Genteman Farmer

I never really thought much about the land…the land from which we draw sustenance.  I know that most of us have a connection through our ancestors.  Somewhere in our lineage are those who at some time or other have scratched a living from the land, but few of us have actually pulled a cultivator behind a tractor to prepare a field for planting or even mowed a pasture.

Until I retired from the corporate world, my connection to the land was tenuous at best.  As a restless teenager, I used to visit an aunt and uncle in the panhandle of Texas who were honest-to-god cotton farmers. They lived in a small frame house just north of Lubbock; some irrigation wells, a few tired tractors, and a rolling bank loan were the principle assets of their “family farm.”  I remember best that we had cantaloupe with every meal, and that all the males wore overalls.  I discovered the relentlessness of farming by having to change irrigation pipes every four hours throughout the day and night.  The tediousness of the farm was occasionally relieved by driving thirty miles to Lubbock to go to the drive-in movie.  While I enjoyed these brief contacts with the land, I was always more than ready to return to the city.

Then, in one of my college summers, a friend’s father offered me a temporary job on their sheep ranch in west Texas.  It sounded good, even vaguely romantic in the abstract, but the reality was well beyond my worst expectations.  For a few weeks I was a “dauber” on their shearing crew.  As you might imagine, the dauber is the low man on the totem pole of sheep-shearing crews, and I’m pretty sure that sheep shearing, as a whole, is pretty far down the job chain as well.  My job was to daub hot pine tar on the small cuts inflicted on the sheep in the shearing process.  Modesty precludes me from telling you the reaction of a freshly shorn sheep after being so rudely daubed with hot pine tar, but suffice it to say, it wasn’t pretty and was very smelly.  That particular contact with the land did more to increase my motivation to get the sheepskin that comes with a college degree than all the lecturing and hectoring I had endured previously.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, I fell in love with a farmer’s daughter.  Well, actually, at first I didn’t know I was in love and I didn’t know she was a farmer’s daughter.  She was just a beautiful girl that tugged at my heart.  Even then, my connection to the land, I mean the-real-honest-to-god farmland, was not only through my wife, but also through my ambition to succeed in business.  Yes, I talked vaguely with my father-in-law about the economics of the cattle business (not very good), and the importance of having roots in the land (very good), but it didn’t seem a part of my world or what I wanted my world to become.  It’s important to note, I think, that my father-in-law never owned more than fifty-seven acres.   I’m absolutely certain he never made more than a few thousand dollars a year, nor worked less than eighty hours a week.  In spite of those facts, he was also amongst the happiest of the human race.  I should have had a clue then, but, of course, I had none.

Fast forward three decades when I came face to face with the rest of my life.  I had, in defiance of fairly long odds, achieved business and economic success well beyond my greatest expectations.  I was faced, in a modest way, with the “man on the moon syndrome.”  That is to say, if I can land on the moon or achieve substantial business success, what then, can follow?  I thrust about for a time, doing this and that, trying to hold on to my past, but finally, with a startling clarity, I concluded that the rest of my life was not likely to be like what had come before. I needed, I wanted, I had to have something entirely different to give the rest of my life meaning.  The options whirled through my mind…politics, public service, charity…all had their allure.  And I got more advice than I could reasonably deal with.

