Dear County Agent Guy

Learning from the best


Everything I needed to know I learned from Norwegian bachelor farmers.

Our neighbor, Martin, would be a good example. Dad shared machinery with Martin, so I learned a lot from Martin while I was growing up.

Farmers did a lot more physical labor back then. Federal law mandated that farmers be provided with both mid-morning and mid-afternoon lunches.

Whenever we were working at our farm, Mom saw to it that this law was followed by serving us banquet-sized lunches that included piles of protein-packed sandwiches and high-calorie sweet rolls. These treats were washed down with boiling coffee that was strong enough to strip the rust off an old plowshare.

If we were performing fieldwork, we would gobble our lunches while standing on the headland. No provisions were made for such niceties as washing our hands.

Martin took pride in his mechanical know-how, so he was our main fixer-upper guy. His hands were always extremely grimy.

Prior to picking up his sandwich, Martin would take a perfunctory stab at cleaning his hands by wiping them on his overalls. But he seldom (if ever) washed his overalls, which meant they were every bit as grubby as his hands.

There was a way to deal with this situation. A guy simply had to grab his sandwich by one corner, then eat everything except that corner. A farm dog was usually hanging around nearby, eagerly watching for discarded sandwich corners.

This must have struck Martin as wasteful. I watched numerous times as Martin bolted down his entire sandwich, grungy corner and all. His lesson was twofold: waste not, want not; and it probably won’t kill you if you accidentally eat a little grime.

My great-uncle Stanley was another Norwegian bachelor farmer who had a big influence on my life.

Stanley was the kind of guy who never seemed to get dirty. His striped bib overalls were always spotless, as was his farmstead and his late-model pickup truck.

One spring day when I was a teenager I was summoned to Stanley’s farm. Upon arriving, I was tasked with raking ear corn from Stanley’s corncrib and into a sheller. Stanley’s job, it seemed, was to superintend. He stood upwind of the dust and watched as I muscled ear corn into the corn sheller’s insatiable maw.

A neighbor stopped by and chatted with Stanley. I could hear better back then, so I was able to eavesdrop on their conversation.

Stanley was asked which of his 12 siblings was the oldest. “I am,” Stanley replied.

“Oh?” said the neighbor. “I thought you were about the youngest.”

“That might be so,” Stanley deadpanned, “but I’ve lived so much faster than the rest of them.”

Stanley taught me two important lessons: Don’t go breaking your back if you can get someone younger and dumber to do the work for you, and a flamboyant fib can be much more entertaining than the truth.

George Pander was a self-educated Norwegian bachelor farmer mechanic who lived in our neighborhood. George was an excellent repairman, but more importantly, he worked for cheap. Because of this and because our farm machinery was old and rickety, I saw a lot of George.

When I was in high school, we had a windrower that was so ancient it was hours away from being officially declared a museum piece. One day, in the thick of oat harvest, its engine refused to start. George was duly summoned.

I watched and fidgeted impatiently as George tinkered with the fuel system, working at his usual leisurely pace. Things weren’t moving fast enough, especially George.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked testily. I wanted to get back to cutting oats right now.

“Take off the gas cap,” suggested George.

This I did with much alacrity.

“Put your mouth on the opening,” said George.

I quickly and unquestioningly complied.

“Now blow,” he commanded.

I blew into the gas tank as hard as I could. Gasoline fumes burped back out through my nose; my eyes watered, and I suddenly developed a thunderous headache. I ended my kiss with the gas tank and was about to ask what we should try next when I noticed that George was shaking.

It slowly dawned that he was shaking in a manner that’s commonly associated with stifling a laugh. I’d been thoroughly had.

And so, a self-educated Norwegian bachelor farmer handed me a couple of very important lessons. For one, testy teenagers probably deserve to get taken down a notch or two.

For another, it’s awfully funny to watch a guy kiss a gas tank, especially if you’re the one who tricked him into it.

Jerry Nelson is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry works for Dairy Star as a staff writer and ad salesman. Feel free to email him at [email protected].


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