Eat Your View
By Robert Turner
The first time I did any real work on a farm wasn’t until I was 24 years old.
My first job out of college was as a book salesman, and I called on bookstores for about two dozen small, independent book publishers. I moved to St. Louis to take the job and had Missouri, Kansas and southern Illinois as my territory, and I had more than 100 bookstore accounts to call on and sell books to every season, twice a year. This was in the days before the internet put a lot of independent bookstores out of business.
Traveling salesmen always try to schedule their appointments in a big loop, so that over the course of the week they can work their way out and back home and limit the driving between accounts. It turned out that one bookstore account in Kirksville, Missouri isn’t on the way to anywhere. It meant I had to dead head out to Kirksville and back for one appointment, about four hours driving each way. I headed out early one morning.
Appointments usually took about two hours, sometimes more, but this one ended in less than an hour. The book buyer didn’t buy anything. Nothing. Big goose egg. Not one book. I couldn’t even pay my gas bill. I regret it now, but I was stewing as I left Kirksville and kept asking myself why the heck I drove all the way up there in the first place. My butt was still sore from the drive there and I wasn’t looking forward to another four hours back in the car.
Just a few miles outside of Kirksville, still stewing, I caught an image out of the corner of my eye from the side window. It was just a blur of an image as I flew by at 60 miles an hour on this two-lane road in rural Missouri. It was a snapshot of an older lady sitting on a tractor with a big bonnet on her head. Behind her she was pulling an old flatbed trailer with some bales of hay on it, and behind that, was an older guy in overalls bending over to pick up a square bale of hay.
I kept going for about a half a mile, and then suddenly something popped into my head and I don’t know where it came from, and I said to myself, out loud, “I’m going to go help that son of a gun!” I felt trapped in the car and needed to get out. Without giving it another thought, I turned around at the next driveway, and headed back to the farm. I pulled into the gravel driveway that ran along the field where the old couple were working and parked the car halfway up the drive. I got out and started walking toward them in the middle of the field. I was wearing a nice dress shirt, khaki pants and dress shoes as I stepped out into the field.
The old couple had seen me pull in, and she stopped the tractor. The old farmer just stood there, and they both looked at me intently, and I know what they were thinking: “He must be from the bank.”
As I got closer to them, I started thinking, “What the heck am I doing? These people are going to think I’m nuts.” When I got about 20 yards from them, I picked up a bale of hay and walked over to the trailer, and said, “Hi, I just wanted to get out of the car for a while, so I thought I would come help you for a bit,” and I tossed the bale up onto the trailer. The old guy stood there like I was speaking French. It didn’t register.
I quickly went and grabbed another bale and tossed it on the trailer, and they both just sat and stood there dumb-founded. So I said, “I’ve been in the car for a few hours today, and I’ve never worked on a farm before, so here I am, free labor.” I walked over to the old guy, put my hand out and said, “My name’s Bob.”
The old guy realized that I wasn’t from the bank after all, but still confused, he reached out his hand and said, “I’m George.” He looked over at the gal on the tractor and said, “That’s Helen.” I said, “Hello, Helen, nice to meet you.” She smiled a curious smile, and I turned to grab another bale of hay.
George continued looking at her for a moment in a questioning manner, finally shrugged his shoulders, and turned to grab a bale himself. Helen fired up the tractor, put it in gear, and began crawling through the field again. Within a few minutes, George and I started having to wait for Helen, so he told her she could speed up a little, which she did.
After a short while we were running out of places to throw the hay up on the trailer, so George asked Helen to stop while he climbed up on the trailer and started stacking up the bales toward the front of it. I walked to grab a few more bales while he did that, and when he was done stacking, I said, “George, why don’t you just stay up there and I’ll toss them to you?” I was a real farmer now. I had figured this out already, and now I was even giving instructions.
He stayed up on the trailer and I kept tossing him bales as Helen drove through the field and we were making progress! I was younger and in better shape than I am now, but the pace Helen was going at was not sustainable for one guy now, and I finally said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, Helen! You trying to kill me?” She looked back at me, smiled and pulled back on the throttle a little.
George and I made some small talk as we worked our way through the field. George told me how difficult it was for most farmers in this area to make any real profit at farming, and many of his neighbors worked second jobs to sustain their families. George said that he drove a school bus to supplement his income on the farm.
After about two and a half hours, we had cleared most of that field, and the trailer was full, and George asked Helen to stop the tractor. It was getting close to two o’clock, and George said that he would have to leave soon to drive his school bus.
I brushed off the hay from my dress pants and looked out on the field with a sense of pride, and I knew that what we had just done, the three of us with our little system of driving and tossing and stacking, would have taken this older couple most of the day and probably most of tomorrow by themselves. And without saying anything, I knew they were still in shock about this stranger coming out of nowhere to help them, this city boy, and I knew also that they were grateful. Helen asked if I’d like to go up to the porch for a glass of lemonade.
We sat on the porch drinking some cool lemonade, which I remember tasted wonderful and washed down some of the hay dust that had been collecting in my throat. I told them about how my day started, and how I didn’t sell any books, and Helen said, “That was a shame.”
We talked a little more about the farm business and I realized that they had good reason to believe that I was coming from the bank or another creditor when I first stepped out onto their field. They carried huge loans for equipment, including a large combine that cost several hundred thousand dollars, and they were in debt up to their ears.
After a while George said that he had to get in his school bus and go, and I said it was time I headed back to St. Louis. Helen looked at me with a sad expression and said, “Aren’t you staying for supper?” She said it in such a way that I thought I was talking to my mother for a second. I think they wanted to adopt me.
I said that I wished I could, but I had a lot of miles ahead of me, and I better get going. I shook George’s hand, gave Helen a hug, and started walking down the gravel drive to my car, which was still parked halfway down the driveway. I looked back and waved, and they stood there on the porch waving back and wondering what the heck just happened. So was I.
I got in the car and started heading back to St. Louis, but everything was different now. My mood had totally changed, and the miles ahead of me didn’t seem all that bad now. I kept thinking about Helen in her big straw bonnet and George in his well-worn overalls, and that warm feeling carried me all the way back home. But I was worried about them, and for months I thought about them and tried to keep an eye on the weather in northern Missouri from my local news.
This story is based on an excerpt from the book Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities by Robert Turner. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.