Faces Behind Farming—
a series on the people, not the politics
Welcome to Missouri, historically the “town of the large canoes,” named after a tribe of Sioux Indians called the Missouris. A whomping eight states border this heartland state, tied for the most with Tennessee. The Pony Express, Oregon, Santa Fe, and California Trails all began in Missouri playing a central role in the westward expansion of the United States. St. Louis’ Gateway Arch commemorates this today. The Missouri River on the west meanders through the state and dumps into the Mississippi River on the east.
And I must mention this. The Kansas City Royals, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Kansas City airport, and downtown Kansas City are all in Missouri, not Kansas. Nothing against Kansas, but I feel the need to set the record straight, as this is admittedly quite confusing. Just know the Missouri River divides Kansas City into two parts: Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri; and thus, much of Kansas City lies in “The Show Me State.”
Although we know that Missouri was named after indigenous people, nobody really knows how Missouri got its unusual nickname, “The Show Me State.” Stories vary, but according to netstate.com, it has come to represent Missourians’ stalwart, common sense, and stubborn character. Having grown up here, I like to think it’s why my inquiring mind asks so many questions. I need to be shown to understand. At any rate, Platte County Missouri is where I’m taking you today, to visit Green Ridge Farms, Inc., located not far from where I attended high school.
Meet Gene—Founder Green Ridge Farms Inc.
Agriculture is big in Missouri, ranking second only to Texas with the most farms, claiming 95,000 of them. Nearly everybody in the state is exposed to agriculture at some level. For Gene Blankenship, founder of Green Ridge Farms, farming runs deep. When Gene’s father was only four, his father (Gene’s grandfather) was killed in a train accident. His dad learned early how to work the land, and in turn, so did Gene.
Gene loves the outdoors and the flexibility of his work. No two years, no two days are alike providing more thought processes in his daily and personal lives. Gene earned an associate degree in agribusiness. And when Gene can get away, he heads to the Colorado mountains. In addition to farming and his family, Gene loves fast cars, specifically Corvettes, and music. His beloved trumpet sits next to his desk, handy to play at a moment’s notice.
But Gene is now transitioning out of farming. Notice I did not say “retiring.” From what I understand and have witnessed, farmers do not leave their land. They just step aside a bit. And that’s what Gene is doing, which provided an opportunity for James to give full-time farming a go. According to James, with the high cost of equipment, insurance, and risks involved, Gene’s transition provided a win-win for two generations of farmers.
Meet James, “Do everything you can to make it right.”
James earned a bachelor’s degree in medical technology and worked in a microbiology lab testing all those samples we Americans send to “The Lab.” Unfavorable hours, working inside, and little opportunity for growth left him more than ready to get back to farming, something he had grown up around. As I rode in James’ John Deere, listening to him share about his family and how he nearly lost a premature child and all the challenges that came with that, I couldn’t help but feel a huge amount of respect for this young entrepreneur. His hasn’t been the easiest road. Understanding what it takes to be a farmer…well…one can’t truly comprehend that until one wears those boots for more than one day, as in referring to myself. Regardless, my brief visit allowed a deep dive into a piece of our wide-open world I rarely get to experience up close.
As a little side-note reminder to my readers, a combine is an agricultural tractor-type machine designed to harvest a variety of grain crops by combining four harvesting operations—reaping, threshing, gathering, and winnowing—into one process. Combines are big and expensive, much larger than elephants and cost as much as or more than a house.
Combine drivers are directors of the truck drivers and grain cart drivers. They are the orchestrators of a symphonic production as lots of communication happens in those sprawling fields to assure everyone is where they need to be. When someone is out of place, it slows down the cadence and makes for a less productive day.
A Blast from the Past
As James and I talked about the future of farming, he expresses concern for the lack of interest with younger generations and the high costs and hard work associated with starting a farming business. And while part-time and seasonal help is crucial to the operations of a farm, “It’s a challenge to find good part-time people,” James said. “There’s a high level of trust running a half million-dollar piece of equipment (aka combine). (And) I don’t know if my generation will want to work part-time.” To help provide a solution to this, James hopes to get involved in the local Future Farmers of America (FFA), to encourage and educate those behind him, like Gene is doing for him.
“Do everything you can to make it right,” James said, “then after that don’t worry about it because it’s out of your hands.” Gene was helping James embrace this mindset, otherwise the unknowns of farming could easily override the joy and satisfaction of it. This is an everyday challenge with self-employment making it difficult to leave work at work and learning how much we’re not in control. James enjoys the peace with nature and growing closer to God though, while having increased empathy for hardship of others, and perhaps less tolerance of those who do not work.
