Friday, October 26, 2012

The Teacher

The Man in his workshop.
Every student needs a teacher and this summer, mine was Brent. Though I've known him my entire life, he's became more of a mentor whether he wanted the job or not; he certainly didn't seek it out.

Farming lessons
Despite a few hilarious eye rolls, he's been open to hearing my theories on organic farming. (When the seaweed juice arrived for the garlic soak, I thought he was going to burst into laughter.) Whatever he personally thinks of my project, I'm not sure, but he has been supportive and helpful at every turn.

More importantly, Brent has been more than willing to teach me (and show me) the basics of industrial farming. Thanks to him, I look at fields differently now, I notice things I didn't before ("Shouldn't they be worried about their cover crop getting so thick?") and, hopefully, after 4.5 months, I've started asking fewer stupid questions.

With grandsons, Levi and Layne, and brother-in-law, Sheppy
Y'see, Brent's father, Perry, was my Grandpa Wilbur's right hand man in every sense. Perry even lived in Wilbur's farmhouse (along with my grandmother and mother) as a young man. When Perry married Brent's mother, Dorothy (Grandpa's distant cousin), Perry went looking for a house to live in. "Nonsense," Wilbur told him, "we'll put a house for you right here on the farm."

And that is why our family farm is 'home' to Brent, it's where he grew up and a place where you can still find him nearly every day, for one reason or another. And the fact that his house protects The Mae Flower from so much wind, weather and road dust is not lost on me. Brent is here, even when he's not here.

Brent's worn boots
So, when I 'informed' Brent that I would be living on the farm for the summer so I could learn about farming, it was really more of a question to him. My Scranch Summer simply would not have happened without his complete buy-in. In addition to having a family and life of his own, plus farming, plus fixing everyone's tractors, combines and lawnmowers, he would now have to see to my well being and answer all of my probing questions.  As my friend, Heidi, once asked me, "How does that Brent guy have time to do other things?"

I have no idea, except that I don't think that Brent guy sleeps much. 

Making me a fire pit out of a trash barrel....
....and then fixing it after I backed over it.
The amount of tasks, favors and repairs that Brent generously offered up are endless, too numerous to mention, but here's a snippet:
Fixing the tailgate handle on my pick-up
  • Scoring a fridge for the shop to hold my extra produce
  • Arranging for electrical lines to be put in for the Mae Flower and the museum shed
  • Helping with Mama Iva's party by borrowing tables, chairs and a coffee maker from the Neche Fire Department
  • Providing bourbon, always
  • Letting me harvest an entire field of barley

Shooting a skunk in my front yard
  • Numerous crop tours
  • Helping me cover up the garden to protect it from freeze, too many nights, in the light of pick-up headlights
  • Chasing down those same tarps in a 40 mph windstorm, when I wasn't even there
  • Putting in trellis beams for crawling bean and pea vines (see below)
  • Keeping a grain bin empty so could sing in it (I sound better with an echo)
"Tra la la la la!"
  • Putting up Halloween lights on the shed
  • Keeping me supplied with propane (except for one loooooong, cold night - 27 degrees!)
  • Taking my direction for photographs of....whatever:
"Here, hold this so I can take a picture of it..."
"This one too, please!"
  • Buying and installing giant, badass shelves to store my lifetime of stuff
  • Loaning me his white pick-up for trailer travel (mine is too small)

Showing me how to count the layers.
  • Delivering arm loads of fresh picked summer corn, garden red potatoes and steaks and burgers from cattle he and his buddy raised themselves
  • Checking on me daily/nightly to make sure I was still alive
Not a pose, this is him chatting while I work in the garden
  • Scoring a giant bale of straw from a neighboring rancher and then helping me spread it on my freshly planted garlic (see below)

  • Not laughing too hard when I explained why I would be soaking the garlic cloves in seaweed juice before planting
  • Gently debating with me on food/ag issues - taking the time to listen to my consumer perspective and chemical concerns
  • Arranging for me to get my ass on a horse - exactly what my soul needed
  • Allowing me to tag along on so many farming adventures - everything from elevator runs to harvests
Building my sewer system
  • Showing me where all the bars are in every town
  • Buying extra fancy mouse traps and poison to protect all my stuff in the museum shed
  • Arranging for a flat bed trailer to come get my pick-up when the steering column broke
  • Tilling up the garden spot for 2013
  • Measuring said spot with me: 45'x115'
Tilling for 2013
And finally, helping me pack every single available inch of my pick-up for the drive back to Long Beach. I've packed as many fancy clothes, shoes and jewelry as possible because there is simply no need for it in my NoDak life. "More boots, high heels, something," he said, noting that there were still available spots in between the boxes. "Hand me something and we'll get it in there." 

With Kirk and grandson, Layne
Brent's famous, "I know a guy..." answer to all my problems always came through. Although I may have taught him just one thing, it wasn't much compared to the immense stack of knowledge that I was exposed to - not sure yet how much I retained, but it was all there for me to digest.

Unloading wheat at the grain elevator
And so, Brent and I are, in a sense, repeating our own version of family history. Grandpa Wilbur was famous for working at the farm until he spotted the season's first snow flake. And then, it was, "Pack it up! We're heading to Long Beach!" He and Perry would have a brief meeting about what needed to happen over winter and that was it, he was gone. Perry would then stay on the farm and run the place in his absence, with Brent right alongside. 

Grandpa Wilbur, in the farmhouse
Though I was more reluctant to leave the farm than Wilbur was, now I too have left the North Dakota winter behind and am pointed toward that same beach city, knowing that Brent will capably manage things at "home".  In fact, I'm sure he'll get much more done without his pesky sidekick around.

A rare moment of relaxation
Also, by the time I left, Brent no longer questioned my desire to photograph every single aspect of the farm, including him. He officially gave up hiding from the camera in late June. The very top photo is my favorite because it's about the time when he stops fighting or flinching and just gives in. I overheard him tell one farmer, "You just get used to it."

Among my favorite Brent conversations.... As we were driving through the tiny town of Backoo:

Me: "I wonder how many people live in Backoo. Do you know, Brent?"
Brent: "Well, let's see. (Starts pointing at houses, counting) 2...5...7...10...12...16...20...22. About 22."

Checking on my propane

Again, driving down a random road:

Brent: "When you get to this part of the road, remember to look up."
Me: "Why?"
Brent: "This guy here (he points to a farm house) flies and sometimes will land on the road here. Make sure you don't get in the way of the plane." 
Me: "Um, okay."


On another remote back road:

Brent: "You know you're in North Dakota when a state highway is a gravel road."
Me: "This is a state highway???"

Our family is mighty lucky to have Brent around and I've been especially grateful for his patience these past few months. Hopefully, I didn't scare him off too much for next summer....


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