Chapter Fourteen

The air ride seat of the Case tractor bounced and the ride felt no different than riding down the highway in a Cadillac. Wyatt enjoyed the rhythm, bounce, and rattle of the tractor on the rutted road. For the past month, Wyatt has spent forty to sixty hours a week in this cab and knew its rumble and rhythm like a Formula One mechanic might know the pitch and whine of a Ferreri and Billy the head of his pit crew.

The modern family farm was either a break even enterprise or an insurance shell game. Plant the fields, raise the livestock, and pray that the fall provides enough bounty to cover rent or the property taxes on the land, as well as all the creditors. 

The financial end of farming didn’t add up. It took a much smarter man than him. He was driving a $150,000 tractor, pulling a $100,000 planter. The seeds in the hopper were so genetically and chemically advanced they’d left the lab yesterday. This one plot of land was worth at least two million dollars in a bad year, but this year could fetch closer to three million. And that was just one pilot, almost two hundred acres among the four thousand he planted each spring. Last fall, corn was going for over five dollars a bushel compared to leaner years at $1.85 a bushel. The best economist in history wasn’t Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes, it was the average American farmer at the mercy of volatile commodity prices with ever increasing cost of production.

Wyatt refused to live a life juggling debt and unable to truly provide for himself or heaven help him a family. If he bought something, he wanted to own it, care for it with pride, and use it until it was past its prime. He dreamed of tending his own acreage, but he couldn’t commit himself to pretending to own something when it all led to debt. The job at Granum provided him the same pride of cultivation and production, but also financial stability. He tended more cropland in Colfax county than any other farmer, collected handsome bi-weekly paychecks, provided for his father’s care during the old man’s twilight years, and saved generously for his own retirement. Pride of labor and financial stability are the basis of a great life in his estimation.

He guided his steed from the gravel lane to the tiny access road and into the fields. The land’s matriarch, Alice, was out in the yard. He wished he could stop and chat, but he had to get moving if he was going to be done before sunset and his date with Casey. He waved to her and stopped the tractor in the field. 

While the tractor idled in the field, he unzipped his coveralls, pulled his arms out of the long sleeves and let the top half hang around his waist. Although the cab had better heat or air conditioning then most cars on the road, he ran hot while planting. It wasn’t exertion that made him sweat, because the GPS and satellite controlled steering did all the work. Anxiety and excitement raised his temperature. He pulled off his Granum seed hat, rested it on the CB radio in the corner and ruffled his sweat-drenched hair.

Wyatt tapped on the tablet mounted in the cab. He flipped through several menus and screens. This plot of land sat adjacent to the river and was prone to flooding late in the summer after germination; therefore, the seed would be planted slightly deeper than normal. The hoppers dropped seeds at the rate of 32,000 seeds per acre, the computer controlled the blades and seed depth. He watched as the twenty-four row planter unfolded with the touch of a few buttons.

While he yearned for an earlier time when farmers were revered and life seemed much simpler, he couldn’t imagine planting without modern technology. Sitting in the cab surrounded by touch screens and dozens of buttons and knobs, he imagined himself at the helm of a spacecraft. He set the speed and hit auto. Without any guidance from him, the tractor pulled forward. Using GPS and satellite navigation, it righted itself in the field and began planting. He throttled up to five miles per hour and checked all his settings after the first two passes.

After covering half the field length on his third pass, he stopped the tractor and hopped out of the cab with a small metal ruler in hand. Wyatt hiked a few strides behind the planter and dug down to find the iridescent green seed nestled in a bed of rich top soil. It looked like an exotic bug cocoon in a pile of black fabric, the most fertile dirt in the world. He dropped the ruler down into the hole. Two and a quarter inches. Perfect seed depth. He pulled off his leather work gloves and picked up the seed. and rolled it between two fingers.. The iridescence rubbed off on his hand. Something in him wanted to pop the seed into his mouth like it was a candy-coated confection, but he resisted the urge. Instead he gave it a sniff, but all he could smell was the nutrient rich soil. 

He tucked the seed into his coverall pocket and clambered back up into the tractor cab, restarted all the systems and let technology take full control. He propped his feet up in the corner, leaned back and watched the field ahead while his mind drifted. He sent the selfie to distract Casey. It was going well, they’d only been dating a few months, but he was hopeful their future wouldn’t end at her graduation in six and a half weeks, not that he was counting.

His phone chimed. He snatched it from the cup holder. Not from Casey as he’d hoped, but the day nurse that cared for his father. No content in the text, just a picture of Dad in his best black Stetson and favorite western shirt. There was no blurring in the photo. The Parkinsons wasn’t bad today. Dad was having a good day. Wyatt’s chest ached with regret and longing to be there. His father, Chance Martin, grew up in west Texas. After school he traded the oil fields for dirt-filled arenas. Bronc riding usually broke a man’s body. It took half a lifetime, but Chance’s rodeo days broke his brain: too many bad falls, too many head injuries, and early onset Parkinsons. 

He dropped the phone back into the cup holder and looked out the enormous windshield to see that he was running out of field. The satellite images and mapping of the field was a week old.  He’d spent the day yesterday running the cultivator through this same field, opening up the soil, redistributing the nutrients, tilling last year’s stalks under. It made planting easier, but it could also cause erosion. If he cultivated a hilly field without planting it right away, all the best top soil would end up in the gully. A small corner of the field and protective berm had dropped away into the drainage ditch. 

Wyatt hollered a few curse words and took over manual control of the Case and turned sharply to the left. He righted the tractor in time, but a few rows of the planter dangled over the drop off. Like a distracted driver that hit the rumble bars on the highway shoulder, he scolded and cursed himself for his carelessness. With the tractor idling and lined up for the next row, he hopped out of the cab again to check everything. The seeder looked no different than this morning. Wyatt peered over the edge of the field and the eroded earth that fell away from the cropland. A small stream coursed along the bottom of the sandy drainage and was now littered with errant seeds. The collapse was a simple matter of geology. It was the place where the silty soil of the river and floodplain met the deep, rich soil. His nerves were too rattled to crawl down to the creek bed to pick up all the seeds. He knew it was against protocol, but he also knew Kevin would never come out into the field to inspect his work.

Overhead was nothing but bright blue sky, but far in the distance along the western horizon was a wall of clouds rising up like a mountain range that varied between deep gray and blinding white. Rain. It was going to rain tonight. If the front was moving fast, it could rain this afternoon. With a new sense of urgency, he hustled back into the cab and hit resume on the tablet screen.

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