One loose weekend, S. (my darling wife, Sandra) and I visited the old home place.  A kind of “going home” for her and a lost weekend for me.  We stayed at the small ranch house that situated itself where the home place used to be.  I walked the land, all fifty-seven acres of it, remembering the years now gone, the bird hunts, the fishing trips, and the conversations with my father-in-law, Tilt, about the value of the land.  I don’t mean the economic value, but the value that only comes with generations of ownership, and the sweat of honest labor.  I recalled the still vivid memory of my last walk with him over the land.  He was at the end of an energetic life, plagued with a virulent cancer that would end his days within weeks.  As we walked and talked over the land, land that was a part of the original acreage that came to the Lyday family through an 1835 land grant from the Republic of Texas, land that was part of his very being…he confided to me a lie.  His lie, of course, was a lie of circumstance.  My wife, her sister, and Tilt’s wife had all been urging him to sell the land, his land, the land of his fore bearers…in order to defray the expense of his illness and to provide some measure of financial security for his wife when he was gone.  He said to me, “Gary, the women have been on me to sell the land, and I’ve told them I will.  But, son, I didn’t tell them the truth.  I could no more sell this land than I could sell my soul.  I’m not ever gonna sell this land, and I hope, when it’s yours, you won’t either.”  That small lie of Tilt’s made little impact on me at the time.  But, in a way, it allowed me to peek into a window of his soul, and like all voyeurs, I was a bit embarrassed or maybe puzzled by what I saw.  How could a few acres of dirt be so important, so meaningful that he would forego a small measure of financial comfort in the last days of his life and some security for his wife after he was gone?  This question stayed with me, always in the back of my mind.  Only years later did the answer begin to reveal itself to me.  Not arriving in a coherent whole, but in bits and pieces.  A layer at a time, perhaps.

My interaction with the land, if you can call it that, began with a search.  I wanted more from what had been a very good life.  And in my search for something more, I wanted to see if the land could provide for me what it had provided for Tilt and so many others.  S. and others who know me well say that I am merely restless.  Never satisfied with what I have now or know now.  And they are right.  At my core, I believe that there are only two states in life.  One is either growing or one is dying.  The status quo is no damn good, and I wasn’t ready for dying just yet.

On the other hand, I believe that the first and maybe highest obligation of wealth is to preserve it and use it for the benefit of one’s own family, and if possible, share it with others wisely.  I’m not inclined to risk it all on a toss of the dice, but a bit of risk makes life a lot richer.  Let me fast forward to a recent conversation. When I’m in Dallas, I invariably join a group of friends for an early breakfast at Dallas Country Club. The talk runs the gamut…sports, politics, family, and business. I  was talking about my efforts to make the farm a paying business proposition, and one of the group asked about my financial objective for the farm operation. I replied that I thought I could get it up to about $500,000 per year in about three years if things went right . He chuckled a bit and retorted that I could probably do that playing gin rummy at the club and with a lot less effort.  I thought for a moment before answering, then explained that it wasn’t really how many zeros followed the significant digit, but the importance of there being a clearly measurable goal, and being involved in something that had meaning to me now and in the future.

So I started buying land (without regard to ultimate purpose) to add to the fifty-seven acre “home place” that S. had inherited.  My only guidelines were that the land I bought should be contiguous to the land we already had…and, ideally, it would be a part of the same land that the Republic of Texas used to woo Sandra’s ancestors.  There was no business plan, there was no conservation plan.  My only plan, if you could call it that, was to get as much land as I could and then figure out what to do with it.  The results were predictable.  I got the land I wanted and had no idea what to do next.  Raise cattle?  Plant a crop?  Buy a horse?  Get a tractor?  Well, I did all of those things and, over the years, I sorted it all out.  What worked and what didn’t.  What we enjoyed doing and what was plain drudgery.  Within three years, I had zeroed in on breeding Egyptian Arabian Horses, growing hay, and preserving the natural habitat.  I had even been recognized as Farmer of the Year by the local chamber of commerce…but perhaps their selection was influenced more by my donations to the chamber rather then my perspicacity as a farmer.  Along the way I planted hay fields, bought tractors and assorted other farm equipment, bought and sold cattle, built barns, built lakes and roads, fenced paddocks, stocked farm ponds, and met and learned to appreciate others who did this for a living and did it well.  I’ll paraphrase the old saw, “The way to make a small fortune in farming is to start with a large fortune.”  I was well on my way to that “small fortune” in farming.

