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Lessons from the land

For Kansans, the months of June, July and August are when some of us return to our roots and visit family in rural communities across the state. Some go back to help with wheat harvest; others go home to spend time visiting with friends they have grown up with. For all, it's a time to reflect and remember.

Many of us are one or even two generations removed from the farm, but we still remember fondly our early years. A friend once told me, remembering our early life on the farm is an important part of saying goodbye.

For me, summertime meant harvest. It still does.

I accompanied my dad and Uncle Bernie to the harvest fields when I was 8 years old. I couldn't wait to see those monster machines chew through the golden waves of grain.

By the time I was a teenager, I was a regular member of the harvest crew. My responsibility was to level off the load in the back of one of our IHC trucks. In between unloading, a big handful of wheat -- thoroughly chewed without swallowing -- made a pretty big wad of gum. Not much flavor but one heckuva chew.

Mom brought meals to the field in the family car, and we had the chance to eat her wonderful home cooking while sitting on the tailgate of our pick-up. What a treat.

The summer after I finished fifth grade, I started helping dad one-way plow our summer fallow ground. It took me another couple years before I could pull this heavy cultivating tool out of the ground. This was before hydraulic cylinders.

Other things I remember include looking down a badger's hole and seeing the critter looking back up at me; learning to hunt the wily ringneck pheasant with our Irish setter, Red, something I still enjoy today; looking to the westward sky and watching the sun paint a masterpiece at the close of day; listening to the melodious meadowlark; darting through the summer grass during hot summer nights; and catching fireflies to make a lantern in one of Mom's empty Mason jars.

Dad always watched the weather from our picture window on the west side of our house. You easily could see the Menlo elevator 9 miles to the west across the pancake-flat, High Plains prairie. I'd help him watch, hope and pray parched land would receive rain and crop-crushing storms would somehow skip our land.

Without question, the greatest lesson we can learn from the land is hope. Crops and a bountiful harvest never are guaranteed. Drought always threatened my dad's crops. Too much rain meant harvest delays or crop-choking weeds. Thunderstorms -- the likes seen nowhere else in the world -- often carried with them damaging winds and hail that could level a field of wheat in minutes.

The summer of my junior year at Sheridan Community High School, such a storm wiped out our wheat crop. Dad rode in the combine cab with me as we entered one of our fields a few days later. One round later, we both looked back in the bin and saw less than a fourth of it filled with wheat. It should have been full half way through the field.

After we completed the first round, Dad told me to let him off and he left the field. As he walked away, I saw him dry his eyes. He couldn't stand to see the crop he'd work so hard to grow hailed into the ground.

Two and a half months later on Sept. 15 -- he always started wheat seeding then -- we were out in our fields planting for the next year. He always had hope.

I learned at an early age hope is not wishful thinking of harvest success. Rather, hope is the action of planning and planting seeds. For some, harvest might not occur every year, but the seeds of hope must be planted if there is even the thought of a next year's harvest.

There are many other memories I have of growing up on a farm, too numerous to mention in this column. As I continue to work with farmers, I am reminded they continue to love and learn from their land. Those of us who could not stay on the land, cherish the time we spent there. We have benefited from this experience -- the lessons learned on the land will nourish us wherever we are planted.

Hoxie native John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas who writes for the Kansas Farm Bureau.