Farmers are the original eternal optimists. Indeed, it was a hailed-out farmer who first coined the phrase, “Just wait until next year!” Not, as legend has it, a diehard sports fan.
Optimism is an essential component of a farmer’s character. Perhaps the most pessimistic guy I ever knew was an old, tough-as-nails bachelor farmer named Martin Rud.    
Dad owned some equipment with Martin, so I saw a lot of our next-door neighbor as I grew up on our family’s dairy farm. Martin often dropped by to share the latest gossip and had an uncanny knack for arriving right when we were sitting down to breakfast. Dad always asked Martin if he wanted to have a bite. Martin never had to be asked twice.     
Martin would bolt down his food, sit back, slurp coffee and expansively expound upon the world’s ills like a man with a belly full of free scrambled eggs and toast. One of Martin’s favorite topics was the coming drought and financial apocalypse. Martin would unfailingly proclaim that we were long overdue for a horrendous dry spell. The ensuing recession would make the Great Depression look like a Sunday school picnic.     
Each spring on the first really warm day, Martin would come over to clean oats with the fanning mill that he and Dad owned together. As soon as I was old enough to handle a grain shovel, I was nominated to scoop oats from the bin into the mill. This was based on Dad’s observation that I possessed a weak mind and a strong back. The amount of dust and discomfort I endured led me to think that what he actually meant was I was? expendable.     
As I shoveled oats amid the choking cloud of dust, Martin would effortlessly scoop the clean grain into a waiting wagon. Leaning on his shovel in the breezy doorway, Martin would eyeball the sky and prognosticate.
“Yep,” he would declare, “going to be a dry one this year. A guy had better plant oats so at least he’ll get a little something.”     
Martin’s cynical outlook never varied from year-to-year despite the fact that we usually had decent weather and harvested fairly good crops. I couldn’t help but notice that Martin never became so pessimistic that he wouldn’t plant at least half of his land to moisture-hungry, but more profitable, corn.     
Then came 1976. The year it never rained. The dry centennial.     
The sun became a demon who taunted us from on high, pressing down upon us, scorching everything it touched. Our corn was knee-high twice that year: first as it tried valiantly to grow in the parched soil, and once again as the sun broiled it down into a shriveled brown shadow.     
And, Martin was in his glory.     
It’s not that he took pleasure in our collective misery; it was more that he felt vindicated. Martin solemnly predicted that the coming years would extend the drought and bring such calamities as widespread bank failures and seething clouds of grasshoppers.     
Martin was both right and wrong. He was right that oat was the only crop that produced grain that year. But, he was wrong about the prolonged drought.
The following year featured an excellent growing season and above-average yields. Despite this, Martin continued to gloomily forecast a decades-long drought and an economic Armageddon. But each summer the rains would come, perpetually proving him wrong.     
The unending string of inaccurate predictions seemed to take the spark out of Martin, and he rented out his land. He was still as tough as iron, so I doubt that being he was nearly 80 had anything to do with it. It was more that he became a victim of his own pessimism.     
On the first really warm day of the spring after he retired, Martin stopped by our farm. He explained that he’d decided to sell the last of his oats. A truck was coming, and he was wondering if I was busy. I said I’d be right over and would bring a grain shovel.     
We clambered into Martin’s creaky old wooden granary and shoveled oats that had probably been there since the Eisenhower administration. I was young and in my prime, but Martin was able to match me scoop for scoop.     
When we paused to straighten our backs, Martin studied the zenith and clicked his tongue.
“Yep,” he declared portentously, “good thing a guy’s not farming anymore. Don’t look like the corn will amount to much of anything this year.” 
Martin was right but for the wrong reason. A lot of our corn became stunted that year due to excessive rainfall.
    Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry currently works full time for the Dairy Star as a staff writer/ad salesman. Feel free to E-mail him at: jerry.n@dairystar.com.