What I had not anticipated was that I really, really enjoyed what I was doing.  I commented to another of my DCC coffee klatch colleagues that, “Getting on a tractor and baling hay, or performing any of the other seemingly mundane tasks of farming, was one of the few things I had ever done where I could look look behind me and see exactly what I had done and how well I had done it.”  I’ve known others of my ilk who experienced the same thing…leaving the race and stress of the office behind, rushing to the farm/ranch/acreage  in a three-piece suit, mounting the brand new Kubota tractor and attaching the bat wing shredder, then mowing a seven-acre pasture.  Is it the smell of the just mown grass?  Or is it the sense of doing something outside of our comfort zone and doing it well?  Maybe it’s just the personal satisfaction of connecting with the land as our forefathers and their fathers before them had done.

I recently had the wonderful experience of driving through part of our land with my daughter and two of my granddaughters.  I was showing off a bit I guess.  I wanted them to see and appreciate the work that S. and I had done to create a “wildlife management area.”  We had cleared the land of the scrub brush and invasive trees.  We planted native grasses, pollinating plants, legumes, wildflowers and flowering trees.  All designed to make our land a hospitable place for the local fauna and flora.  For the deer, wild turkey, butterflies, birds of all kinds and even the bobcats and raccoons who populate the area.  I had my wildflower photo portfolio with me and was able to name most, if not all, of the wildflowers in bloom.  My granddaughters were pleasantly curious and asked polite questions.  My daughter, however, was frankly surprised.  Surprised that I had the interest and knowledge to create something so inconsistent of her image of me.  To her I was the business guy in the three-piece suite, always on the way to a meeting or the airport. She asked how and why I had become interested in this nature thing.  I didn’t have a good answer.  But now, as I think about it, I suspect the seeds of a relationship with the land is somewhere deep within all of us.  Some are precluded from realizing it due to the circumstances of their lives.  Others like me, at some point in their life, have an opportunity to make a connection on some level, long hidden, to nature’s world.

As I make my way through my eighth decade, I am delighted to continue to discover other dimensions of my connection the land and to nature.  Planting and watching a field of wildflowers grow, or harvesting my own mess of purple-hulled peas, or watching a newborn colt take it’s first uneven steps, or baling a few bales of hay from a pasture you planted.  I believe that’s what my father-in-law was trying to tell me when he said, “Son, I’m never gonna sell this land.”


Another Stinky Subject

Somethings look good and smell bad. Some look bad and smell good. This little critter is the exception. It looks bad and smells bad.

On January 16, 2008 I posted Part 1 of What’s That Smell not knowing there would be a Part  2.  Part 1 was about our encounters with members of the Pepe LaPew family who were keeping house under our manse at the farm.  Subsequently I’ve written about June Bugs, stinkbait eating dogs, goat head stickers, and dragonflies copulating in mid-air.  As you can see, I have a very low standard when it comes to selecting topics for my attention, but I am always alert to the eccentricities of the natural world.  I do this, of course, on your behalf.

Recently my attention was drawn to a member of the Pentatomidae family (for those of you not in the know,that’s in the insect world) by none other than the Dirt Doctor, Howard Garrett.  I read the good Doctor’s on-line newsletter religiously (well, not religiously, because as you may have surmised from past postings, I am not so inclined….but I read all his stuff).  In his recent addition, he posted what I can only call a Stink Bug Alert.  As you might imagine, it immediately caught my attention.  The aforementioned critter is not simply a stink bug, it is a Brown Mamorated Stink Bug; called a BMSB by those in the trade.  It is of the family Pentatomidae, but more particularly it is a Halymorpha Halys of phylum and order respectively.

The stink bug goes by many other names as well, but none so aptly descriptive.  Some refer to it a “the shield bug” because of it’s shape.  Others say it is a “bark beetle” for obvious reasons.  In Mexico it is called Chinche de Monte (among other names) where it is said to have the faint taste of cinnamon.  In Viet Nam it is Bo Xit, and in Laos it’s pulverized into a paste and mixed with spices and chiles into a concoction called Cheo, and is considered a delicacy.  Strike Laos off my list of culinary destinations.

I won’t go in to anatomical details except to say that it’s malodorous scent is held in a gland in the thorax which is positioned on the abdomen between its two sets of legs.  Huh?  Why would a bug even have a thorax, and why would it be in it’s crotch, so to speak.  Go figure.  When disturbed t is said to secrete a viscous fume which contains small bits of cyanide and is thought to smell like “a rancid almond scent” or “old burning rubber coated with rotten cheese and decaying garbage”.  That pretty much covers it.

