Some days you can tell by the way Uncle John opens the door of the diner that he’s full of wisdom and can’t cork himself up. Even if a person is reaching for his coat after three cups of coffee, he will see that look on John’s face and resume his seat. It has always been my role to get John warmed to a subject.
“Uncle John,” I said. “Last spring, you told me you planted 90 acres of corn on my place. But just last week, you said you only harvested 80. Did I hear you incorrectly?”
“Danny, if you remember me saying such a thing then it is clear I must have said it, for you deal only in sanded, varnished and polished fact. It appears you have picked up on a discrepancy, an incongruity that requires explanation.”
“Can you explain it for me?” I asked.
“Indeed. In agriculture we use a thing called ‘Farmer Math.’ It is different from ordinary math because certain calculations are made in the spring when hope is in the air, birds chirp all day and the frogs sing all night. But when the crop year is done and frost grips the land as it does now, all hope has drained away and so a different calculation must be used.
“You will recall how dry it was last year in these parts and I would have been lucky to average 90 bushels on your field. That’s a depressing thought, so a man must get out his calculator and use the miracle of hindsight. I really shouldn’t count the bald spots in that field or the headlands or that little marsh in the back corner or the lane I made through the crop to get your hay off. When I do the calculation using 80 acres, it pushes the yield up to 100 bushels which cheers me up considerably.
“When yields are high, a farmer will always attribute that success to his brilliant management, not the weather. If he sets a record for the field, he will give all the credit to some mail-order bolt-on planter attachment or his pinpoint timing of a herbicide spray. He will never mention that he got the crop in on May 1 and had an inch of rain every week until August.
“Conversely, a low yield reminds him of all the acts of God that intervened between the time he ordered the seed in February and the day he got the cheque from the elevator.”
“You mean like the weather?” I offered.
“Oh, more than the weather. God must act in many ways to make Farmer Math come out right. You can’t rely on the weather to explain a yield difference between two fields next door to each other. The first culprit is always the herbicide company. When you think of all the herbicide damage suffered by good crops over the years, you would wonder why a farmer still uses them.”
“The next one he blames is the neighbour and his leaning fence line. Leaning fence lines are a terrible menace to crop yields. I’m surprised there isn’t legislation against them by now. Leaning fence lines wiped out 15 % of the nation’s cropland production last year. You could feed Somalia if the farmers of this country would just get out there and straighten up their fences.
“You’ve heard of the yield ‘bump,’ haven’t you? That’s any management technique the farmer uses to raise yields, like planting depth, soil temperature, row width
. . . anything like that. Then there’s the yield ‘dump’ which is a shrinkage that occurs for just as many reasons and is completely beyond his control.
“Yield dumps are caused by any person who provided a service to that field and got paid for it. Then there’s the family. Any cash cropper who is dragged out of the field for the observance of Mother’s Day, can prove to you with a calculator that his yield dump cost him anywhere from 8 to 30 bushels.
“Wildlife damage is another yield dump. Raccoons have been known to eat 25 bushels per acre. And the amazing part about it is they will eat in a uniform pattern across the entire field. We call this the ‘wildlife constant.’
“Farmer Math is the trick a man uses to keep his sanity and gather up the courage to try again this year. Would you be so unkind as to take his little crutch away from him?”
Sarcasm has no place in a happy household. I suppose this is why they installed the coffee shop in the village.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca