J.c. Mattingly
Moffat, Colo.

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August 25, 2014
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John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 8-18-14

When you spend a lot of your life working outside, as those of us in farming and ranching do, you get to watch a day start, unfold and end. Sunrise to sunset, and all the small changes of light and temperature in between. It’s no surprise that talking about the weather is a reliable topic among farmers and ranchers — almost as reliable as the topic of various ailments among those of who are “getting on.”

In Colorado, and over most of the Colorado Plateau, there is almost always a monsoon season in late July, which usually rains on second cutting hay, and this monsoon is followed by some evenings and early mornings in August that give us a hint of the upcoming fall. There is a slight nip in the air. As one old timer puts it, “On a mid-August morning, the breeze has whiskers.”

When out checking calves or changing water in August mornings, we feel this shift in the tilt of the earth, ultimately aiming us toward shorter days and cooler nights. It is this time of year that can have a lot of influence over a farmer’s attitude.

I spoke with one of the oldest farmers in the Valley — now in his early 80s (“no longer a pup”) — who told me that for the last 20 years or so he has been ready to pack it in and sell out. “But then August comes along, and the days get a mite shorter, and the sun gets a mite less harsh, and of course, the crops are pretty much made. If they ain’t by then, they ain’t gonna be.”

He sat back in his chair, an old recliner, and looked out the window. “So then the combine comes in, the smell of straw is lot more welcome than the sight of weeds, I can tell you that. And after the harvest, the mailbox starts to have more checks than bills coming in. That’s a nice change.”

On the wall near the window is a picture of him as a kid, standing in front of a gray thrashing machine powered by a huge, steel-wheeled steam engine tractor, the type that moved from farm to farm to thrash grain before combines “combined” reaping and thrashing functions.

“It was funny,” he mused. “In the dead of summer I told my wife and kids and that I was done. D U N. Done. I believe that it actually got a little harder to farm as modern times came along, not so much because the work itself was harder, but because we were expected to a lot more of it. One man and his family used to make a living on 160 acres, rotating and living modestly. Now a man and a family need closer to 500 acres to make any sort of economy of scale. When shoes cost a hundred bucks and a tractor costs more than a farm used to cost, you get the idea ...

“So anyway, I would get pretty tired in the middle of the summer. When I was young, the end of the day was my enemy. Hated to see that sun set. As I along in years, the end of the day became my best friend. That’s when I realized that I was getting on and needed to cut back.

“Which was a nice theory. The problem was the fall of the year changed everything. The field work was more about getting ready for next year than trying to catch up on things you didn’t quite get right in the spring. And there was sweet corn, and green beans, and peaches and tomatoes, and pumpkin pie with cream and coffee. I have to say that this was probably the reason I kept farming for another 20 or so years: pumpkin pie with cream and coffee.

“The reason is that the fall of the year gives you a chance to give a big sigh of relief, and it so happens that winter will get here and give you a chance to really charge your batteries. When spring pokes through the snow, you look at those brown fields and you know you have turn them green. It’s your job, and it’s in your soul.” ❖

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The Fence Post Updated Aug 12, 2014 03:40PM Published Sep 8, 2014 02:44PM Copyright 2014 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.