And then it rained...

August 7, 2020

We got a nice rain in August.


I wrote that sentence and then wondered to myself how many of the people who read this column will understand what it means. There are now only about 1.3 million farmers in the country. Even if you include every single gardener, not many people in this country truly understand what the sound of rain on a hot August night can do for the soul of a prairie farmer.


A decade or so ago, I was invited to speak to a gathering of Illinois farmers in one of the state’s most fertile areas. I looked forward to it, because I’d been flitting about giving speeches to people I really had no business talking to. I thought I’d be on pretty safe ground hanging out with a group of farmers.


I was wrong. The talk didn’t go all that well, and after the event, I had a little trouble making conversation with the farmers who attended. I got an inkling of what the problem might be when one guy told me, “Yeah, my family has farmed the same land since 1858 and we’ve never had a crop failure.”


Technically, we were in the same profession, but we sure had different life experiences.


I farmed for thirty years. In that time, I lost two crops to floods, two to hail storms, and two to droughts. We harvested some terrific crops, but in addition to six lost years, there were more than a few short crops, years when I’d study an August sky, yearning for any semblance of a cloud.


Our farm is located on the transition between the tall grass and short grass prairies, not far from what 150 years ago was called The Great American Desert. Due to the wonders of climate change, our sloughs, lakes, and waterways have all been topped off for a few years. What’s ironic is that even if the road past your farm has been washed away, you still need about an inch of rain a week in order to get a stellar crop. There’s a limit to how much water soil can hold. I’ve spent far more time praying for rain than I’ve spent praying for it to stop.


My oldest sister has a clear memory of my father walking on his hands to celebrate puddles in August.  I’m jealous of her for that – it’s something I would have liked to see. Personally, I’ve never been able to walk on my hands, no matter my level of jubilation, but I certainly understand the impulse.


What some people might not understand is that to a real farmer, this isn’t just about money. Sure, if you’re a farmer you clearly want to make a decent living, but rain in August is about so much more. It’s about potential fulfilled, it’s about dreams answered. You put a seed in the ground in April and then spend months waiting and worrying, though so much of what happens is out of your control. Weeds, weather, markets…so many things can go wrong. 


I don’t farm anymore, so I guess none of this is my problem, but a few nights ago I lay in bed, watching the lightning, hearing the thunder, and through an open window feeling the moisture from a quick hard rain on my face.


And it made me happy - happy enough to walk on my hands.


Copyright 2020 Brent Olson

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