The really bad thing is that these guys aren’t even natives.  They are illegal immigrants of the lowest order.  They evidently originated in Asian countries and were very happy sucking on fruits and vegetables far, far away until they were snuck in to the United States by an unsuspecting tourist in the early 1990’s.

Whoever this tourist was, he somehow got them to Pennsylvania where they found succor and began to prosper in the sweet glow of democracy and local peach orchards.  Until recently, they were more or less contained to the mid-Atlantic states.  Due to the absence of any natural predator enemies, they became more than a nuisance.  They became an economic threat to farmers of the area.  Indeed the nabobs of higher learning in Pennsylvania even called a “stink bug summit” for interested parties of the region.  I’ve yet to uncover the results of this summit, but I’m waiting.

Now it’s getting really serious.  According to the Good Doctor, they are now in Texas and growing amok.  Our own agricultural think tankers at A&M have figured out two ways to fight this pestilence of pests.  The first is to introduce squadrons of Trichogramma Wasps who were discovered to have an intense desire to insert their little stingers in the eggs of the BMSB’s and thereby kill the eggs.  Voila, over time, no eggs no BMSB’s.  At least one problem occurs to me with this solution…many of us are suspicious of unloosing another pest to fight an existing pest.  Plus, who among you really would like to have a lot of wasps around.  The second, and my favorite, is to step on them whenever you see one.  The simplicity of this solution is elegant, and I rather like the thought of all of us uniting in an effort to improve society.  So I’m urging you to join with me in stomping down to step up our war on stink bugs in Texas.  We can do this.  We are not going to let some illegal immigrant of a bug suck the juice of our fruit and stink up our beautiful state.  We’ve already got Rick Perry here, and he’s pesky enough.

Ok.  So your shoes might smell a little like decaying garbage and rotten cheese for awhile, but it’s a small price to pay.

Springtime: It’s Not All a Bed of Roses

In a previous posting (In the Springtime an Old Man’s Fancy Turns To…10 Mar 2007) I wrote a paean to the virtues of Spring.  The birds chirping and cavorting, flowers blossoming, trees abudding and that sort of thing.  But like every thing good, beautiful, and pure in life there is a dark side that we don’t like to recognize, or if we do, we wrap our thoughts in words like   “on the other hands” and “howevers”.

There can be no denying that Spring has it’s own special baggage that we ordinarily do not discuss in polite company.  For example, June Bugs.  There I’ve said it.  My most recent encounter with these most distasteful of critters was yesterday morning as I crept from my bedroom in the predawn heading for the kitchen and my early morning potion of coffee.  As I stepped through my bedroom door feet unshod, I felt a crunch and then felt an oozing of unknown matter.  Regaining my equilibrium, I flipped the light switch only to find the tile floor of the dogtrot littered with detritus of smashed, dead and dying June Bugs.  It was as if they had massed for a final charge at the dimly lit hallway inside the door and had died or been wounded in stubborn attempts to gain access to  the light source.  June Bugs (Coleoptera Scarabaeide) are one of the many accidents of nature that continue to live and proliferate in the face of the fact that there is no discernable reason for them to have survived the millenia.

For those of you who don’t know June Bugs, or May Beetles, as they are called in some parts of the deep south, they bury their larvae in the late fall, encasing the eggs in a round tomb of dirt and matter only to  morph into small, pot bellied white grubs in the very early spring.  These grubs are highly prized by rooting pigs and scavenging crows, so I suspect we could avoid our spring confrontation by importing a suitable stock of both and letting them have at these precursor insect vermin.  That strategy, however, falls asunder on several obvious points.  These grubs do their thing, which is rooting around and eating matter farther down the food chain and lying there and letting nature take it’s course for another week or two until the temperature, humidity, and for all I know, the phase of the moon converge on that magical moment when grubs erupt into the shiny, yellowish brown  creatures that are doomed to live a very short life lusting after light that they will never possess.

