The old joke: “Farmers are out standing in their field,” is almost right, in that farmers actually spend a lot of time going back and forth, back and forth in their fields on their tractors. Or going in circles if they farm under center pivots.
One time, while sitting on a tractor, I calculated that I had traveled the circumference of the earth several times in distance, without ever leaving the farm. The circumference of the earth is 24,901 miles, and knowing the dimensions of my fields, and the number of times I went over them in a year, it was a calculation with some margin for error, and thus occupied me until lunch.
Then I realized that I put close to 40,000 miles a year on my pickup without ever leaving the state, just going from field to field during the day, and to town for groceries and parts. Given that the moon is about 240,000 miles from Earth, I realized I had driven the distance to the moon about every six years without really going anywhere.
Of course, sitting on a tractor all day, for many days of the year, caused me to think about how primitive people measured the circumference of the earth. I recalled the ancient and prescient Greek philosopher, Eratosthenes, back in the third century BC, calculated the circumference of the earth using the shadow from two poles at high noon, and he was accurate to within 67 feet. That is pretty amazing, considering that it took another thousand years or so for the rest of Europe to figure out that the earth even had a circumference.
So I tried to do what Eratosthenes did, using two center pivot standpipes that were exactly 2,680 feet apart.
At high noon on June 21, I calculated the angle of the sun projected to the center of the earth and came up with a little over 25,000 miles. This only goes to show how far a farmer might go to overcome the occasional monotony of tractor work.
When I was a kid, of course, my dad claimed he could not get me off a tractor. To be allowed to drive a machine at a young age was a thrill. But as I got older, it became harder and harder to sit in a tractor for days on end.
In the 1960s and ’70s, most tractors had metal seats that hung out over the drawbar, and the exhaust blew in your face. Then, as the years rose on, tractors became more and more comfortable until today, the new action seats, with air ride have made a huge difference, as have pressurized cabs that kept out dust, and high quality sound systems.
But sitting in a tractor all day is still sitting in a tractor all day. It is pleasant to watch the day start, progress and finish. It is also rewarding to see the results of your work in the ground itself. Many people work all day and do not have the pleasure of seeing what their work actually accomplished.
And then there is a certain virtue in being involved with the six inches of topsoil from which all of us get our dinners.
A famous philosopher once said, “If you ever doubt the variety of the earth, reach down and pick up a handful of dirt.”
Every farmer knows the wisdom of this suggestion. ❖