Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Back from NoDak

After 2,100 miles of driving through unspeakably beautiful and alarmingly remote scenery, we have returned from our quick trip to North Dakota - two days of driving, two days of farmland exploration and another two days driving home. Worth it? Without question.

It was great fun to show this secret world of mine to Kirk, who agreed that he had never seen anything like it. He marveled at the beautiful fields, the massive super-manly machinery and how quickly one gets used to driving 85 mph all day long without ever seeing another car. "Didn't I tell you it was like going to the moon?" I asked, alluding to NoDak's unparalleled remoteness. He agreed that it was precisely a different world altogether.

Going forward, I aim to visit our family farm every spring and fall - for planting and harvesting, when possible. While I'm a small time backyard gardener and devout composter, this is a whole different thing. The business of growing food - the same food you buy in the grocery store - is a high stakes, multi-variable annual gamble with nature that only the heartiest of souls can play. Those fools in Vegas have no idea what a long shot truly is. Rolling the dice? Ha! Easy. Planting seeds, followed by weeks of praying, followed by lots of physical labor, followed by more praying? That's a real longshot.

Unfortunately, the region has had a very late, wet spring along with some unbelievable flooding. While some farmers have already planted, many a tractor sits waiting for the fields to dry before the real work can begin. Timing is everything in farming, and planting when the ground is too wet can result in sticky dirt clods that won't hold a seedling or it may result in rotted seeds. Right now, there's a lot of hand wringing and calendar watching going on  - they need hot, sunny weather, ASAP.

However, this scenario also meant that our farmer, Brent, was available to drive us around, answer all my silly questions (Brent: "The Northern Lights are up." Me: "Which direction?") and serve as the world's best NoDak tour guide. Kirk and I both got to drive massive tractors which was an incredible thrill.

I think one was a 600 horsepower 4WD number but Kirk could spew the exact stats. So many tractors are automated these days and learning about that was amazing too.

Beyond the auto-steer (to insure straight lines in the fields), each tractor is outfitted with a computer system that measures things like moisture density, spacing, yield histories and complete per-acre profiles. This is all due to GPS, which has revolutionized the way a farmer manages his fields.

Computer generated drainage patterns in Brent's fields.
 Brent also took me to a super dinky, adorable cemetery where lo! my maternal great-grandparents were buried. Located mere feet from the Canadian border, we had fun with some (ahem) unplanned international travel.

Brent stands in the U.S. while I photograph him from Canada.
Another favorite was trying to climb a mountain of corn in a massive grain bin. "Over here, Heather," said Brent mischievously, while holding a cocktail. "This is area where climbing is the easiest." Furiously, I pawed and grasped my way through the grain and nearly drowned in corn while getting absolutely nowhere.  Hearing Brent and Kirk laughing uproariously, I knew I'd been had. Never did make it to the top but Kirk and I were finding corn in our underwear, socks and suitcases for days.

My foot, sticking up through a mountain of corn
 Part of me wishes NoDak were closer so I could go there more often. Then again, if it were closer, it would just be Utah or Nebraska and not NoDak, a place so full of hardscrabble history and stoic characters, it feels like time travel.

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