Farming is an art. Part of the art of farming has to do with timing. For example in spring you need to gauge when you think it is warm enough to plant without that last killing frost taking out any young shoots. Then you have to balance swathing the crops, harvesting, working the fields once they are harvested and fertilizing the soil so that it will be ready for seed again in spring. Speaking of fertilizer, being a chicken farm, one of the benefits of having 18,000 chickens was, well, the fertilizer they produced.
Now the timing of when you empty the manure pits is also a calculated art. For example in fall, you might not have time to get onto the fields because of harvesting and working the soil so we would wait under the ground froze hard enough to run the huge manure wagon onto the field – sometimes we even needed to snow blow some paths to drive on the fields. This just takes thought and planning and occasionally we cut it a little close and the pits were pretty close to the top when we were finally able to get onto the fields. Of course spreading manure in winter is more fun that spreading any other time of the year because you can really tell where you have been. (I know, this is a strange post… I’m a farm kid, just let it go.)
One year I remember being tasked with this joyful job and I embraced my role as chief poop spreader for the day. Unfortunately the ground by the barn hadn’t quite frozen and so when I was pulling off the yard and onto the driveway, that little incline, combined with the soft ground under the snow made my departure impossible. I was stuck. Now I’ve gotten most of the vehicles stuck at one time or another on the farm… literally every moving vehicle… so I’m pretty good at getting myself unstuck as well. But this time I was stumped. The load was just too heavy to get out. I tried hooking up other tractors and moving snow around but all I managed to do was muck up the yard good and proper. My dad informed me that we only had one option, empty the load right there. “Right here?” I asked incredulous. Yup. We were out of ideas. So dad made a little wall of snow at the back of the manure wagon and I open the hatch dumping precious (and smelly) fertilizer onto the snow. We didn’t have to empty it all because eventually the tank was light enough that I could pull it onto the driveway, but we weren’t able to do any serious emptying of the pits that day. And the manure eventually froze and my dad just scooped it up like a bit slush poopie (that’s a good one) and hauled it off to the field in the bucket of the tractor.
But I have another memory of hauling manure that is particularly warm in my mind. Because it involved my dad’s mistake.
The way a manure wagon works is that you pull it behind a BIG tractor and when you get to the field you start the pump inside the tank, this agitates the manure so that it spreads nicely, kind of like a cement truck turns to mix the cement on the way to a job. Then once you arrive at the field and are positioned where you want to be, you use a lever to open a little hatch that allowed the manure to pump out, spraying the field. That pump is run by something called a PTO (“power take-off”) shaft that runs from the manure wagon to the tractor and when it is engaged it spins fast and powerfully. Our problem was that our PTO didn’t always disengage and would slowly “free-wheel” after the tank had been emptied. This is what happened on this fateful day. My dad returned to the farm yard with an empty tank, backed up the wagon to the pit and loaded up again before heading out. Of course when you are filling the manure wagon, you throttle the tractor way down and it just idles for a few minutes. But to get going with a full tank you need to throttle up full blast, because, as you remember, full manure tanks are heavy.
Unfortunately for my dad, the PTO which had slowed almost to a stop when the tractor had throttled down, now revved up full blast as he pulled off the yard and immediately manure ejected out the back. By the time my dad noticed he had almost driven past the chicken barn, spraying the half-length of the barn in manure, which froze rather quickly to the walls.
Oh my word did it ever stink! But it also gave us a real good laugh. (I’m dying in my office just thinking about it.) What could we do? Get mad? At what? My dad, the artful, professional farmer had painted the barn in brown, and it was funny.
To laugh at oneself, that is a critical skill and, I find, somewhat rare.