In searching for the positive aspects of these troublesome bits of matter, I ran across some  medicinal lore that suggested a value that I’m not likely to prove.  My source indicated that the June Bug, at it’s essence, was nothing more than a compilation of edible fats and protein.  To unlock these essential nutrients, all one need do is toast them in ashes, pull away the scabrous parts (the shell and the six prickly little legs), and a small mass is congealed into a “nugget of pure, golden nutrition.  Some brave soul has reported a “sweet delightful taste”.  Better yet, I’m informed that toasting the critters (in a pop corn basket? a dutch oven?) will create a palliative for anemia or “female troubles” when crushed and mixed with warm water then drunk before bedtime.   Who woulda thought it?

June Bugs fade into insignificance as a nuisance when compared to the Fire Ants ( Solenipsis Invictus) which prevail year round, but get particularly troublesome come springtime.  The extraordinary efforts that we country folk will expend in trying to rid ourselves of these pests calls to mind Bill Murray and his futile efforts to de-gopher his golf course domain.  We have no gophers here, thank the lord, but the fire ant is king, and in spite of our best efforts, lots of money and every remedy that can be dreamed up, cannot be vanquished.

As you know fire ants are a fairly recent phenomenon and were unknown, at least by me, as recently as ten years ago.  Certainly they were not a part of my West Texas upbringing, and in any case could not have held a candle to the two ants of youth.  We referred to them simply as red ants and pissants, but actually pronounced them as “rehd aintz” and passaintz”.  Both of them loom large in my memories of idle late spring and early summer days in the Concho River valley.

These red ants of my memory are actually Red Harvester Ants (Pogonomyrmex Barbatus) which are the very same as the ones that your elementary school teacher made you study in the ant colonies sought out for school field trips.  They are much larger (1/4 to 1/2 inches long) than their deadly enemies, the imported South American Fire Ants, and while they are less aggressive, their sting is much more painful and potentially debilitating than that of the Fire Ant.  This I know because of one of the many tests of impending manhood my fellow twelve year olds and I invented in the vacant lots of San Angelo.  In this particular test, two boys stood one on each side of a large Red Ant bed sans shoes with pant legs rolled up to mid calf.  At the count of three, a judge, usually one of the brighter kids, stirred the ant bed with a stick and waited for events to take their course.  Oh, I forgot to say that each contestant had only a strip of inner tube which, which by popping accurately, he could effectively and painfully divert the ants from their main line of attack.  Of course, as the ants got more and more riled, it became impossible to snap the inner tube strip fast enough to keep them from encroaching on ones bare feet and legs.  The object, you can see, was to be the last to abandon his stance astride the ant bed…..therefore proving conclusively who was the most manly.

As a sad afterward, I note that Red Harvester Ants are going the way of many other icons of my youth.  They are vanishing…victims of pesticide technology, fire ants and habitat destruction.  As the tide of Red Ants recedes there are other consequences.  As the Red Harvester was the primary food source of the famous West Texas Horned Toad ( or as we gigglingly said “Horny Toads”), they too are in a Darwinian retreat.  It won’t be long before they will exist only in my memory.

The other ant of note in the environs of San Angelo was the less famous and less understood  pissant (Formica Rufa).  Some say that the term pissant refers to any specie of small ant while some sources cite the old english “pissmire” as the derivation of a class of wood ants in continental forests.  Others would contend that the word pissant doesn’t even necessarily refer to a critter, but to any bothersome creature or entity that is derogatively referred to, as in LBJ’s famous dictum, “I’m not gonna let that pissant little country cost me the presidency”.  Referring of course to Viet Nam.

Personally I choose to believe that pissants are so named because when you crush them, they tend to smell like, well piss.  Actually there is some scientific merit to my thesis as this class of ant has a very high content of formic acid, which is. as you know, a colorless liquid which has a vile odor and is present in a certain human by-product.

So there you are, there is bad with the good and even various levels of bad in nature.  You’ll never think of springtime or June Bugs or fire ants in the same way again.