first side of the rectangle before getting to the corner of the field where a low spot in the fence got me out of there to switch wagons. This was certainly not going to be a two-load deal.

We switched wagons with a little maneuvering and I hooked onto my second one to get back to the original starting point. I then headed back across the field in the center. When the second wagon was full, I pulled out of the field and headed back toward the buildings. My second wagon had not yet been moved, so I needed to find another spot to park my current load. There appeared to be a perfect spot about midway across the hayfield where I was driving. It wasn't really a hill, but it was enough of a rise that I decided going any further would create some issues if I unhooked and the wagon rolled forward. No one wants their wagons delivered to the yard via gravity.

I yanked on the cable to pull the hitch pin out of the wagon. That's when I realized that the crest where I decided to unhook was like The Continental Divide of this particular farm. My wagon wasn't parked on the peak, apparently. I had unhooked in Colorado and was now on my way to North Carolina to get another wagon. My full wagon was on its way to South Carolina via what appeared to be some giant, really, really straight freeway through Tennessee.

A few thoughts went through my mind at that moment. The first one was to chase after the rogue wagon. But really, I was in a chopper, so what could I do? With a speed hitch, I could go in Reverse and do some Olympic-quality synchronized swimming move to hook up to my wagon again. Then I would hope that I could keep it from sliding through the fence before plummeting over a hill on the other side with my tires spinning forward, providing a nice slow-motion effect to the disaster. (The five-second YouTube Faces of Death clips never get as many hits as the 1:05 versions, so why not stretch it out for all it's worth?) If I drove around the runaway wagon and tried to use my chopper as a brace to stop it, the full wagon would either crush my radiator (which I knew would be $2,800 and would take a week or more to get) if I used the rear of the chopper as my inertia quencher, or it would flatten my corn head (which would take anywhere from three to 10 grand and a week to replace) if I used the front end for my physics equation.

I decided the best thing to do would be to assume that either my insurance deductible or the customer's deductible would be less than the repairs to my chopper, so I'd let gravity have its way with the wagon and see if it got to the eastern seaboard before the tractor and the other wagon arrived. Keep in mind, the wagon owner was about to come around the corner of the tall corn pretty soon, and I now had seven or eight tons of corn silage on wheels headed pretty much straight for him, depending on how much speed and momentum the wagon would build up in a short distance. This was pretty much like those "two-trains-leave-the-station" story problems from grade school, except none of those ever involved Ron Pitts making the story sound like it was the end of the world, like he does on every episode of Destroyed in Seconds!

All I could do was sit there and wonder how bad this would end up being, whether I should get my phone out to document the carnage, or to call 911, and how quiet I could keep the whole mess.

Let's be honest. I've had this happen with round bales before. Watching them roll out of control in the field can actually be entertaining. One custom operator and I talked about our own secret games of "round bale bowling" where we'd be doing a big field and the monotony would overcome us, so we'd start positioning the full baler to dump a bale in such a position as to "aim" for certain objects, be they other bales, trees, fence posts, or in the equivalent of a seven-ten split with hay, getting a bale to bounce off the others at the bottom of the hill and then land in the waterway of an adjacent cornfield without running over any corn.

This was before iPods, so he and I both had a lot of time to think as we baled. And there is no OFF position on the genius switch.

As my silage wagon inertia nightmare was unfolding in front of my eyes, and I was calculating all the things that could go wrong and how much each one would cost me, the whole scene changed. The dark clouds parted and were replaced by sunshine. The sinister music was replaced by harps. Birds began chirping. Children were laughing.

Picking up steam and heading for a spectacular crash, my runaway wagon suddenly changed course and came to a dead stop about 75 degrees away from its path to certain destruction.

It hit a gopher mound. Not some little molehill, mind you. Nope, this was a three-story Frank Lloyd Wright Gopher Taj Mahal.

Thousands of dollars worth of potential carnage had been negated for me in a split second by a varmint.

I'll never watch Caddyshack the same way again.

Guy No. 2

Click Here to read Where the wagons and the buffalo roam, Part II.

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