“Is your mother Becky McClain?” I finally ask after a lightbulb goes on inside my brain.
“Yes,” he says.
I haven’t lived in Platte County since 1984 and have lost touch with most of the people there. Connecting people dots that day transpired slowly in my fogged head like a diesel engine warming up on a cold winter’s day. But roaming the fields that I had passed a million times in my younger years, provided a gratifying blast from the past.
“Your mom and I graduated together,” I said. “She was really smart (as in valedictorian smart).” How cool to be riding in a combine with one of my classmate’s sons, witnessing a new generation positively contribute to society. It was such a pleasure meeting James.
A Bumper Crop of Corn
The day I rode with James, he was harvesting corn. According to World Population Review, Missouri is ranked in the top ten states that produce the most corn, with the United States being the largest corn producer in the world. Corn can be used for food, seed, and industrial purposes, playing a major role in our economy. Green Ridge’s corn is grown mostly for human consumption.
James said only one ear of corn grows per a stalk. If more grows, the plant will abort it so all nutrients can go to one. But this depends on the variety of corn. Baby corn for example, grown mostly in Thailand and used in stir-fries, can yield six to ten ears per stalk.
Between Gene, James, and Bill, a third farmer whom I did not meet, they farm approximately 3,200 acres of corn and soybeans. To visualize this, one football field equals 1.32 acres, so their total acreage equals approximately 2,400 football fields. I “helped” harvest 90 acres the day I tagged along, or rather 20,250 bushels of corn. I’d say that was a bumper crop day and not too shabby for a dusty day’s work.
To put all this into perspective, previous generations of farmers might have worked a total of 150 acres with livestock. And to put this into more perspective, Gene’s Dad farmed 224 acres in 1972 which had expanded from his grandmother’s 80 acres. To make a living from farming today, farmers, by default, need to manage much bigger operations, to James’ point, as fewer and fewer people are choosing to farm. According to Statista, “the total number of farms in the United States has decreased steadily since 2007. Contrastingly, the average farm acreage in the United States has increased in the past few years.”
Hurry Up and Wait
When I arrived that morning, Todd’s Tire, located 30 miles north, was filling the back tires of the John Deere combine with a soy-based liquid ballast to add weight and maximize traction and stability. Upgrading from an 8-row header last year to a 12-row header this year made the John Deere front-heavy. That unforeseen incident cost $700 and a delayed start the morning I arrived. As an interesting sidenote (at least I thought it was), other ballast options can include beet juice of all things, water, antifreeze, and windshield washer fluid. Go figure.
It seemed to me that farmers often deal with delays. It’s always something. Gene said it would take about four hours every day to closely inspect his equipment, time he does not have. So things happen, like bearings creating heat for example, wearing out, and causing a fire. The farmers in Montana and Michigan both spoke of this too.
Meet Paige, “I like quiet.”
While we waited for Todd’s Tire to fill the tires, Paige charted out math stuff so everyone could track what bins still needed filled and with how much corn. Paige drives the tractor that pulls the grain cart. Her dad had her driving tractors well before she got her license to drive. She is a retired algebra teacher from North Platte High School, my alma mater, but her stint at North Platte came after mine. She taught for 22 years, coached basketball and directed plays, her favorite being “Beauty and the Beast.”
Paige explained to me what she was doing and showed me her agrimatics on a program called Libra Cart, “a tablet and smartphone-based grain cart weighing and data management system. The hardware device mounts directly onto the grain cart and wirelessly communicates with the app running on a compatible mobile device in the tractor cab, automatically recording the date, time, weight, and GPS location of each grain cart unload, and provides load tracking from field to truck to destination.”
Gene talked about how critical technology plays in farming today.
“It’s all about the information,” he said. “Farmers have to follow the technological changes to stay in business.”
I nodded my head like I understood what everyone was talking about. In concept I did, but there were a little too many numbers on Paige’s tablet and pieces of paper for my right-brained thinking.
Those Cute Little Annoying Deer
I was relieved to talk to James about the 4-point deer antler that had punctured his tractor tire. Thankfully the tire could be fixed, otherwise a replacement tire would have cost around $2500. I was amazed that the antler hadn’t broken after a 30,000-pound tractor had run over it. I mean really, think about it. Those antlers are more-than-Herculan strong. We probably wouldn’t fare so well if a deer stabbed us, which by the way is extremely rare just in case you were wondering, which I was as soon as I typed that last sentence. It’s that “show me” mentality, I guess. I wonder about too many things.
But I digress.
Another time an antler wedged itself in the corn header stopping the rollers. James said he’s careful to watch for antlers when he’s harvesting, but he doesn’t always see them. Bucks shed their antlers anywhere. Farmer’s fields are no exception.
Later in the day when I rode with Paige in her Challenger grain cart tractor and asked what she liked about farming, she quickly said, “I like quiet.” Hummm, I wonder why after spending 22 years in the classroom. Paige also likes watching birds, rabbits, and bald eagles, and some new unidentifiable birds that have shown up the past couple years during harvest time. Paige zipped all over our corn field that day, bouncing along in her tractor seat, gathering corn, and emptying it into semi-trucks, going here and there, and everywhere. Riding with Paige was far better than a Disney ride. I think that could be a side gig, selling tickets to Floridians to ride in tractors, kind of like selling tickets to pony rides, only with big wheels and minus the slobber. But I digress again.
Meet Ricky, “I can haul anything.”
This is probably a good place to introduce the other farmers. There is Ricky—truck driver, mechanic, entertainer; according to him, there’s nothing he can’t haul, anything from grain to towering coils to turbine cranes. He’s not afraid to do much of anything.
“I like raisin’ stuff,” he said. “And I work after work. Farming gets in your blood and it’s just one of those deals. You grow up doing it. The freedom of it. You hurry up…and wait. You have to learn patience.”
Josh, whom I just saw from afar, drove the other truck. He has a three-year-old son, aka “threenager.” The “threenager,” so I’m told, is already a farmer.
Meet Todd, “Farming is the only job I’ve ever loved.”
And there was Todd, who drove the other combine. He migrated from California in full-time construction, arrived in 2008, and quickly found himself without a job after a collapsed economy. He decided to stay. Gene taught him farming. And now Todd says with more compassion than a mother for a sick child, “It’s the only job I’ve ever loved.”
The field we worked the day I tagged along, he said, with immense pride, was the same field he had planted and harvested by himself the previous year. His calm demeanor, minimalist perspective, and desire to simply earn what he needed to provide for himself and his family, was a beautiful thing. He couldn’t imagine doing anything else. When I asked Todd how he defined farmer, he answered with a question, “What needs to be done? That’s a farmer.”
One thing is for sure, farmers love the land.
“I take a lot of pride in the stewardship of the land and the work that I do,” James said. “The soil is here, but it doesn’t stay here unless we do something to keep it here. Gene is helping me with this perspective.”
We, as a nation, learned much from The Dust Bowl period of the 1930s. Stewardship of the land was a common theme with all the farmers I spoke to. Among other practices, Gene and his crew take grid soil samples and rotate crops from corn to soybeans to rye, a cover crop that adds nutrients and solves soil erosion while helping with weed control. And they have learned from past generations about chemicals, which are now used with more science and accuracy to use only what is needed.
Show Me the Definition of Farmer
Riding around with farmers, experiencing firsthand what they do, allowed me a deeper understanding of the complexities of this industry and the knowledge needed to make it all work. Besides agriculture, they must know math and technology, business and mechanics, and on and on and on.
“Sometimes I think it would be nice to go to work and just have to know one thing,” Gene said.
Thank you Paige for sharing these photos. Beautiful.
Meanwhile Ricky, the truck driver who can haul anything, continued to ponder the word “farmer.” He was determined, before I left, to figure out this thing that he does, this thing that he is.
“Farmers are environmentalists,” he says. “And economists, marketers, biggest gamblers in the world. Farming is a way of life.”
“Damn. How would you classify farmer?,” he asked to no-one in particular. “There’s a lot to it.”
Another long pause.
“Dang it. Uh. Independence. Damn. You got me stuck, and that doesn’t happen very often,” Ricky finally says.
Near the end of the day Ricky, still pondering, asks Gene, “How would you define farmer?”
I found it more-than amusing to pose this defining question to farmers in Montana, Michigan, and Missouri, and watch them squirm as they tried to explain who they are, as they are so much. I set off on this farming adventure trying to wrangle who knows what in Montana, to learn about organic farming in Michigan, and to be back in my old stomping grounds of Missouri, the Show Me State.
All of this started with chocolate chip cookies my neighbor’s son pointed to and said, “Those started in a field somewhere.” Perhaps being from Missouri, my mind immediately wanted to be in that field. And perhaps the only way any of us will understand “farmer,” or any other profession for that matter, is if we are willing to ask, “Will you show me?”
I hope my little farming tour through the prairies of Montana, the Great Lakes Region of Michigan, and the sprawling fields of The Show Me State, accompanied by some down-to-earth folks, has given you something more to ponder this holiday season as you sit around your table and enjoy your Thanksgiving meal.
With much gratitude. Enjoy the movie (3:49). 🙂
Thank you to Eddie Lewis for providing the Thanksgiving trumpet hymnal music.